In the time it takes to shake hands or offer a smile, a first impression has already been formed.
In just a few seconds, we size up others and make decisions and assessments about them based on how they dress, chew their food, talk, stand, act, laugh. Sometimes we do it without meeting the person at all, forming opinions based on a rumor we have heard. And, others are doing the same with us.
Trouble is a negative first impression – even after it’s found to be completely wrong — can be tough for even the best person to overcome. And that can stifle both of us, unless we give it a second thought.
In a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers Thomas Mann and Melissa Ferguson found that you can change a bad first impression. It isn’t easy, but it is possible with new information and reasoned thinking.
Go With Curiosity Over Judgment
Of course this challenges us to slow down long-enough to take a second look, gather more information, stay open. It requires us to rush to compassion, rather than judgment. To pause and remember that there is no way ever that we know the whole story about another. To admit that we have no clue why people present the way they do, why they show up angry or stressed or stinky or rude. Probably none of our business anyhow.
We can stay in conversation with curiosity instead of judgment. We can encounter others, pass by even, without even forming an opinion. We can observe and notice without labeling and stop defining without the details.
In Ferguson and Mann’s experiment they gave participants only part of the story. They told about a man “invading” people’s homes and taking “precious things.” Study participants automatically decided that this guy was a schmuck. But when they heard that the homes he invaded were on fire and that the “precious things” he was taking were trapped children, their impressions began to change.
When people are given information that helps them see the initial negative information in a new way their implicit judgments can shift quickly, according to the researchers. As long as they have a chance to think about it. A follow up experiment showed that when people are distracted while receiving that new, more favorable information they are less likely to make the shift.
First Impressions Limit
In reality though, most of us are not going to get the follow up story. We aren’t ever going to know all the details.
We are never going to hear, for example, that the mother who let her kid scream in the grocery store as she rushed down the aisles seemingly without a care, was exhausted and needing to get home after radiation treatment. Or that the CEO, who we judged as greedy and self-absorbed, was once homeless and now donates millions each year to foundations and non-profits to help others.
These are the things we miss, the things we will never know. But perhaps – since everyone has a backstory – we can just head into every interaction with an open-mind, and genuine interest. This is not only more reasonable for those we meet, but a smarter strategy for all of us.
After all, think of all those missed opportunities. People and situations that we avoided or misjudged early on — because of a few first impressions — that could have led us to the Next. Big. Thing. The next business deal or friendship. The next innovation or passion.
Stay curious and you might find yourself challenging those first impressions with a little more insight.
**some portions of this post appeared at www.psychologytoday.com