“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Many credit Oscar Wilde with this quote, others believe American humorist Will Rogers deserves authorship (it is even engraved on his memorial plaque), and some give credit to Mark Twain. Science has travelled beyond the literal meaning of the words to explore its truth.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, new experiences that can potentially contradict a first impression become “bound” to the original context (i.e., impression) and that will ultimately prevail on many different levels.
According to lead author Bertram Gawronski: ”Imagine you have a new colleague at work and your impression of that person is not very favorable. A few weeks later, you meet your colleague at a party and you realize he is actually a very nice guy. Although you know your first impression was wrong, your gut response to your new colleague will be influenced by your new experience only in contexts that are similar to the party. However, your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts.”
According to Gawronski, the human brain stores “expectancy-violating experiences” as mere exceptions to the rule. To explore the impact this has on first impressions, Gawronski and his team showed study participants either positive or negative information about an unknown person on a computer screen. Later in the study, the same participants received new information about the same individual, only inconsistent with the previous information.
To study importance of contexts, the researchers made subtle changes to the background color of the computer screen as participants formed their first impression. In measuring the participants’ spontaneous reactions to the person, they concluded that new information influenced participants’ reactions only in situations when it was presented against the background in which the new information was first acquired.
Otherwise, the first impression still dominated when the person was presented against other backgrounds. Gawronski commented: “What is necessary is for the first impression to be challenged in multiple different contexts. In that case, new experiences become decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose its power. But, as long as a first impression is challenged only within the same context, you can do whatever you want. The first impression will dominate regardless of how often it is contradicted by new experiences.”