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Transcript of First Impressions
Do they matter?
What is a first impression?
The first thing that needs to be understood is what a first impression actually is. The MacMillan Online Dictionary defines an impression as 'an opinion or feeling that you have about someone or something that you have seen but do not know very well' and first impressions as 'opinions that you form immediately, before thinking thoroughly'.
After my research, I decided to define first impressions as 'the initial subconscious opinion made of a person when two people meet, usually based on little-to-no knowledge of the person'.
First Impressions and the
The Halo Effect
Accurate or not?
We only get one first impression, and we are constantly told to make it count. The question is, do our first impressions actually matter? Does it matter what we think about a person for a split second when we first meet them, without even knowing them?
In my ILP assignment, I wanted to find out about first impressions. I had a list of questions I wanted to answer, including
-What part of the brain is used?
- Does a person's physical appearance influence our first thoughts about them?
- Is there a reason for first impressions?
- Are they accurate?
After months of researching, I finally began to answer them. My initial opinion was that first impressions were useless - I thought they were superficial and based on stereotypes - but slowly I came to realise that that isn't necessarily true.
A study at New York University led by Danielle Schiller was conducted to find what part of the brain is functioning when we make a first impression. They had people look at a photograph of a person and six sentences about them - three showing positive traits and three showing negative traits - while their brains were scanned by an fMRI machine.
A fMRI machine is a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, or functional MRI. A fMRI machine detects the changes in blood and oxygen flow to the brain. When there is an increase of blood and oxygen to a certain area of the brain, it is a sign that it is being used more than normal.
After studying the fMRI readings, the researchers found that the posterior cingular cortex and the amygdala were functioning while the subjects assessed the faces and information they were given.
The posterior cingular cortex has a relation to both self and spatial memory, and is active when people put values on objects, and when risky decisions are made. If it is ever harmed, people were found to have difficulties locating oneself, in both familiar and foreign areas. Self-reflection also becomes impossible.
The amygdala is the only part of the brain that receives information from all of the senses. It controls our emotions, tells us what to do and the reason behind our motivations, and helps us navigate the social world. It is necessary in protection of oneself - it picks up any possible dangers and elicits a feeling of fear or anxiety, leading to a trigger in the 'fight or flight' instinct deeply ingrained in animals and humans. Damage to the amygdala causes a complete loss of fear, and it means that people cannot tell the difference between a dangerous and a harmless situation, making it vital for humans and all animals to survive.
Put simply, the part of the brain that assesses the value of possessions is used to evaluate people when we first meet people. We subconsciously decide whether they can be useful for us, and what they can do for us. But at the same time, we decide whether or not they could potentially harm us, ultimately leading to the decision of how we want to interact with people.
Posterior Cingular Cortex and Amygdala
Case Study One
Case Study Five
In a study done in the UK, volunteers were asked to study photos of people they had never met before. The study found that the people who had received higher ratings in appearance were all evaluated higher in other traits, such as friendliness and extroversion. The people they were evaluating were strangers, and they had no basis behind their opinions except for the photo they were shown.
Another notable finding in the study was that digital composites of the people's faces who had ranked high on their personalities (for extroversion or general friendliness) were also ranked in the higher end of attractiveness. This proves that there is, at least in some people, a link between attractiveness and personality as well as some truth behind the halo effect.
Case Study Four
Renowned social psychologist Richard Nisbett also conducted his own experiment on the halo effect in the 1970s. He and another man (Wilson) divided students into two groups. Using the same lecturer for both groups, they got all of the students to assess the lecturer on his physical appearance, but there was a difference between the groups - the first group saw him as friendly and kind, extremely likeable, while the second group (intentionally) found him cold and distant.
When looking at how the students rated the lecturer, Nisbett and Wilson found many differences between the groups. The first group rated him as more attractive than the second group, who found the lecturer less appealing.
The strange thing was that, when the psychologists suggested to the students whether how much they liked the lecturer was influencing their physical evaluations of the man, the students denied it. They believed that there was no link between their opinion of him and their rating of his attractiveness, and some even believed that his appearance was what influenced whether they liked him. This shows that the halo effect is subconscious, and people do not even realise when it is in effect.
