HOW THE FIRST IMPRESSION AFFECTS PERCEPTION, EXPLAINED WITH 3 SCENARIOS
We humans love to say that our ‘brains are computers’. However, that analogy isn’t quite accurate. Computers do not think for themselves- they take the input, act on it, and provide an output. There is no inferencing or interpreting on the part of the computer.
The human brain, on the other hand, is less precise and less accurate in its working. Our mental processes are subject to several errors, and these errors play an important part in how we perceive and interpret the world around us. These errors are particularly evident in how we form first impressions of others.
We’ve heard all our life- the first impression is the best impression. No doubt, that is true. It’s not simply an empty phrase- there is a psychological reason behind it. After learning this, you may try to be more aware of how you come across to strange, new people.
As I have mentioned, our mind is flawed when it comes to perceiving and interpreting the world. Let’s take an example of interviews. Imagine that you have been working hard to get a job, and finally, you are called in for an interview. You may be confident in yourself, aware that you have a strong resume and an impressive academic and work background.
However, these have little impact when you first sit down for an interview with the interviewer. Now let’s play around with a few scenarios and see how, in these situations, the interviewer develops an impression of you.
Scenario 1: You enter the room. The interviewer notices that you have a coffee stain on your shirt. She doesn’t ask you about it so you decide not to acknowledge it either.
Scenario 2: You come into the room and the interviewer notices that you are dressed smartly, with your shirt pressed and your hair smoothed down.
Scenario 3: Before you come in, the interviewer sees that you studied at a top college in the country. She assumes that, as a result, you will be intelligent and well-spoken. When you enter the room and introduce yourself, she believes she was right about you.
As you would assume, in all these three scenarios, the interviewer has immediately built up an impression of you.
In the Scenario 1, she may interpret that the coffee stain on your shirt shows that you are careless, and she may jump to the conclusion that you may not necessarily be fit for a post that involves large responsibilities.
That might seem like a bit of a leap in judgement, but this is often how it goes. The coffee stain might have not been your fault at all- perhaps another careless interviewee ran into you and spilt their coffee on you- but that makes little difference to the interviewer.
Why so? Because as humans, we always tend to attribute others’ mistakes and actions- especially those that have negative outcomes- as being their own fault and not because of external circumstances. On the other hand, when we cause the same negative outcomes, we often blame it on external causes. The interviewer may have herself spilt coffee on her clothes the day before and known that it wasn’t her fault. But when she sees the interviewee’s coffee-stained shirt, she automatically assumes that he is to blame.
In Scenario 2, the interviewer notices how well-dressed the candidate is, and may come to the conclusion that he is well-educated, well-mannered and intelligent. Again, it might seem like she is jumping to a conclusion, but it occurs anyway because of what is called the ‘halo effect’. Our mind assumes that if a person is good in one domain (immaculately dressed), they must also excel in other domains (assumption that the interviewee is smart and accomplished).
Scenario 3 shows how people’s prior beliefs or assumptions can affect how they interpret information. When she sees that you graduated from a top college, she already expects that you will be a good fit for the post. You may have the same skills and experiences as someone else who did not graduate from the same college, but the interviewer will deem you as being a more suitable candidate than the other, solely because of her assumptions. Of course, these assumptions may turn out to be incorrect later.
In all three scenarios, the interviewer has already made an impression of you before you even sat down for the interview. Of course, when you actually sit down and participate in the interview, the interviewer is bound to learn more about you. You would think that finding out more relevant information will change her opinion of you that she made when you first entered the room.
But that is not necessary, because humans display what is called ‘anchoring bias’. This means that once a person makes an impression or interpretation, they rarely budge from it, and even if they do, they don’t make severe changes to the impression of you that they already have.
The interviewer, after seeing all your past job roles, may interpret that maybe you aren’t as careless as she expected, but she may not jump to the conclusion that her first impression of you being careless was actually wrong. The well-dressed interviewee may not have done well in his exams, but the interviewer will still assume that he is somewhat smart.
This is why we are reminded every day that the first impression we make on others is highly significant. More often than not, this first encounter we have with a person, and how they perceive us at the time, determines what they think about us then onwards, even if they may be provided with contrary evidence in the future.
While these first impressions we make about others are often a result of our own biases and assumptions, you can learn to use it for your own gain. When going for a job interview, getting ready for a first date, or before engaging in any activity that requires you to make a first impression, make sure that your non-verbal attributes express what you want to impress on the other person.
This is why you are always told to dress smartly for an interview- you are showing the other person your ‘best self’. It’s vital that you not let your nervousness show. Only when you put on your best face can you make an impression that might favour you.
It is necessary to know how and why humans are bad at developing first impressions so that you can not only try and use it for your own benefit, but also so you can be mindful of how inaccurate your first impressions of others may be.
Unless the interviewer checks her biases, she may lose out on a perfectly good candidate or hire someone who is actually not capable. Being aware of your own biases can allow you to be more open to changing your opinion of another person so you can try and develop a more accurate, a more realistic impression of them.
What's your experience with first impressions?