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Second Impressions Have Limited Value

January 2011 - An international team of psychologists argue that there appears to be truth in the saying ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression'.

In a paper by Bertram Gawronski, Robert Rydell, Bram Vervliet, and Jan De Houwer, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the authors present research findings suggesting that new experiences contradicting a first impression become 'bound' to the context in which they were made. The result is that the new experiences influence people's reactions only in that specific context while first impressions dominate all other contexts.

Lead author Bertram Gawronski,Canada Research Chair at The University of Western Ontario, said:

"Imagine you have a new colleague at work and your impression of that person is not very favourable. A few weeks later, you meet your colleague at a party and you realize he is actually a very nice guy. Although you know your first impression was wrong, your gut response to your new colleague will be influenced by your new experience only in contexts that are similar to the party. However, your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts."

According to Bertram Gawronski the brain stores unexpected experiences as 'exceptions-to-the-rule' with the result that the rule is still regarded as valid - except for the specific context in which the exceptional experience took place.

Investigating the persistence of first impressions, the researchers showed study participants either positive or negative information on a computer screen about an individual they did not know. Later on participants were given new information about the same person - but this information was inconsistent with that provided initially.

While participants formed an impression of the target individual the researchers subtly changed the background colour of the computer screen to study the influence of contexts. Subsequently participants' spontaneous reactions to an image of the target person were measured. The researchers found that participants' reactions were only influenced by the new information when the target individual was shown against the background in which the new information had been learned. In all other circumstances participants reactions were still dominated by the first information when the target individual was shown against other backgrounds.

Bertram Gawronski noted that although the results support the view that first impressions are notoriously persistent, they can sometimes be changed.

"What is necessary is for the first impression to be challenged in multiple different contexts. In that case, new experiences become decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose its power. But, as long as a first impression is challenged only within the same context, you can do whatever you want. The first impression will dominate regardless of how often it is contradicted by new experiences."

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