First Impressions

Happy man sad man

 

Okay, fellas. The wait is finally over – Mindbender is officially up and running now!

In the debut post, I thought I’ll start with a lightweight appetizer. By no means, however, you should take it lightly, for it concerns the very make-or-break moment of your life (and of this blog, as a matter of fact).

You might have already inferred the central theme of today’s post from the title (nice job!). So let me ask you a simple question: Consider the guy above. You don’t know anything about him (except that he likes to wear extraordinary amount of talcum powder). All you have is his photograph. Decide in which case you’d prefer to befriend him, if you had his left headshot or the right one? (although neither is also a perfectly valid answer because he seems equally psyched-out in both shots, but for the sake of topic, just play along).

You’re most likely to go for the left one (again, ignore his demented appearance).

‘That’s no brainer,’ you say. ‘Of course I was gonna pick the left! He may have a deranged happy-go-lucky look, but he’s still better than Mr. doom-and-gloom on the right.’

Okay, then here’s another question: How long did it take you to form your impression of the guy?

Sixty seconds? Seven?

As you prepare to sit and wrangle out the exact number from your head, let me save you the trouble by telling you that it took just the same amount of time as it took you to read the word ‘seven’ (or one-tenth of a second, if you’re mathaholic).

Surprised?

Or maybe not so. After all, all you had to do was glance at his face and decide which expression was more likable.
But imagine this: you’re meeting, say, your blind date for the first time in a fancy restaurant. As your date graces your restaurant table with his presence, an overwhelming stream of information assaults your senses and courses to your brain: his physical attributes (like the shape of his nose and his hairdo), his body size and shape, his skin complexion, his age, his cologne, his J. Crew jacket, the tone and timbre of his speech, his accent, his handshaking style, his punctuality, and many other details.

‘Hmm,’ you say, twirling your chin like a wise old person. ‘Now that’s definitely gonna take a while.’

Believe it or not, it’s still going to take the same time – one-tenth of a second. And the troubling part is that that first impression is likely to stick much, much longer than anything glued by a Pritt stick. Takes the adage ‘first impression lasts longest’ to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

By Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Pritt stick blues – Wish I could stick like first impressions too
‘That’s not possible!’ you protest, positively outraged this time. ‘One-tenth of a second! That’s almost like blink of an eye! I don’t judge anyone in blink of an eye – you’re just making this stuff up!’

Alright, then riddle me this: when you see someone with clenched fists, red eyes, and flaring nostrils dashing in your direction, how long does it take you to realize that he’s really angry and coming to get you?

Split second.

When you see a young, attractive dame (or a hot guy, depending on your gender and preference) at a shopping complex or any other locale of your choice, you experience a sudden, strong infatuation that is almost synonymous of the cliched ‘love-at-first-sight’ phenomenon. How long does it take?

Mere milliseconds.

When you observe an unknown person wearing mismatching pair of socks, how long it is until you let out a giggle and think of the guy as loony?

Again, same time.

And when you encounter any of these individuals the next time (supposing you survived the attacker), same feelings will come back rushing to you, almost instinctively. So you see, we do judge people too fast and too furiously.

Of course, the examples I picked were of extreme nature. You don’t fall in love every other day, nor does anyone come to beat you up on a daily basis (unless you’re in deep trouble with loan sharks). But they represent the moments you’re most aware of your ability to judge spontaneously. In average and not-so-exciting cases, you do form opinions in matter of milliseconds, but you wait for further input to adjust your observation, especially for seeing goodness in someone. Negative features are caught almost instantly, like a deep scar on a person’s cheek or sneezes from flu. Sherlock Holmes is shown quite adept at assessing others accurately within shortest span of time. Fictional he may be, one of the key inspirations behind his character (and a mentor of his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Dr. Joseph Bell, was equally sharp in his judgment of medical cases.

Downey's photo by Georges Biard. Cumberbatch's photo by Sam Hughes. CC BY. Modified from Original
Who’s better Sherlock – Downey Jr or Cumberbatch? You be the judge

Now let’s get to the bottom of the question: why are we so quick to judge others?

