4.1 Initial Impression Formation

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe how people use behaviors and traits to form initial perceptions of others.

People are very skilled at person perceptionthe process of learning about other people—and our brains are designed to help us judge others efficiently (Haselton & Funder, 2006; Macrae, 2010). Infants prefer to look at faces of people more than they do other visual patterns, and children quickly learn to identify people and their emotional expressions (Turati, Cassia, Simion, & Leo, 2006). As adults, we are able to identify and remember an unlimited number of people as we navigate our social environments (Haxby, Hoffman, & Gobbini, 2000), and we form impressions of those others quickly and without much effort (Carlston & Skowronski, 2005; Fletcher-Watson, Findlay, Leekam, & Benson, 2008). Furthermore, our first impressions are, at least in some cases, remarkably accurate (Ambady, Bernieri, & Richeson, 2000).

Research Focus

Forming Impressions from Thin Slices

Although it might seem surprising, social psychological research has demonstrated that at least in some limited situations, people can draw remarkably accurate conclusions about others on the basis of very little data and that they can do this very quickly. (Rule & Ambady, 2010; Rule, Ambady, Adams, & Macrae, 2008; Rule, Ambady, & Hallett, 2009).

Ambady and Rosenthal (1993) made videotapes of six female and seven male graduate students while they were teaching an undergraduate course. The courses covered diverse areas of the college curriculum, including humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. For each instructor, three 10-second video clips were taken—10 seconds from the first 10 minutes of the class, 10 seconds from the middle of the class, and 10 seconds from the last 10 minutes of the class.

Nine female undergraduates were asked to rate the 39 clips of the instructors individually on 15 dimensions, including optimistic, confident, active, enthusiastic, dominant, likable, warm, competent, and supportive. Ambady and her colleagues then compared the ratings of the instructors made by the participants who had seen the instructors for only 30 seconds with the ratings of the same instructors that had been made by actual students who had spent a whole semester with the instructors and who had rated them at the end of the semester on dimensions such as “the quality of the course section” and “the section leader’s performance.” The researchers found that the ratings of the participants and the ratings of the students were highly positively correlated.

If the finding that we can make accurate judgments about other people in only 30 seconds surprises you, then perhaps you will be even more surprised to learn that we do not even need that much time. Willis and Todorov (2006) found that even a tenth of a second was enough to make judgments that correlated highly with the same judgments made by other people who were given several minutes to make the judgments. Other research has found that we can make accurate judgments in seconds or even milliseconds about, for instance, the personalities of salespersons (Ambady, Krabbenhoft, & Hogan, 2006) and even whether or not a person is prejudiced (Richeson & Shelton, 2005).

Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, and Hall (2005) reported a demonstration of just how important such initial impressions can be. These researchers showed participants pairs of political candidates who had run against each other in previous elections for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Participants saw only the faces of the candidates, and they saw them in some cases for only one second. Their task was to judge which person in of each pair was the most competent. Todorov et al. (2005) found that these judgments predicted the actual result of the election, such that 68% of the time the person judged to have the most competent face won.

Rule and Ambady (2010) showed that perceivers were also able to accurately distinguish whether people were Democrats or Republicans based only on photos of their faces. Republicans were perceived as more powerful than Democrats, and Democrats were perceived as warmer than Republicans. And Rule, Ambady, Adams, and Macrae (2008) found that people could accurately determine the sexual orientation of faces presented in photos (gay or straight) based on their judgments of what they thought “most people” would say.

Taken together, these data confirm that we can form a wide variety of initial impressions of others quickly and, at least in some cases, quite accurately. Of course, in these situations (unlike those faced by airport security guards), the people who were being observed were not trying to hide their personalities from the observers.

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Detecting Deception

One important person-perception task that we must all engage in sometimes is to try to determine whether other people are lying to us. We might wonder whether our poker opponent is bluffing, whether our partner is being honest when she tells us she loves us, or whether our boss is really planning to give us the promotion she has promised. This task is particularly important for members of courtroom juries, who are asked determine the truth or falsehood of the testimony given by witnesses. American jurors are instructed to judge the person’s truthfulness by considering his or her “demeanor upon the witness stand” and “manner of testifying” (Judicial Committee on Model Jury Instructions for the Eighth Circuit, 2002, p. 53). And detecting deception is perhaps even more important for those whose job is to provide public security. How good are professionals, such as airport security officers, police detectives, and members of the CIA, FBI, and U.S. Secret Service, at determining whether or not someone is telling the truth?

