Q: I meet so many different people everyday. But what is it about first impressions that are so hard to let go of-why does the first interaction always stick out the most?
? Natalie, New York City
A: Recently a friend of mine brought to my attention this same reoccurring phenomenon. She'd gone on a few dates with a guy she was interested in - he was nice, hilarious, and good-looking. But there was something she couldn't shake about him. When they first met he was incredibly shy. Her first impression of him was crystallized in that moment - a cute guy but way too reserved. That first perception hasn't diminished, even though he's proven himself in subsequent interactions to be brazen and gregarious.
New York City is a vast cultural hub with over 8 million people. In order to make sense of the dozens of people we meet everyday, our brains have generated an efficient way to maximize our cognitive resources. To solve problems, we use heuristics, which in psychology is defined as a mental shortcut when an exhaustive search in our brains for data is impractical, time consuming, or impossible. Examples of heuristics are stereotyping and intuition. When we meet someone for the first time, we only have the evidence presented to us in that short span of time. But we strategically piece this information together to create a helpful narrative.
If you meet someone for the first time and they are reserved and taciturn, you'll probably find yourself making other associations that are tied to those qualities. You might think if the guy you're dating is quiet, then he's probably not at risk for talking to other girls and cheating. Conversely, you might think of other reserved people you know and extract characteristics from those people and apply them to the person you've just met. Again, you only have a small amount of information present when you first meet someone, and your brain works quickly to create an overall picture. Heuristics help us create a profile of a person with only a small amount of information available.
Heuristics are incredibly helpful. It would be exhausting on our brains to make sense of anyone we meet without creating shortcuts. Brain studies at New York University have confirmed that two specific areas of the brain, the amygdala known as the emotion/aggression hub of the brain, and the posterior cingulate cortex, linked to economic decision-making are activated when making fist impressions.
The trouble is, once we have ingrained these first impressions, they are difficult to eradicate, especially when you view that person in the same setting or context. When we make a conclusion in any situation, we look for examples that confirm or validate our decision rather than search for contrary evidence. In psychology we call this the confirmation bias, where we interpret information that confirms our initial beliefs about something. If someone violates our initial first impression, we tend to think they are exhibiting an exception to the rule. So, my friend who has found out that her love interest isn't so quiet after all, thinks that anytime he is chatty or social is an exception, rather than a fixed trait.
To change a first impression, psychologists recommend viewing that person in a completely different context. If your first impression of a new colleague at work is that she's stuck up, this impression may never change if you continue to only see her in a work setting. Invite her for a cup of coffee; see how she interacts in a different setting, with different people, and your impression could change. The more you view a person in different contexts, the more those qualities that you deem "exceptions," override the confirmation bias, and become the "rules."
Kristine Keller received her Masters in psychology at New York University.