The first guy to ask this question was Solomon Asch. A Polish emigre to the United States and pioneer of social psychology (which is basically the study of people’s brainworks when you put large number of them together), he was really curious as to how people form their opinions of others. To find the answer, he conducted a simple yet remarkable experiment: he had a bunch of test subjects shown the poker-faced headshots of a certain person (like I did in the beginning, although the man in my case is a bit more expressive) and associated a few adjectives like warm, cold, funny, intelligent, boring etc with that person. He discovered that not only people quickly form first impressions, they do it despite having limited amount of information, just a headshot and a list of few qualities in his case. Also, certain words (called central words in psycho-jargon), like warm and cold, can make heck of a difference in perception of someone’s personality. So does the word order. For instance, reversal of the order of words ‘intelligent’ and ‘envious’ can alter impression of an over-competitive professional to a malevolent genius.

Solomon Asch
Solomon Asch, first guy to ask ‘Why So Judgy?’

Groundbreaking though his experiment was, Asch took a purely sociological standpoint on the problem and tried to analyze it within that frame. Needless to say it didn’t work out well, partly because his experiment itself was too artificial in nature (You don’t encounter people as faces plus random strings of qualities. Refer to the blind date illustration above and see for yourself the numerous factors dirty-dancing at once).

Nevertheless, his work served as scaffold for future researchers, who dug (and are still digging) deeper into not just the problem’s sociological, but biological aspect as well. From an evolutionary perspective, this ability stems from the response of our ancestors to a hostile environment, where they needed to watch out for dangers by swiftly analyzing the intentions of anything approaching them. Apart from that, the need to choose the best partner from a group also required quick decision (or all the good lookin’ ones would be taken already). Either way, they formed impressions mostly for their own sake, their security and prosperity, and so do we.

The neuroscientific findings align with this view, although there hasn’t been an official matrimony of the two yet. Neuroscientists have found that whenever we chance upon someone new, the parts of our brain that get activated are amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex, or PCC. Now, don’t be intimidated by their scary-sounding names – amygdala is the emotional center of our brain and PCC is the spatial-memory manager (which means it keeps record of our location and position) as well as the bean-counter that obsesses over making decisions about everything new it sees. The interesting part is that they are both linked to our ancestral brains i.e. parts of brain that have evolved from our ancestors’ adaptation, which implies that we are judgy because our ancestors were, too.

As reactive our ability to judge others is, it’s not necessarily accurate all of the time. You’ll always see good in the beautiful woman (or man) you fall for, and you let that single trait of attractiveness color your opinion about the rest of her (his) personality as well, making them seem kind, warm, competent and all the adjectives for good in the dictionary. In psycho-jargon, this is called the Halo effect. There’s always a certain bias at play when interacting with a stranger, as you will have certain expectations already formed about different kinds of people (especially based on their race and color) through some previous exposure, like from movies, TV shows or books. So you always should be cautious of jumping to conclusions about individuals without actually getting to know them (except in cases of legitimate threat, like a man charging at you with a golf club).

Snow White - Hunchback of Notre Dame
Snow White’s stepmom was a real knockout, but look what she turned out to be. On the contrary, the Hunchback of Notre Dame appeared monstrous at first sight, yet had heart much better than hers

In nearly all of the social contexts first impressions matter. From the obvious picks like first dates and job interviews to the less self-evident scenes like the court of law (it’s probably not a good idea to flaunt your tattoos before jury, whether you’re witness, accused or even lawyer), exam results (your very first answers are most likely to give the teacher an impression of your intelligence and the likelihood of your later answers’ correctness), and marketing and advertising (the sneak preview of Batman vs Superman did a real number on the audience at comic-con this year), quick judgments play important role. So it’s wise not to mess up on your first impression. For a few pertinent suggestions, turn to this article.

Okay, I’ve barely scratched the surface on this topic (and yet look how long the post has become). If you are interested in reading more about first impressions, I’ve listed a few references below. By no means are they comprehensive, but you’ll get the basic idea. Besides, Google’s always there if you need ask more.

Now the obvious, million-dollar question: was my first impression positive or negative? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Resources

1) How many seconds to a first impression. Original study by Willis and Todorov (2006) 

2) An article on the neuroscientific discoveries on impression formation from the Guardian (2009)

3) An evolutionary psychology perspective on the first impressions

4) Solomon Asch’s paper on impression formation

5) Blink – a book by Malcolm Gladwell about our spontaneous judgment.