Why are first impressions often lasting impressions?

Bill McAneny's picture
Published on Thu, 05/01/2014 - 11:46 by Bill McAneny

The layers of an orangeThere’s a (very) old saying: “When we meet someone we form an impression in the first few seconds,” I guess we’ve all heard that and it’s pretty scary. However when we hear the full quote it is even scarier:

When we meet someone we form an impression in the first few seconds, then we spend the rest of the time justifying it.

How scary is that, and how does it work? Well our brains want us to be right and so when we make that initial connections and form an opinion, our brain searches out evidence to prove that we were indeed correct in our assumption.

So for example if I am interviewing someone for a job and they walk into the room and I (totally subconsciously) believe they are aggressive then I will, (again totally subconsciously) phrase my questions in such a way that the other person will give aggressive responses thereby proving I’m right. And of course such unconscious biases may be positive biases - but they are still biases. For example I was working with a large North American corporation and the CEO had several individuals earmarked for promotion. One, an outstanding talent, was promoted. And the CEO, worried that she might not be able to cut it at the top level, tried to help, spent a lot of time with her, gave her less stretching tasks and so she failed, thereby “proving” his assertion that maybe she was too nice for the top jobs, not realising that it was his prejudice that caused the failure.

So I guess we all need to watch for our unconscious biases. So how do we do that when they’re unconscious? Well first by recognising we have unconscious biases and that they may affect our judgment: “I just like him,” or “I don’t know what it is she just seems to have what it takes,” or the old perennial cloning problem: “He is just like I was at that age.” So is there a place for gut feel? Sure there is but temper it with some objective data so that our opinions are more grounded and rounded: then we have more chance of getting it right.

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