Are First Impressions Really Trustworthy?

John R. Schafer, Ph.D. writes on “Changing negative first impressions is difficult. A person who forms a negative impression of another person will be less inclined to meet that person a second time because that person has been judged in a negative light.”

Yes, first impressions do matter, because initially that’s all you have to go on. But it’s important to remember that a first impression is just a starting point. If you’re a critical thinker when it comes to emotions and people, then you’ll identify your first impressions for what they are: simple, emotional responses. You can then proceed to objectively consider whether that’s enough from which to draw a conclusion; positive or negative.

For example, let’s say a person does something in your first meeting that you consider a breach of character. You might notice that the person you’ve met is OK with lying, or putting others down behind their backs, and then acting nice to their faces. If this tells you “all you need to know” regarding why you don’t want any significant association with this person, then it’s valid and justified. However, first impressions usually refer to unarticulated emotions. If you’re not self-aware about bringing your emotions into consciousness, you’re more likely to be biased or prejudiced about people who — even in your own objective thinking — don’t matter as much as your feelings indicate they should. As a result, you might dismiss someone after a first encounter when your reasoning mind, had it been employed, would have led you to a different conclusion.

The issue of first impressions is related to the issue of judgmentalism, i.e., the elevation of emotions above the facts when evaluating someone. In battling judgmentalism, some people mistakenly think that their initial appraisals of other people should always be thrown out the window. But that’s not the solution.  Judgmentalism becomes a problem when you relegate your assessments of other people to the realm of unexamined emotions. It’s like flying an airplane without eyesight. You can’t expect your judgements to be based on emotions alone, because emotions can either be valid or groundless. They are, by nature, neither automatically right, nor automatically wrong. Conscious, clear-headed thinking must be used to separate fact from fiction.

Many of us swing between two false extremes. On the one side, we try not to judge people because we sense — accurately — that our sweeping emotions might not always deliver a fair verdict. But in our refusal to be judgmental, we end up throwing out the rational assessment baby with the proverbial bath water. The swing goes from the phony “I don’t judge,” to a secret and guilt-laden policy of wholeheartedly judging people based only on emotions and petty biases. The problem with relying on unexamined first impressions is that you might push aside someone who actually is a quality person, when initial and uncritical evaluations led you to feel otherwise.

If you feel that you don’t like someone after a first meeting and you don’t know why, consider that your emotions might be the culprit. I’ve heard people say things like, “I didn’t like that song the first time I heard it, but loved it later on. I must have been in a bad mood the first time I heard it.” Or, “I didn’t like that restaurant the first time, because I ordered the wrong item,” or, “I didn’t enjoy my vacation to that city because I wasn’t aware of what would be most enjoyable to do.” Those mistaken initial impressions apply equally to our opinions about people.

Contrary to conventional “wisdom” (which is not wisdom at all), it is certainly fine and even necessary to evaluate people. It’s part of self-preservation. But it should not be done through emotions and undefined feelings alone. Rely on the facts and objective observation to make sure that your impressions are accurate and fair.


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