Re-examining the 'first impressions' adage

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Joe Schwartz

Minding the adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski wooed the teenage Barbara Pedrici with flowers and flattery. Her first impression lasted nearly 30 years. It took the 1986 arrest of her spouse for scores of brutal gangland slayings to break the spell.

The case of the disingenuous mob wife (played by Winona Ryder in the 2012 film, “The Iceman”) is cited in reports of Cornell psychology experiments that ask the question: What does it take to reverse a first impression? The researchers were especially interested in implicit impressions – rapidly and uncontrollably activated positive and negative evaluations of others. Implicit impressions are assumed to be very difficult to revise.

The answer, according to researchers Melissa Ferguson and Jeremy Cone: Simple countervailing information isn’t always enough. But “highly diagnostic” information – the kind that is especially revealing of a person’s true nature or character – can rapidly and fully reverse an otherwise well-learned implicit impression.

Experimental subjects in the Cornell studies – reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, “He Did What? The Role of Diagnosticity in Reversing Implicit Evaluations” – were asked to evaluate fictional characters like “Bob,” who gives rides to strangers, helps foreign students find housing, donates his time in a soup kitchen, and on and on through 100 positive behaviors. As expected, these experimental participants formed a strongly positive implicit impression of Bob. But when they learned just one more fact about Bob that was highly negative and unusually diagnostic – that he was a convicted child molester – most people changed their implicit minds about him in a hurry.

Adding a highly diagnostic piece of information is enough to turn an initial positive implicit impression to a negative one but it is not always enough to overturn an initially negative implicit impression.

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, “Can We Undo Our First Impressions?: The role of reinterpretation in reversing implicit evaluations,” researchers Thomas Mann and Melissa Ferguson tested what might override an initially negative implicit impression of a fictional character. In these studies, a man reportedly broke into neighbors’ homes and rummaged through their rooms, causing damage. That first negative implicit impression changes, however, when test subjects learn the housebreaker’s motive: He was heroically searching for children in burning buildings. This work shows that to rapidly and effectively undo an initial negative implicit impression, new information must – ideally – provide a different interpretation of that initial information and show that the initial information was actually positive.

Writing a commentary on these two papers, Mann says that although there is some validity to the first-impressions adage, even implicit impressions can nevertheless be revised in certain cases. “First impressions might often stick, but there seems to be some hope for finding ways to change them when we are truly convinced that they should be,” according to Mann, a doctoral student in Ferguson’s lab.

Ferguson, a professor of psychology in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, offers hope for all the first-impressed, last-to-know spouses in police custody: “Even a single piece of highly diagnostic information ought to rapidly undo one’s prior implicit tendencies.”

The research was supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health.


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