Why First Impressions Last, for Better or Worse

messy office We've all heard, and probably cursed at the saying "You never get a second chance to make a first impression," and recent research led by a team of psychologists from Canada, Belgium and the United States shows there is literal truth to this adage.

Their findings suggest that a first impression, is, more or less, forever. That's because second and third impressions that contradict the first impression are not as pervasive, and only stick in certain situations. These new impressions tend to only influence us in certain circumstances (explained below). Otherwise the first impressions still act as as our default view of the person or people in question.

"Imagine you have a new colleague at work and your impression of that person is not very favorable" explains lead author Bertram Gawronski, Canada Research chairman at he University of Western Ontario. "A few weeks later, you meet your colleague at a party and you realize he is actually a very nice guy. Although you know your first impression was wrong, your gut response to your new colleague will be influenced by your new experience only in contexts that are similar to the party. However, your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts."

It gets worse. Say you arrive at a job interview in a rush, and you meet your potential employer with your hair disheveled and out of place. Even if you excuse yourself, go to the bathroom, comb your hair and look fabulous through the rest of the interview, the potential employer will probably always think of you with wild hair, unless you're just coming out of the bathroom, which you probably won't be during the course of the interview.

On the other hand, say you make an amazing first impression on your potential employer, then, later on in the interview, you bungle a question or two. Don't beat yourself up -- it's the first impression that will probably stay with the interviewer.

To investigate the persistence of first impressions, Gawronski and his collaborators showed their study participants either positive or negative information about an unknown individual on a computer screen. Later in the study, participants were presented with new information about the same individual. The researchers subtly changed the background color of the computer screen while participants formed a new impression of the target person.

When the researchers later measured participants' spontaneous reactions to an image of the target person, they found the new information influenced participants' reactions only when the person was presented against the same background color in which the new information had been learned. With all other colors, participants' reactions were still dominated by the first information.

Although these results support the common observation that first impressions are notoriously persistent, Gawronski notes they can sometimes be changed. "What is necessary is for the first impression to be challenged in multiple different contexts. In that case, new experiences become decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose its power. But, as long as a first impression is challenged only within the same context, you can do whatever you want. The first impression will dominate regardless of how often it is contradicted by new experiences."

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