Can we Undo our First Impressions?
Imagine that you learn something highly negative about someone new. For instance, say, an up and coming politician is accused of corruption, or a new faculty member is rumored to have sexually harassed studentsFurther, imagine that you find out later that you were entirely wrong. Perhaps the politician’s opponents planted evidence, or the rumors about the faculty member were soundly discredited. In scenarios like these, can we fully cast aside our false first impressions, or might they persist at some level even after we explicitly believe that we have changed our minds? Popular wisdom tells us, after all, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” If it is the case that first impressions “stick” even when new facts come to light, it is easy to understand why they are often considered to be so important.
Impressions that stick
Research in social psychology would seem to agree that, in fact, it is difficult to fully “undo” a false first impression. Experiments using implicit measures – those that assess spontaneous, unintentional reactions to stimuli, rather than asking research participants to express an opinion of those stimuli – have often found that photographs of people continue to elicit implicit reactions consistent with an initial impression, even after participants no longer explicitly believe it. For example, in one line of studies, participants formed impressions of two groups based on a story in which one group coldly massacres the other, and formed implicit and explicit evaluations consistent with what they learned (Gregg, Seibt, & Banaji, 2006). Subsequently, they were told that the groups had been labeled incorrectly due to experimenter error, and should be reversed. This revelation prompted participants to immediately flip their explicit judgments of liking of the two groups. However, their implicit reactions to the two groups were largely unmoved: they continued to have more positive reactions to the initially positive group than to the initially negative group. These and other findings have been interpreted to mean that the process of rejecting a prior impression does not actually erase the memory of that impression or make it less likely to be spontaneously triggered; rather, it primarily affects whether we choose to deliberately express it. Considering that implicit reactions predict behavior in unique and important ways, this suggests that our first impressions may continue to influence and guide us, even after we have explicitly rejected them.
Changing implicit evaluations
Luckily, some research suggests that although deciding that a first impression was false (e.g., “that rumor about the new faculty member was not true!”) may not be enough by itself to budge implicit reactions, learning new information about a person can shift them. Even if the earlier impression is not deleted from memory, a new impression might become strong enough to overshadow it, even in our implicit reactions. As we accumulate many new details about a person that contradict our earlier impression, implicit evaluations do eventually drift to fall in line with those new revelations (e.g., Rydell & McConnell, 2006). And, more recent findings by Cone and Ferguson (2015) show that sometimes all it takes is a single new piece of information. When a new piece of information is extremely negative (and therefore especially diagnostic), it can overturn even a well-established positive first impression. In this recent research, participants’ beliefs about how diagnostic the new information was about the person predicted implicit change.
Reinterpretation as an avenue for change
In our work, Melissa Ferguson and I built on this idea that how and what we think about new details about a person matters for how effectively our implicit impressions will shift. In particular, we wanted to identify a way in which new details could immediately reverse an initial negative implicit impression – something that Cone and Ferguson (2015) did not find. We reasoned that if new information about a person not only implied a positive evaluation that diverged from earlier negative details, but also fundamentally reinterpreted the earlier information such that it no longer implied a negative impression at all, change in implicit reactions might be more substantial. For instance, when we learn that a politician who is suspected of taking bribes in fact did not take bribes, it may be difficult – for various reasons – to just negate that initial claim, even if we fully believe the new version of events. But, perhaps finding out the specific ways in which the apparent “bribery” behavior was completely misinterpreted, and was actually a praiseworthy deed (e.g., was part of an FBI sting to catch violent drug dealers), might effectively undo that initial implicit negativity. Essentially, this may counter the initial negative impression by giving new meaning to the specific details that previously supported it. The new information is positive, but its positivity inherently undoes the initial negative information. In this way, the new information is not just added to the stockpile of evidence we have about someone, it changes previous evidence, flipping its evaluative meaning.
To test this idea, we ran a series of studies in which participants read a story about a man who broke into, rummaged through, and damaged his neighbors’ homes. After forming a negative implicit evaluation of him based on this initial information, participants in the experimental condition were then told that in fact the houses were on fire, and the man broke in so as to heroically search the homes for the young children he knew to be trapped inside. Unlike in a control condition in which this detail was omitted, participants here showed a complete reversal of their initial negative implicit evaluation of the man into a positive one.
But how did we know it was reinterpretation per se that was key? In another experiment, we compared this reinterpretation condition with one in which participants read about a different heroic action of the man in the story, one which was rated in a pilot test to be just as positive as saving children from a burning building: jumping in front of a subway train to rescue a baby that had fallen onto the tracks. Critically, this information did not reverse implicit evaluations, and produced a much smaller shift. This bolstered our account that the effect of the fire rescue revelation works by prompting participants to reinterpret the basis of an initial impression, rather than simply by presenting any highly positive information. As additional support for the process, we also conducted studies in which participants were asked the degree to which the new details changed the meaning of the earlier story. We found that this measure, and not more general questions gauging the extent to which they thought about the story in general, predicted the final implicit evaluations of the character.
Our findings are consistent with theories that hold that implicit evaluations can shift with the learning of new information, but are aimed at addressing the question of how and when such change is most likely. Importantly, we find evidence that the manner in which people consider new details appears to matter greatly: perceiving the new information to alter the basic implications of what has been learned before was instrumental in driving change of implicit reactions. When such reinterpretation was not prompted by the new details, or was not reported by participants, revision of implicit reactions was considerably weaker. Together with recent work on how considerations of diagnosticity matter for implicit reactions (Cone & Ferguson, 2015; see also Mann, Cone, & Ferguson, in press), this program of research should reveal the types of thinking that are the most effective in updating implicit evaluations, bringing them in line with what we learn to be true of the world. First impressions might often stick, but there seems to be some hope for finding ways to change them when we are truly convinced that they should be.
Mann, T. C., & Ferguson, M. J. (in press). Can we undo our first impressions? The role of reinterpretation in reversing implicit evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Cone, J., & Ferguson, M. J. (2015). He did what? The role of diagnosticity in revising implicit evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(1), 37-57.
Gregg, A. P., Seibt, B., & Banaji, M. R. (2006). Easier done than undone: Asymmetry in the malleability of implicit preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), 1–20.
Mann, T. C., Cone, J., & Ferguson, M. J. (in press). Social-psychological evidence for the effective updating of implicit attitudes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Rydell, R. J., & McConnell, A. R. (2006). Understanding implicit and explicit attitude change: A systems of reasoning analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(6), 995–1008.
Thomas Mann is a fourth year Ph.D. student in social psychology at Cornell University. His research examines the formation, change, and implications of automatic reactions and first impressions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.