de la Bédoyère’s Maxims, No 7

We have evolved to act on first impressions: without them we might have had no second impressions.

It has been estimated that we make thousands of unconscious judgments within the first moments of meeting. Many are wrong.

It is well established that, having formed a first impression, we tend to confirm it by attending to supporting evidence and by ignoring contradictory evidence.

A man who tells you that he always goes by first impressions, is telling you that he is a bad judge of character.

It may be unfair to judge someone’s future behaviour by their past behaviour but it is the best, and often the only, evidence available. You will be right far more often than wrong.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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4 Responses to de la Bédoyère’s Maxims, No 7

  1. Frank says:

    Did I not read recently that psychologists now believe that first impressions are the most accurate?

    Anyway, I think first impressions often turn out to be the truest ones; it is when our intuitions are at work without preconceptions or postconceptions. Later on we rationalise, the imagination gets to work and hey presto – we end up with an entirely false impression.

    The problem is, we don’t trust our first impressions enough.

  2. Oh, Frank, how contrary you are! I would love to have your references to psychologists who think first impressions are best. The general view of psychologists (supported by numerous studies) is that our tendency to have quick impressions is the evolved need to react quickly to meet threat or opportunity. We have built up an unconscious ‘stereotype store’ to enable us to do so. So, to give a trivial example, typically we credit someone wearing glasses with an additional 12 IQ points over someone who doesn’t.

    Next, once having formed an impression, we tend to ignore evidence which detracts from the impression and to welcome evidence which supports it. This is because when an emergency threatens the worst strategy will always be to dither.

    In fact what we need to do (although it doesn’t come instinctively) is to stand back and, on further acquaintance, to use our critical judgment based on observation. And that includes a critical judgment of our own stereotypes and assumptions which may have distorted our impressions.

  3. cordelia says:

    Sorry, Quentin. I agree with Frank. Many’s the time I’ve met someone, had an uneasy feeling about them and suppressed that feeling as I try not to be judgmental. Sad to report, on all the occasions I can think of, on getting to know the person better, I then remember my first instinct and it’s turned out to be true. There’s a lot to be said for a kind of animal instinct.

  4. I think it possible, pace Frank, that the female brain, with its better capacity to communicate with both of its sides, is better than the male brain in “reading”, if often unconsciously, more than men. I know, for instance, that my wife’s judgments tend to be better than mine.
    Nevertheless I am wary of any individual experience because a maxim is a generalisation. I stick with my claim that when first impressions are studied with rigour, the generalisation holds true. A good deal of work has been done with selection interviews because these can be set up to be measurable. The studies show that most interviewers make up their minds very quickly, and this colours the rest of the interview – even down to the interviewer’s capacity to fail to recall contrary evidence. The meta-analyses show that the accuracy of prediction from selection interviews (on a scale from zero (random) to 10 (complete accuracy) they score between 1 and 2. I assume that the majority of interviewers were male, so you can certainly presume, if you wish, that, had they been female, the score would have been much higher.

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