First Impressions 1
Running Head: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
First Impressions Matter
University of Southern California
Psychology 359: Interpersonal Relations
Dr. Miranda Barone
October. 19, 2009
First Impressions 2
First Impressions Matter
“Do you remember your first time…?” This question is a common conversation
starter, for we all have first experiences that we not only remember vividly, but cling to
as references to guide us through our realities. Throughout the course of our lives, we
experience many “firsts”- our first best friend, a first kiss, first true love, a first job, and
first day of school. Because these people and experiences represent feelings that up until
that point we have never felt, they remain as significant memories for long periods of
time, sometimes for the rest of our lives. We compare and contrast later boyfriends and
girlfriends or our current jobs to those that we had first and often use such comparisons to
navigate our lives in the present. These first moments shape our interpretation of our
Our understanding of our interpersonal relationships is no exception to this rule.
In fact, the power of the first impression as a psychological phenomenon is especially
evident in interpersonal interactions. When we first meet someone, the impression that
they have on us during that initial interaction shapes our interpretation of him/her as a
person forever, no matter how brief or seemingly insignificant that meeting may be.
And, even though that impression consists not only of what the new acquaintance says or
does, but also our own preexisting judgments, biases, and assumptions, it matters at that
moment and will continue to matter far into the future (Sunnafrank & Ramirez, 2004).
At the end of Chapter Four’s discussion of social cognition, the authors present a
scenario in which readers can fully grasp the power of the first impression. During a first
encounter between two women, Martha and Gale, Gale is suffering from the symptoms of
poison ivy and consequently is not in her best mood when she meets Martha. Her
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behavior dismays Martha, who had heard from mutual friends that Gale was a very
friendly woman; when the two cross paths again, Martha, remembering their first
meeting, is less than gracious to Gale.
In spite of the unusual circumstance surrounding their first meeting, the future of
the women’s relationship will be undoubtedly shaped by it. Although Gale was feeling a
bit under the weather, her behavior clearly has left a negative first impression on Martha.
Because the power of first impressions is so powerful and prevalent even in a long-term
and close-knit relationship, the future relationship for Martha and Gale depends largely
on Martha’s ability to recognize that that meeting does not accurately represent who Gale
really “is.” In other words, Martha must try to overcome the power of her initial
perception of Gale for the relationship to have a healthy future. As the following
literature review shows, this will be a great challenge.
That first impressions matter is considered a given when it comes to social life.
We all put a great deal of effort into managing the first impressions we have on others,
and we are quick to judge others during our first encounters with them. With all of our
efforts, however, the short amount of time it takes to leave an impression on others or
form our impressions of others makes such efforts almost futile. A recent Princeton
University study shows that people, on average, take only one tenth of a second to form
an impression of someone else during an interaction (Wargo, 2006). Thus, in the blink of
an eye and without the other person having said even a word, people can form a lasting
judgment based strictly on facial appearance- whether they are smiling, frowning, or have
a blank expression in that short span of time is crucial to others’ perceptions of them.
Similarly, a recent Tufts University study shows that by merely taking a glimpse at
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photographs of CEO’s people could tell which executives were more successful than
others (Rule and Nalini, 2008). Traits such as competence and dominance were instantly
recognizable. In the same way that we label and categorize objects as soon as we see
them, we make judgments and assess the personalities and characteristics of people as
soon as we see them. What does this mean for the future of the relationship between
Martha and Gale? Because Gale wasn’t feeling well, it is likely that she had a cold facial
expression and an unfriendly demeanor upon meeting Martha, which Martha instantly
saw and formed a judgment of. If Gale and Martha are to have any relationship in the
future, Martha must try to overcome her judgment of Gale which she formed in that first
tenth of a second. This will be a difficult task, since that first tenth of a second will
always linger in Martha’s mind.
In spite of Gale’s reaction to meeting Martha, it remains true that Martha heard
nothing but positive things about her new acquaintance prior to their actually meeting.
