Unique Connections #2: The Power of the 15 Second First Impression Rule.

“If (a man) is brusque in his manner, others will not cooperate.  If he is agitated in his words, they will awaken no echo in others.  If he asks for something without having first established a (proper) relationship, it will not be given him.” Robert Bolton

The immediacy of first impressions and how they effective the decision to go forward in a conversation or a relationship has been called many things in the fields of Communication, Social Psychology and Psychology–power of first impressions, bias of confirmation, primacy effect, thin slicing etc. As a father, I tried to teach my boys the “power of first” impressions. My simple message was to look the person in the eye and give them a firm handshake. Now there is more research that confirms that it takes only a matter of seconds for a person to decide if they want to go forward with a relationship. As a matter of fact researchers have found that before you complete your answer to an interviewer’s first question (15 seconds) they have decided whether to hire you or not. WOW 15 seconds just about enough time for you to look them in the eye, exchange a firm handshake and ask them how their day is going. Is there any we can to do to overcome this powerful interpersonal law. Until recently, little if any research  had been done  of what happens when we first meet someone.  But somehow this advice had been handed down from generation to generation. Psychologist and interpersonal communication experts had ignored or just took this axiom for granted. Research over the past decaade now confirms the power of the first impression., in a sense, those who gave you that advice were  correct –good eye contact and  a firm handshake may be all it takes to create a memorable first impression. These “moments of truth” can have significant implications in the friends we have, advice we receive from a doctor, the career opportunities we receive and the person we will fall in love with and marry.

Professor Frank Bernieri of Oregon State University, and a colleague recently  collected a series of videotaped job interviews to test whether it is possible to guess the result of the interview simply from observing the interaction between the interviewer and interviewee. It was found  that an observer could predict whether or not the interviewee would be offered the job from watching just the first 15 seconds of the tape – the handshake, the “hello” and very little else. What happened in those few, brief moments was enough to determine if the candidate received an offer to be hired or not. This is the power of first impressions. “First impressions are the fundamental drivers of our relationships,” says Professor Frank Bernieri. Dr. Bernieri says that “In a sense, … the initial conditions can have a profound impact on the eventual outcome. A first impression is your initial condition for analysing another human being. This power of “thin-slicing methodology is based on the theory that we make a reasonably accurate assessment of a person from observing  just a few seconds, or a “thin slice”, of their behavior. From the evidence gleaned in not much more than a few glances, we decide whether we like another person, whether they’re trying to connect with us, and if they’re friend or foe. If you’ve ever changed seats on a airplane or train to avoid someone, because there was something “not quite right about them”, you’ve used your ability to thin-slice. In that instance, you were probably aware of a gut instinct – you may have felt as if your sense of perception was heightened because there was the possibility of somrthing strange happenning – but we thin-slice people in all kinds of situations, not just when we feel uneasy or threatened. Bar hopping to find a hookup is another common example of impulsive thin-slicing decisions. These early assessments that we make of people set us up to look for certain behaviors or non-verbal cues. This information is locked-in and sets us on a course of a self-fulfilling prohecy.  If we have decided that a person is a certain type of person, who thinks, feels and behaves a certain way, we pay more attention to evidence that confirms our initial thoughts and supports our implicit impressions of this person. This cognitive phenomenon is known as the “confirmation bias”. For example, after meeting a business friend’s new partner you might decide they are a little removed and not engaging. From then on, you will be on the look out for other signs of what you see as arognant or dismissive behavior. noticing when they talk only about themselves, their possessions cars or condo in Napels, or don’t inquire or  ask you or other other people any questions about their interests or life situation. You won’t necessarily notice other bahavior  We seek out the information that confirms we are right, and we ignore or discount evidence  that might suggest we are wrong or misguided aboout our snap judgment.

First Impression judgments and confirmation bias are at the heart of many recent works, including Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (see below) and Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. One thing all these writers and researchers agree on is that our ability for making such immediate judgments is largely unknowable, and when we begin to question exactly what it is that made us choose a certain way, we begin to second-guess ourselves, and get things wrong. The researchers have found that when people are asked to deliberate before they make a decision they tend not to be as good as they are if they do it unconsciously and quickly.

Although our rapid cognition is fairly accurate, it’s still possible for us to misread someone the first time we meet them. No matter how shrewd you might think you are  – we are subject to all kinds of cognitive biases, which stretch and distort our judgment. “There’s a classic study where participants are shown a short film of a woman coming home from work,” says Bernieri. “Sometimes the woman was labelled ‘Janey the waitress’, sometimes she was called ‘Janey the librarian’. After viewing the short film, researchers asked the viewers to relate what they’d seen, they ‘remembered’ details consistent with the woman’s job. If Janey had been introduced as a librarian, people remembered her wearing glasses, even though she hadn’t been.  Our assumptions about how a waitress might behave or the way a librarian might look are so strong that we pay more attention to them than the person or evidence in front of us. Indeed, our assumptions and expectations influence the way that we see and judge others.”For example, if I’ve heard from a client that you are a difficult person, then I might have already decided I’m not going to like you and the interaction will be difficult and stressful. Then, when I meet you, I’m going to behave in a more defensive and critical way towards you, which, in turn, is going to get you to behave in a difficult way towards me.”

Now that we are aware of the power of first impressions and confirmation bias I will explore in the next few blogs how to manage and control your snap judgments and on the other side of the coin how to make a better first impression by changing a few behaviorial elements. Stay tune.


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