Case Study Two
Cheryl McCormick, Cathy Mondlach and John Carre conducted a study into whether people could identify whether strangers were aggressive or not. They showed the participants in the survey the faces of Caucasian men. The men whose faces were used also undertook an aggression test (how often they would steal points off others even with no benefits for themselves) to find whether they would actually be classified as aggressive.
The results were astounding. The participants in the study were not only able to accurately identify those who had scored high on the aggression test, but also in a span of 39 milliseconds - faster than the conscious mind.
They discovered that what the participants were picking up was the men's high WHR - the width-height ratio measured from cheekbone to cheekbone and the gap between their top lip and their brow - which was a sign of high testosterone influx during their puberty, and also sometimes aggression. Though the participants didn't know this, or even what a WHR was, their subconscious mind picked it up after 39 milliseconds and identified the men as aggressive, in an attempt to protect themself.
Case Study Three
Another psychologist, Jeffrey Valla, and a few of his colleagues also conducted a similar experiment where they seeked to find whether people could identify criminals from simply looking at their faces. The group gathered photos of close-cropped, clean shaven, straight faced men in their twenties, and asked people to identify the people who had been convicted for murder, rape, theft, forgery and more.
Both men and women were able to identify those who were convicted with a above-chance accuracy (over 50%). However, they were unable to tell those who committed violent crimes from those who didn't. There was a scary note from the experiment - the study showed that rapists constantly slipped under the radar, with women (but surprisingly not men) thinking they were less likely to commit a crime. They rationalised the finding with the knowledge that rapists were generally attractive and non-threatening, making it easier to lure women in.
So though your brain may be able to pick out the people who are criminals, rapists go undetected because of their looks. Your first impressions can protect you from physical harm, but worryingly not sexual abuse.
Note - the posterior cingular cortex is part of the cingulate cortex
A majority of the girls surveyed (56%) did believe that first impressions were important, and 72% could remember their original impressions of their friends. However, only 1 person out of the 25 could say that in general their first impressions were accurate, while 17 people said only sometimes were they right.
Only 8% of the girls said that they didn't notice whether people were attractive, while 64% said that they always noticed a person's physical appearance. Despite that, 21 people believed that attractiveness was linked to success, but with the condition that they worked hard for it as well. For the final question, only 12% believed that stereotypes were accurate, and an answer I noticed that was repeated throughout the surveys was that stereotypes were not always accurate and opinions should not be formed based on them.
Case Study Six
Over 100 students at the University of Texas in America participated in a study to see whether first impressions were accurate. The students were put into two groups - personality judges and subjects. The subjects had two photos taken - one with neutral facial expressions and body language, and the other spontaneous and natural. The subjects then had their personalities evaluated through a personality questionnaire which both the subjects and their close friends filled in.
The judges looked at the first the posed photo, and evaluated their personalities on ten personality traits given. From looking at the neutral photo, the judges were able to accurately guess three traits - their self-esteem, extroversion and even religiosity (the Macmillan Online Dictionary defines religiosity as 'the extreme interest and belief in religion'). However, when the judges were looking at the natural photos of the subjects, they were able to accurately guess nearly all of the ten traits.
Body language and facial expressions give away a lot of a person. For example, an extrovert would stand with open body language, little tension and a smile, tipping off to other people that they are open. At the some time, someone who was angry would stand with a frown and defensive posture, such as arms crossed over their chest.
Self fulfilling prophecy?
Though a lot of the time there is some validity behind first impressions of people, the snap judgements we make are not fool proof. They are influenced by other factors than just what we see, such as the your own emotions at the time. When someone is happy, for instance, they tend to judge someone with a negative expression as though it is positive; it also works the other way too - when someone is upset, a happy person can still trigger a negative response.
Despite being accurate some of the time, people can still make mistakes in their judgements. When a mistake is made, there are consequences. "If your first impression is a mistake, it can take a while to realise this, as your expectations tend to be self-fulfilling. When you expect a certain reaction you are likely to perceive it even if it isn't there," is a quote by Danial Kahneman, a psychologist, Nobel laureate and author. People tend to find false truths in their opinions, despite it not being shown. Deciding that a person is mean or harsh can become self-fulfilling, as everything they do becomes twisted to match the impression.
