Don’t trust your first impressions… Your brain is working to lead you astray.
Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson explains how to make up for lazy shortcuts made by your brain as well as how to guide other people around their first impressions of you.
Heidi Grant Halvorson: So there are lots of biases that you can basically count on your perceiver being subject to. They’re going to interfere with the way this person sees you. The first and probably the most common is the confirmation bias. So confirmation bias is the brain’s tendency to once you start to kind of go get a sense of what someone is like, so you show in an initial interaction you start to feel like this is a funny person or this is a smart person or this is someone I can trust. And once you start to have that initial hunch your brain naturally looks for information that confirms that initial hunch and kind of ignores everything else. Psychologists also refer to this tendency to really latch on to early information about a person as the primacy effect. And basically what that means is the information we learn first about another person disproportionately shapes our understanding of them afterward. And so, you know, in a way I sometimes feel bad talking about that because I’d love to be the person that came and said you know how everyone tells you that first impressions are so important. Don’t worry about it. They’re not that important. If anything, what the science shows is that they’re really more important than you even think they are because that first impression is those — the initial information that other person gets about you will have a really major effect on everything else they see.
So, for example, if in your initial encounter with someone you come across as kind of a jerk and you know it. You realize afterwards that you didn’t come across the way you intended to. And so the next day when you come in to work, let’s say, you bring them a cup of coffee and you think well that’ll be nice, a nice gesture. It’ll show them that I’m not a jerk. What’s actually more likely to happen is that they’re going to interpret you giving them coffee with the lens of understanding of how you were a jerk before. So they’ll say oh, can you believe this jerk who’s trying to manipulate me by he thinks just giving me some coffee is going to somehow get me on his side, right. So they’ll feel manipulated by the gesture. They’ll interpret the gesture in a way that’s consistent with what they already think of you. And that’s really the challenge. Now how do you get past confirmation bias? How do you get over the primacy effect when, let’s say, your initial impression you gave someone wasn’t that good. There are a couple of ways to do it. You can kind of think of them as the tortoise and the hare ways of getting people to update their impressions. The tortoise way, because it takes a long time, is simply overwhelming them with an abundance of really eye-catching information that says I’m not who you think I am, right. So it’s not just bringing them a cup of coffee the next day. It’s going out of your way to be nice day after day after day potentially for a couple of months before that person finally realizes there’s so much evidence that you’re a nice person that they say you know what?
What I thought of them originally that’s not true. They’re actually a really nice person. But it takes a ton of information to do that and you really have to hang in there for the long haul. The hare method, which is actually not that fast — it’s really more of a faster tortoise method is to find a way for you to work with that person or have them need you in some way. Because psychologists call this creating an outcome dependency. What it means is that that person, in order for them to get what, they want they have to work with me. And what naturally happens when you create outcome dependency between people is that they become really interested in being accurate about that other person, right. Because if I need you to get what I want, then I’m going to have to really pay attention to who you are and be able to predict you. So people naturally take a second look. They don’t just rely on that initial impression they had. They take another look at you and they’re more willing to update and revise their impression of you in order to be really accurate. This is why you find so often people will say oh, you know, I thought so and so was not that bright, but then I worked with him and I found out that he was really smart. Well yeah, working together creates a real motivation for you to be accurate about the other person and that really opens up a door for you to make a good second impression if you’ve made a poor first one.