In a careless moment I have just knocked a heavy book onto the floor. My dozing cat instantaneously leapt from her favourite chair and scudded out of my study as if the world were coming to an end. She lives a safe and peaceful life but, being a cat, she knows that sudden noises spell danger and so her instinctive reaction is to run.
She is very like me. Aeons ago my ancestor heard a rustle in the undergrowth. He did not wonder whether it was harmless or a predator, his instinct told him to escape – and to keep going. Perhaps there were other hominids who rejected such caution and went to investigate. I did not descend from these for they did not survive to have progeny.
So let’s come forward through a few hundred thousand years, and note a recent study, at New York University, which tells us that we decide, even before we are conscious of it, whether a new acquaintance is honest or not. The recognition of an “untrustworthy” face can be measured in brain changes – even when images have been shown too quickly for any judgment to be made. Evolution ensures that biological creatures have developed to take such instinctive actions when faced by the possibility of danger or opportunity. We act on first impressions. But, like so many responses developed in primitive times they can sometimes be inappropriate today.
I have numerous grandchildren who are at an early stage in the job market, and they sometimes seek my advice about a prospective selection interview. They are surprised that I shy away from detail, and point out to them that selection interviews are hopelessly inaccurate, and that conclusive decisions are likely to be made within the first five minutes. What really matters is whether the interviewer likes the candidate or not. And once his mind is made up, subsequent information which conflicts is unlikely to be registered. It will help to follow a poor candidate; you will look better by comparison.
We may experience the same thing when we attend a talk from a new speaker. How long does it take you to assess his intelligence, his social class, whether you would like him, whether he knows what he is talking about, whether he is worth listening to? You will decide all that in the first few seconds, and much of it before he has opened his mouth. It is true that in some cases you may have to revise your opinion but, most often, your general reaction of optimism or pessimism will carry you through to the end.
Indeed optimism itself can be manipulated. I once had a boss who was very good at refusing my requests but, knowing what a pride he took in his mathematics, I would put in a deliberate mistake. His pleasure in spotting it, together with my admiration for his skill, was often enough to get me what I wanted. Psychologists tell us that someone asked to read a text majoring on either depressing or encouraging words, will be influenced in both their mood and their subsequent decisions.
Hair, height, spectacles, general attractiveness, handshake, accent (class-related, regional, foreign) posture, shape of face, eyebrows, movements, gaze, smile, tone of voice, rhythm of conversation, clothes, skin tone, girth, name, address, are amongst the many signals which we know induce first impressions. And these impressions tend to stick. If you are running from danger it is safer to keep running than to stop and reconsider. Even contrary facts arising later may be denied, but more often they are simply overlooked. Sometimes interviewers refuse to believe that contrary evidence has been given until they listen to the tape recording.
Perhaps our first concern is to school ourselves to give the right first impressions. Have you ever thought of testing your handshake with a friend, or switching from contact lenses to spectacles? (The latter adds 12 IQ points to appearance.) But more important for our purposes here is to consider how accurate we may be in judging others. If we read the signs wrong we may of course make mistakes but, even worse, we may be responsible for an injustice. What precautions can we take?
Sometimes a signal may have a rational basis. So we might be right to suspect that a firm and friendly handshake comes from a firm and friendly person, but the sense of authority we attribute to a tall person is a primitive relic. Imputing greater honesty to received pronunciation than we do to a Glaswegian accent is cultural, and imputing virtue to those of attractive appearance is simply human nature. I do not advocate suspicion or cynicism, but it is prudent to remember that we too are susceptible to judging by the superficial. And we should be consciously open to changing our opinions as further evidence comes to hand.
We may be getting worse at this. A recent study suggests that those who spent too much of their time looking at screens of various sizes, rather than looking at people, gradually reduce their ability to read the emotions of others. It is ironic that social media, which presumably intends to bring people together, may be doing so at the expense of real encounter.
My wife tells me that when we first met, over 60 years ago, she wondered who this odd scruffy person who actually argued with her – unlike her previous respectable boyfriends – could be. I asked her today whether she had revised her first impressions since then. The little pause before she gave her tactful answer told me more than I wanted to know.