It turns out that the average person is only moderately good at detecting deception and that experts do not seem to be much better. In a recent meta-analysis, researchers looked at over 200 studies that had tested the ability of almost 25,000 people to detect deception (Bond & DePaulo, 2006). The researchers found that people were just better than chance at doing so but were not really that great. The participants in the studies were able to correctly identify lies and truths about 54% of the time (chance performance is 50%). This is not a big advantage, but it is one that could have at least some practical consequences and that suggests that we can at least detect some deception. However, the meta-analysis also found that experts—including police officers, detectives, judges, interrogators, criminals, customs officials, mental health professionals, polygraph examiners, job interviewers, federal agents, and auditors—were Not significantly better at detecting deception than were nonexperts. These findings seem consistent with the failure of the agents discussed in the chapter opener who attempted to spot potential hijackers at U.S. airports.

Why is it so difficult for us to detect liars? One reason is that people do not expect to be lied to. Most people are good and honest folks, we expect them to tell the truth, and we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt (Buller, Stiff, & Burgoon, 1996; Gilbert, Krull, & Malone, 1990). In fact, people are more likely to expect deception when they view someone on a videotape than when they are having an interpersonal interaction with the person. It’s as if we expect the people who are right around us to be truthful (Bond & DePaulo, 2006).

A second reason is that most people are pretty good liars. The cues that liars give off are quite faint, particularly when the lies that they are telling are not all that important.

Bella DePaulo and her colleagues (DePaulo et al., 2003) found that in most cases, it was very difficult to tell if someone was lying, although it was easier when the liar was trying to cover up something important (e.g., a sexual transgression) than when he or she was lying about something less important. De Paulo and her colleagues did find, however, that there were some reliable cues to deception.

Compared with truth tellers, liars

  • made more negative statements overall,
  • appeared more tense,
  • provided fewer details in their stories,
  • gave accounts that were more indirect and less personal,
  • took longer to respond to questions and exhibited more silent pauses when they were not able to prepare their responses,
  • gave responses that were briefer and spoken in a higher pitch.
  • A third reason it is difficult for us to detect liars is that we tend to think we are better at catching lies than we actually are. This overconfidence may prevent us from working as hard as we should to try to uncover the truth.

Finally, most of us do not really have a very good idea of how to detect deception—we tend to pay attention to the wrong things. Many people think that a person who is lying will avert his or her gaze or will not smile or that perhaps he or she will smile too much. But it turns out that faces are not that revealing. The problem is that liars can more easily control their facial expressions than they can control other parts of their bodies. In fact, Ekman and Friesen (1974) found that people were better able to detect other people’s true emotions when they could see their bodies but not their faces than when they could see their faces but not their bodies. Although we may think that deceivers do not smile when they are lying, it is actually common for them to mask their statements with false smiles—smiles that look very similar to the more natural smile that we make when we are really happy (Ekman & Davidson, 1993; Frank & Ekman, 1993).

Recently, new advances in technology have begun to provide new ways to assess deception. Some new software analyzes the language of truth tellers, other software analyzes facial microexpressions that are linked with lying (Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, & Richards, 2003), and still other software uses neuroimaging techniques to try to catch liars (Langleben et al., 2005). Whether these techniques will be successful, however, remains to be seen.

The Importance of the Central Traits Warm and Cold

Although the averaging model is quite good at predicting final impressions, it is not perfect. This is because some traits are simply weighted more heavily than others. For one, negative information is more heavily weighted than is positive information (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). In addition to the heavy weight that we give to negative traits, we give a particular emphasis to the traits “warm” and “cold.” Imagine two men, Brad and Phil, who were described with these two sets of characteristics:

Brad is industrious, critical, warm, practical, and determined.

Phil is industrious, critical, cold, practical, and determined.

As you can see, the descriptions are identical except for the presence of “warm” and “cold.” Solomon Asch (1946) found that people described with these two sets of traits were perceived very differently—the “warm” person very positively and the “cold” person very negatively.

To test whether or not these differences would influence real behavior, Harold Kelley (1950) had students read about a professor who was described either as “rather cold” or as “very warm.” Then the professor came into the classroom and led a 20-minute discussion group with the students. Although the professor behaved in the same way for both groups, the students nevertheless reacted very differently to him. The students who were expecting the “warm” instructor were more likely to participate in the discussion, in comparison with those who were expecting him to be “cold.” And at the end of the discussion, the students also rated the professor who had been described as “warm” as being significantly more humorous, sociable, popular, and better natured than the “cold” professor. Moreover, the effects of warmth and coolness seem to be wired into our bodily responses. Research has found that even holding a cup of hot, versus iced, coffee or making judgments in warm, versus cold, rooms leads people to judge others more positively (Ijzerman & Semin, 2009; Williams & Bargh, 2008).