Dean, J 2013, 'The Halo Effect: When Your Own Mind is a Mystery' in PsyBlog, accessed 5/9/13 from http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/10/halo-effect-when-your-own-mind-is.php
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Starr, K 2013, 'The Science of First Impressions' in Psychology Today, accessed 20/09/12 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-luck/201302/the-science-first-impressions
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How I interpreted the data
Pincott, J 2012 'What's in a Face?' Psychology Today, accessed 15/08/13, pages 53-61; 84-85 (Issue: December 2012)
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Unknown, 'Self-Preservation' from MacMillian Online Dictionary, accessed 14/10/13 from http://www.macmillandictionary.com/thesaurus/british/self-preservation
Wilbert, C 2009, 'First Impressions Surprisingly Accurate' in WebMD, accessed 8/09/13 from http://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20091106/first-impressions-surprisingly-accurate
Wessinger C. M. 2002, The Brain and the Mind: Psychology Volume 2, Brown Partworks, London
The ability to predict a person's personality is tied with the deep rooted survival instincts we have. Our snap judgements of people do have a cause - they are a way to identify whether a person is violent or not.
Self preservation is defined by the MacMillan Online Dictionary as 'the wish to stay alive and to protect yourself from things that might hurt you'. This is most commonly seen in the 'fight or flight' reflex that humans and all animals have.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls self preservation, as stated previously. The amygdala controls the 'fight or flight' instinct we have. When the amygdala is triggered, it creates a sense of fear and alertness in the person or animal. It is also part of the brain that is active when we first assess a person, searching for the possibility of danger.
What is it?
The halo effect is the theory that more attractive men or women are evaluated higher than their more average-looking peers, in the way that the more attractive-looking people are initially thought of to be smarter, or more trust-worthy, when in fact there is no link between attractiveness and intelligence/capability. People deny it, believing it to be superficial and non-existent, and saying that it's not real.
Many studies have been done to see the validity behind the theory, and many had similar results. Their findings showed that, whether we want there to be or not, there is some truth behind the halo effect.
What's the Halo Effect?
I surveyed 25 girls in year 9 in an attempt to see simply what they thought about first impressions. I asked six questions -
1. Do you think first impressions matter?
2. Do you remember your first impressions of your friends?
3. In general, do you find your first impressions accurate?
4. Do you notice if a person is attractive
5. Are attractive people more attractive?
6. Do you think stereotypes are accurate?
All of the questions had three options - Yes, No or Sometimes. For the fifth question, the girls were asked to explain their answers, and the sixth question was completely open for them to discuss.
Is what we think of a person when we first meet them actually accurate? Is it simply a wild guess, or do we actually tap into some truth when we first evaluate a person? Some think we simply take in the face-value of a person when we make a first impression, but does that necessarily mean that they aren't accurate?
Some statistics to think about - the time length we take to form an opinion is between 1/10th of a second (faster than the conscious mind) for the initial impression and 2-3 minutes for our conscious decision. The brain forms an opinion before it even registers the gender of the person. So how could it possibly be accurate? However, it is also true that people are consistently able to guess a person's characteristics from their facial features 60% or more of the time. So are our initial impressions of people we've never met reliable?
From an outsider, first impressions seem completely irrational. They are based on appearances and influenced by emotions, and difficult to change even if there is proof that it is in fact incorrect. They are formed in a time period so short the gender of the person isn't even noticed, let alone taken into account.
Our first impressions do help. In fact, they are in a way necessary. They are a way for us to identify a danger, in the case of physical harm. We can correctly identify a potential threat, and keep ourselves safe as we become wary. And they are surprisingly accurate. Clues like facial expressions and body language can help us determine a person's personality without even talking to them. And although it isn't foolproof - we aren't psychic, just good at reading into people - more often than not we do get it right.
Maybe first impressions aren't always right, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore them. We do manage to tap into important information, like whether we are in possible danger. So when we make first impressions, we should be wary, because we are human and we make mistakes. Remember your initial gut feelings of people, but don't let them rule your actions. But if there is a time that you have a feeling that's telling you to be careful, listen. Never forget that a sense of self-preservation is embedded into our subconscious, to make sure that we stay safe even when we don't consciously realise the threat.