When were your first impressions wrong?

University of Cologne

One of the main occupations that we humans pursue in our everyday life is assessing other people, groups and objects that we encounter. In doing so, we often decide on the basis of very little information whether we like another person or whether we think a house is beautiful or not, for example. The quick division of things around us into positive and negative is so easy for us that one can assume that this has always been an important property in the history of human evolution.

When we form an impression of other people, the "first impression" is of particular importance. This often arises, even before we even meet a person, in the form of external judgments. For example, when a friend warns us about a boring lecturer or a friend tells us about a great woman who we absolutely have to get to know. In addition to external judgments, the first impression also includes prejudices that we draw about a person solely on the basis of the subject of study, gender or origin.

When it comes to judging other people, we crave information. The following applies: The less information is available, the more we base our impression on something that is not very meaningful. This also shows a reason why the first impression is a special one: Since it is often based on less relevant information, it is also often wrong.

A second peculiarity of the first impression, which also results from the lack of information, is its extremity: Since the first impression is based on little information, it is more often "extreme". To illustrate this statistical argument: Imagine a man named Peter who is on time 50 percent of all situations in his life and unpunctual the remaining 50 percent. After meeting Peter 100 times, you will have a fairly precise idea of ​​Peter's punctuality. If you estimate this, you would probably be close to 50 percent. However, if you've only met him a few times, it may well be that by chance Peter was either on time or off time at two out of two meetings, which could lead you to conclude that Peter is always on time or off time.

The third peculiarity of the first impression is its strength and persistence, which have various reasons. First, we often decide based on first impressions that we do not want to meet a person at all or not again. As a consequence, especially a negative first impression is often not revised, even if it is wrong. Imagine, a friend tells you about a misogynist fellow student named Paul, who is very uncomfortable. If you avoid these fellow students now, your first impression will inevitably become a lasting impression. But not only avoidance behavior feeds the power of the first impression, because this also influences our interpretation of new information. Imagine you now inevitably meet fellow student Paul and expect him to be misogynist. When you talk to Paul, you may be more likely to interpret Paul's statements and behavior as misogynistic due to your expectations. The first impression may influence our interpretation of new information and thus confirm itself.

So are we slaves to our first impressions? The clear answer is no. Although the first impression has a special power, we still manage to revise it on a regular basis. Especially when we approach our fellow human beings openly and courageously, we are in a position to judge them anew and increasingly differentiated.