It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.
“There is more than a literal truth to the saying that ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. [Recent] findings suggest that new experiences that contradict a first impression become ‘bound’ to the context in which they were made. As a result, the new experiences influence people’s reactions only in that particular context, whereas first impressions still dominate in other contexts.” (“Research Discovers Why First Impressions are So Persistent,” Physorg.com 1/18/2011)
When you’re on a friend search (or a romantic one, really) first impressions weigh pretty heavily. That initial meeting—with all of its potential for awkwardness—will likely be the deciding factor in whether you have a second get-together, and a third. There’s a lot riding on it.
If you do meet a potential BFF a second time, your initial assessment will likely hold up—for better or worse. This new research says that almost always, our first impression sticks. If you find a girl-date crass and abrasive, but later run into her at a party where she’s being sweet-as-pie, you aren’t likely to change your opinion. Instead, you’ll consider this behavior the exception to the rule. You’ll likely surmise that the PBFF is a grouch who turns on the charm in large social settings. That’s what the researchers mean when they say that “experiences that contradict a first impression become bound to the context in which they were made.”
Though I strive to make a positive impression when I meet people—who doesn’t?—I don’t always succeed. If I’m exhausted, or have had a bad day, I’m in real danger of coming off as distracted or disinterested. Especially if the meeting is in a group setting. (It’s tougher to disengage when the friend-date is just the two of you.)
The good news to come out of this research is that while first impressions are tough to change, they’re not impossible.
Take my example of the harsh PBFF who turned into a sweetheart at party time. You’ll think her nice side is party-specific, but only until you see it in other contexts. If you see her at a party, and then later run into her on the street, and the next day bump into her at a work event, and if all those times her nice-girl persona holds up, you might find yourself changing your mind. “In that case, the first impression becomes decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose it’s power,” one researcher says.
Good to know. Having the power to change someone’s first impression is a pretty great weapon in the friending arsenal. Not easy, but powerful.
Have your first impressions of potential friends ever led you astray? How did you change your mind?