Thus, upon meeting Gale, Martha had a preconceived notion that Gale was indeed a
warm and sociable woman. This bit of information led her to have expectations for Gale
that were probably slightly higher than those she would have for the average person she
meets for the first time. The warm versus cold distinction that is often used to
differentiate a person by those who already know them well has been shown to be
extremely influential when it comes to first impressions. A groundbreaking 1950
psychological study by Kelly concluded that what researchers refer to as a “warm/cold
manipulation” greatly influenced participants’ first impression of a stranger (Widmeyer
and Loy, 1988). That is, if the newcomer was previously described as warm, the
participants were more likely to perceive him that way, and the same was true for the
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newcomer described as cold. In 1988, Widmeyer and Loy replicated this study to see if
the findings remained the same in a classroom setting. Indeed, being informed that a
professor was either warm or cold prior to hearing his lecture was directly related to
whether students perceived him that way and thought of his teaching abilities.
Interestingly, Martha’s negative to reaction to Gale implies that Gale’s ill mood at the
time of their meeting supersede any positive information she received beforehand,
corroborating Widmeyer and Loy’s contention that in spite of the power of the warm/cold
manipulation, the perception can still depend on the context. In these cases, existing
biases are essentially outdone by an extreme contextual circumstance; Gale’s suffering
from poison ivy can be understood as such a case, and based on Martha’s reaction upon
seeing her the second time the events of their meeting left much more of an impression
upon her than the information she received from friends. To reiterate a previous
assertion, for Martha and Gale to have any sort of relationship in the future, Martha will
have to understand that her perception of Gale was formed in a context that was out of
the ordinary, but due to the power of first impressions this will be very challenging.
Further psychological research strikes yet another blow to the possibility of a
positive future between Gale and Martha. Recall that during their second meeting, Gale
was her “usual” warm and friendly self to Martha, but Martha reacted coldly because she
had received a bad first impression of Gale. Martha’s unwillingness to disregard her first
impression even in light of new information (in this case, Gale’s friendliness and
sociability) falls in line with theories of accountability and belief perseverance. A study
by Philip Tetlock examines this tendency to maintain certain beliefs even when
interactions occur or new information is produced that should weaken if not completely
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reverse those beliefs (Tetlock, 1983). Thus, in spite of Gale’s attempt to rectify the
situation by being nice, Martha appears to be clinging to her negative impression of Gale
because that is her existing belief. If Gale and Martha run into one another again,
perhaps Gale’s impression of Martha, who was nice to her when they first interacted, will
persist and she will attempt interaction again. In that scenario, the outcome of their
relationship will again depend on Martha letting go of her bad first impression of Gale.
In the end, it appears that it will be quite a difficult task for Gale and Martha to
form a friendly relationship. Because Gale’s suffering from poison ivy left her in an
unpleasant mood during her first encounter with Martha, she left a bad first impression on
Martha is powerful and lingering. Because of the power of first impressions, Martha’s
perception of Gale can always be traced back to that first meeting. Unless Martha
consciously tries to understand her own judgments and override her exiting notions about
Gale, it is safe to say that there is no future for their relationship. Anything is possible,
however, and a future relationship is indeed possible but very challenging.
First Impressions 7
Higgins, E. Tory, Rholes, William S., Jones, Carl R. (1977). Category accessibility and
Impression formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, (13), 134-141.
Rule, Nicholas, and Ambady, Nalini (2008). Lasting impression: Does the Face of a CEO
Determine the Success of the Company? Observer, 21(2), 133-137.
Sunnafrank, M. & Ramirez, A. Jr. (2004). At first sight: Persistent relational effects of
get-acquainted conversations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59,
Tetlock, Philip E. (1983). Accountability and the Perseverance of First Impressions,
Social Psychology Quarterly, 46(4), 285-292.
Wargo, Eric. (2006, July) How Many Seconds to a First Impression? Observer, 19(7)
Widmeyer, W. Neil, Loy, John W. (1988). When you’re hot, you’re hot! Warm-cold
effects in first impressions of persons and teaching effectiveness. Journal of
Educational Psychology, 80(1), 118-121.