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Running Head: FIRST IMPRESSIONS




                             First Impressions Matter

                                  Tatjana Magana

                         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

reality.

           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
                                                                         First Impressions 3


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
                                                                           First Impressions 4


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
                                                                         First Impressions 5


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
                                                                           First Impressions 6


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.
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                                       Works Cited

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,
       501-516.


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)
       164.


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.

				
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