Lemony Snicket once said, ‘’I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong you can look at a painting for the first time, for example, and not like it at all, but after looking at it a little longer you may find it very pleasing’’ [1]. Although we all love paintings, no, this is not an article about paintings, but rather an article exploring why we all fall victims to misjudging people on our first encounters. Have you ever met someone, formed quick mental representations about this person, but later, that moth transformed into a butterfly? Or why some people who we initially develop some sort of animosity towards, later turn into one of the closest people in our lives. Or why the saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ even exists?. What we need to understand, are the psychological factors that dictate how we form these initial perceptions of people and why our biases play a major role in creating these erroneous first impressions. Needless to mention, Lemony Snicket’s statement is not objectively true and has not been proved by a scientific experiment. No, not all of our first impressions are ‘entirely wrong’, but creating first impressions based on heuristics often does lead to A series of unfortunate events.



First date, first impressions

‘First impressions’, these two words concisely translate to the initial mental images we create on our first encounters with people. However, when we search these two words on Google, what we see is branded names of beauty salons, hairdressers, orthodontists and even Instagram hashtags. The ideas shaped from my google search is obviously organisations centred around embellishing appearance, perhaps because appearance is a key component of the things we consider when initially form these impressions. Our first impressions of others are shaped by heuristics [2]. A concept where our biases subsidise to things such as stereotypes and prejudices. This is because as humans, we tend to utilise mental shortcuts to classify and compartmentalize people, often overlooking and dismissing other relevant information [3].  For example, if we meet someone with bad teeth or bad breath on our first date, we may swiftly infer or assume, this person is lazy as they do not look after their teeth or they do not care about their orthodontic health. But what if this person has a medical condition such as diabetes or thyroid problems which are two seemingly unrelated conditions to teeth but actually do affect teeth? In fact, there has been research that shows gum disease and diabetes may affect one another [4]. But our heuristics and biases would not relate these two conditions, leading to a misjudgement of our date.


So what are heuristics and biases and how do they relate to first impressions?

Heuristics, as I’ve mentioned already, are mental shortcuts, basically convenient rules that allow a person to effectively respond to their environment [5]. A process is known as ‘representativeness heuristics’ is one where people are placed into a category based on their similarity to that category often leading to errors as it tends to ignore facts [6]. So for example, if you meet an elderly woman with caring hands and a love for children, on our first impression, we would assume she is a grandmother. This is because she fits into our mental illustration of a grandmother consequently leading us to label her into that category. This heuristic, like many others, involve succumbing to stereotypes, for example when researchers presented a description to a group of participants about a boy called Tom [7]. The results of this experiment indicated that the majority of the people assumed Tom had an engineering major. Toms description matched with their pre-existing cognitive schemata for a representation of an engineer. In turn, this heuristic drove them to make a judgement about the major he was pursuing. Consider how many times you have made an assumption akin to this, during your first encounter with someone.

A cognitive Psychologist called Simon, actually argued a more realistic consideration for this process, although it seems we are ‘entirely’ wrong on our first impressions, we do in fact tend to be as rational as we can be [8]. This concept is known as ‘bounded rationality’, one where although we try to be as rational as possible, we are limited by the readiness of 3 factors; information, time and mental capacity. In turn, when faced with complex choices, we tend to ‘satisfice’ instead of thoroughly analysing the situation [9]. So for instance, if you are busy carrying out a task and someone initiates a conversation whilst finishing your shift, your first impression of this person would be impaired. Firstly, this is because you are experiencing a ‘cognitive load’ with the task you are busy with. ‘Cognitive load’ is essentially when your brain is busy with more than one item. Secondly, the fact you are about to finish your shift suggests there is some sort of time constraints present, therefore inhibiting you from necessary information about this person, due to cognitive and temporal limitations.


A series of Unfortunate Events

This bias we are making is actually called Correspondence Bias, one which was once known as Fundamental Attribution Error [10]. The fact it was previously known as an ‘error’ already foreshadows the misleading effect of this bias on first impressions. Essentially the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ involves us blaming people for their behaviour whilst we ignore situational factors in play. This theory dismisses the reasons why we don’t involve situational factors. [10].

The Correspondence bias, however, teaches that when we attribute things to people, it usually involves 3 sequential processes [11].

So the first of these unfortunate events is ‘Categorisation’; we initially perceive what the person is doing. Sequentially, we attempt to ‘characterise’ the individual by thinking of what these actions imply about them. Lastly, there is a key step known as ‘correction’ one in where we look holistically at the situational constraints which are in play. What these researchers argued is that the first two processes are undertaken automatically without conscious cognitive effort, whereas the ‘correction’ process requires effort.

The reason why it is an unfortunate series of events is because we usually don’t follow through to the last step of correction as we tend to lack the capability and motivation to effectively correct our misperceptions [12].

This is when the ‘cognitive load’ I mentioned earlier comes in. These same researchers researched if participants under cognitive load would display greater susceptibility to correspondence bias [13]. What they found was in fact under cognitive load, participants were more receptive to correspondence bias; this bias occurs because people fail to correct their initial automatic attributions. When we initially meet someone, are we always mentally free?.

This is because it is not possible to always extract rich in-depth information from initial meet up as first impressions are formed rapidly. Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Todorov actually published it takes a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger from their face [14].

In turn, we rely too much on the first piece of information offered. Moreover, we actually disregard additional information that contradicts with the ‘anchor’ as we tend to look for confirmation. ‘Anchoring’ essentially is a heuristic also known as ‘first impression’ bias, we have a natural tendency to form an opinion about someone based on their initial impressions and we actively then look for further information to confirm this impression. Two Psychologists actually tested people’s guesses when they’ve already been exposed to information. What was observed was that the first number seen by participants actually biased their final estimate [15].


Looking for confirmation

This tendency to overlook any piece of information that contradicts our initial impressions is known as confirmation bias. Snyder and Swann 1978 in fact revealed people naturally try to confirm their pre-existing expectancies [16]. Through a study with a group of people, participants had to interview and make a verdict on their personality type.


Thus, are our first impressions ‘ENTIRELY’ wrong?

So we’ve learnt, as humans, we tend to use our pre-existing schemas and stereotypes as heuristic biases to judge people. We’ve also grasped that we rely a lot on the first piece of information when we meet people and we only tend to search only for information that confirms this. Using all these heuristics and biases when we meet people, we can say Lemony is partially correct as our first impressions are not objective.

Interestingly, studies have shown a “better than average” effect people have when evaluating themselves comparative to other people.70-80% of folks unfailingly rate themselves “better than average” on qualities that they identify as positive, and contrariwise, assess themselves as being “less than average” on characteristics they deem negative [17]. This is another underlying bias we need to consider when we initially meet people.

The fact we already believe we are better than average’ already presents an underlying bias to whatever information we learn about the person, meaning we perceive them subjectively.

The biases I’ve mentioned, have been criticised by Gigerenzer (1996) who refuted the idea of rendering humans prone to errors and biases [18]. He argued we have a highly complex and well-developed cognitive processing system and perhaps these errors and biases are irregularities in what’s otherwise a highly advanced cognitive system. Perhaps these errors reported may have augmented because of methodological issues, due to the unambiguous techniques of presenting problems which encouraged flawed impressions. Furthermore, to conclude, there is deficient knowledge of the psychological mechanisms behind the use of heuristics. Gigerenzer argues our understanding of heuristics is still quite primeval.