Social psychology

New study questions whether first impressions matter as much as people think they do

first impressions matter study 2

The idea that first impressions matter when we form our opinions of others has been a central tenet of psychology since as far back as 1946. The notion also figured prominently in Dale Carnegie’s classic 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Fast forward to today, and a cursory Google search for the phrase “first impressions matter” returns more than 300,000 results. Likewise, a 1999 research paper with that title has more than a thousand citations.

The “primacy effect” is the formal name of this phenomenon. It has been defined as “the tendency to remember the first piece of information we encounter better than information presented later on.”

But what if the primacy effect turns out to be illusory, at least as it applies to our judgments of other people? A new paper suggests that this might be the case. The paper appeared on November 13 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Method: judges assess videotaped behavior of targets

The researchers, from Germany and Canada, had about 1400 “judges” assess the videotaped behavior of 200 people. To accomplish this, they first assembled the pool of the 200 “target” subjects. These were the people whose behavior would later be assessed by the judges.

The research team recruited these targets in Germany, via newspaper and online ads. The 200 targets were about evenly split between men and women. Their average age was 33 (age range 17 to 80).

The researchers then videotaped these 200 subjects in their laboratory. Each subject undertook 20 different behavioral tasks designed to highlight their personality traits. An example task was to sing one of their favorite songs. Other examples included describing what they would do if they won a million euros, or explaining how they would plan the perfect party for 50 people.

The team then had these videos assessed by about 1400 “judges,” whom the researchers also recruited in the same way. About 62% of the recruited judges were women, and their average age was 27.

Each of the behavior videos was assessed by seven different judges, with each judge watching 10 of a given target’s 20 videotaped behaviors. The researchers randomized the sequence of the 10 videotaped behaviors for each judge. The judges then assessed the personality of each target using a list of 30 adjectives, on a scale of 1 to 5. Example adjectives included irritable, calm, lively, shy, witty, and domineering.

Next, the researchers measured how strongly the initial videotaped behavior that the judges viewed contributed to their overall impressions of that target person.

So, do first impressions matter?

The researchers found “no evidence for the existence of a primacy effect in person judgments,” as they write in the paper.

In fact, they found the opposite. Namely, the judgments that people made later in the viewing process, not earlier, had a stronger effect on their overall impressions.

And that makes sense, despite what we might think about first impressions. Observing someone for a longer time, after all, will give you a more realistic picture of that person’s true personality.

And from an evolutionary perspective, it’s better to pool together all the information you have about someone than it is to emphasize the initial information that you obtain. The cumulative impression you get after multiple observations will make you better able to predict that person’s future behavior.

Nonetheless, people’s belief in the primacy effect remains widely prevalent. As the authors of the present study write, “the belief that first impressions matter disproportionately and may be hard to correct later on is held by many people, including psychologists.”

But their new study “conclusively showed that the primacy effect does not exist,” they write. Or at least it doesn’t exist in terms of our judgements of other people.

Indeed, they write, “later judgments were more predictive of a perceiver’s overall impression than early judgments.”

And this all suggests that the long-held and popular belief in the primacy effect may need a rethink.


More psychology in the news:

  • A new AI tool can predict your political orientation (left or right) with 72% accuracy, based only on a single low-res picture of your face.
  • This new study finds that 24 out of 28 interviewed therapists admit that they sometimes Google their patients.
  • Are baboons friendly? A new study finds that male baboons who have close female friends have higher rates of survival than those who don’t.
  • What is the meaning of life? A study of eight countries found the most important factors are social relationships and happiness.
  • Recent research finds that narcissists drink more wine, even if they don’t like wine, because they associate it with greater social attractiveness.

Study: “There Is No Primacy Effect in Interpersonal Perception: A Series of Preregistered Analyses Using Judgments of Actual Behavior”
Authors: Anne Wiedenroth, Nele M. Wessels, and Daniel Leising
Published in: Social Psychological and Personality Science
Publication date: November 13, 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620969279
Photo: by Ivan Oboleninov via Pexels

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