In short, the particular dimension warm versus cold makes a big difference in how we perceive people—much bigger than do other traits. As a result, the traits of warm and cold are known as central traits (Asch, 1946). The powerful influence of central traits is due to two things. For one, they lead us to make inferences about other traits that might not have been mentioned. The students who heard that the professor was “warm” might also have assumed that he had other positive traits (maybe “nice” and “funny”), in comparison with those who heard that he was “cold.” Second, the important central traits also color our perceptions of the other traits that surround them. When a person is described as “warm” and “intelligent,” the meaning of “intelligent” seems a lot better than does the term “intelligent” in the context of a person who is also “cold.” Overall, the message is clear: If you want to get someone to like you, try to act in a warm manner toward them. Be friendly, nice, and interested in what they say. This attention you pay to the other will be more powerful than any other characteristics that you might try to display to them.

First Impressions Matter: The Primacy Effect

It has frequently been said that “first impressions matter.” Social psychological research supports this idea. Information that we learn first is weighted more heavily than is information that comes later. This is known as the primacy effect. One demonstration of the primacy effect was conducted by Solomon Asch (1946). In his research, participants learned some traits about a person and then made judgments about him. One half of the participants saw this list of traits:

intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious

The other half of the participants saw this list:

envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent

You may have noticed something interesting about these two lists—they contain exactly the same traits but in reverse order.

Asch discovered something interesting in his study: Because the traits were the same, we might have expected that both groups would form the same impression of the person, but this was not at all the case. Rather, Asch found that the participants who heard the first list, in which the positive traits came first, formed much more favorable impressions than did those who heard the second list, in which the negative traits came first. Similar findings were found by Edward Jones (1968), who had participants watch one of two videotapes of a woman taking an intelligence test. In each video, the woman correctly answered the same number of questions and got the same number wrong. However, when the woman got most of her correct answers in the beginning of the test but got more wrong near the end, she was seen as more intelligent than when she got the same number correct but got more correct at the end of the test.

Primacy effects also show up in other domains, even in those that seem really important. For instance, Koppell and Steen (2004) found that in elections in New York City, the candidate who was listed first on the ballot was elected more than 70% of the time, and Miller and Krosnick (1998) found similar effects for candidate preferences in laboratory studies.

This is not to say that it is always good to be first. In some cases, the information that comes last can be most influential. Recency effects, in which information that comes later is given more weight, although much less common than primacy effects, may sometimes occur. For example, Bruine de Bruin (2005) found that in competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest and ice skating, higher marks were given to competitors who performed last.

Considering the primacy effect in terms of the cognitive processes central to human information processing leads us to understand why it can be so powerful. For one, humans are cognitive misers. Because we desire to conserve our energy, we are more likely to pay more attention to the information that comes first and less likely to attend to information that comes later. In fact, when people read a series of statements about a person, the amount of time they spend reading the items declines with each new piece of information (Belmore & Hubbard, 1987). Not surprisingly, then, we are more likely to show the primacy effect when we are tired than when we are wide awake and when we are distracted than when we are paying attention (webster, Richter, & Kruglanski, 1996).

Another reason for the primacy effect is that the early traits lead us to form an initial expectancy about the person, and once that expectancy is formed, we tend to process information in ways that keep that expectancy intact. This of course is a classic case of assimilation—once we have developed a schema, it becomes difficult to change it. If we learn that a person is “intelligent” and “industrious,” those traits become cognitively accessible, which leads us to develop an expectancy about the person. When the information about the negative features comes later, these negatives will be assimilated into the existing knowledge more than the existing knowledge is accommodated to fit the new information. Once we have formed a positive impression, the new negative information just doesn’t seem as bad as it might have been had we learned it first. On the other hand, if we learn the negatives first, the opposite happens—the positives don’t seem so positive when we get to them.

You can be sure that it would be good to take advantage of the primacy effect if you are trying to get someone to like you or to secure a job. Begin with your positive characteristics, and only bring the negatives up later. This will create a much better outcome than beginning with the negatives. And if your instructor is going to write a recommendation letter for you, she’ll likely do the same thing—she’ll put your good qualities first and save the poorer ones (if you have any!) for the second page of the letter.

Adapted from “Chapter 6.1: Initial Impression Formation” of Principles of Social Psychology, 2015, used according to creative commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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