There has been significant research conducted over the past 50 years on the science behind what we generically refer to as “first impressions”. Writing in Psychology Today, Flora defines first impressions as “composites, created by our brains, of all the signals given off by a new experience” (2004). This paper will review research on the formation of first impressions followed by a practical study in conflicting first impressions.
The Science of First Impressions
First impressions are created in the brain automatically, without conscious effort. In a study published in 2009, researchers discovered that two distinct areas of the brain are engaged during the formation of first impressions: the amygdala and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)(Nauert, 2009). The Amygdala is a small, almond shaped mass of nuclei located in the temporal lobes of the brain and is linked to emotions and aggression (Cherry).
The Amygdala has also been linked to the “Fight or Flight” reflex. Wikipedia, citing Daniel Goleman, says: “Brain circuitry allows a bypassing of the neo-cortex by way of the so-called amygdala hijack: 'this smaller and shorter pathway allows the amygdala to receive some direct inputs from the senses and start a response before they are fully registered by the neo-cortex'.” Goleman’s work indicates that the Amygdala can override the areas of the brain known to be used in logical thinking (the neo-cortex) to provide nearly instantaneous response to stimuli.
Understanding the work of Schiller and Goleman, it should come as no surprise that first impressions are made very quickly. In a 2006 study, Willis and Todorov determined empirically that first impressions can be formed in as little as 1/10th of a second (Wargo, 2006). Furthermore, their research indicated that longer exposure time did not “significantly alter” the results, although it did allow for increased confidence in the judgment.
The two Johns
In the article First Impressions (Clark, 2004), the reader is presented with two views of John. In the first selection, John is presented as an extrovert, or an outgoing person. In the course of a few short sentences, John spoke with three individuals (not including the store clerk) who were each assigned different emotional attachment levels by the author (acquaintance, friend, and potential romantic interest). From the selection, it is apparent that John is comfortable with, potentially even driven by, personal interaction. Additionally, phrases like “basking in the sun” or “[chatting] with a friend” seem to indicate a general happiness about him.
The second selection contrasts John as an...