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How do you change a first impression?


We know a few things about first impressions:

In particular, negative impressions have a larger bearing than positive ones. This is because we generally accept that people want to portray a good image of themselves, so good behaviour or attributes gets a discount. In contrast, bad behaviour or bad attributes are taken as a truer reflection of character, the belief being that people wold generally try not to display such attributes. Or put more simply, everyone remembers when you've been an arse. 

This also means that even if we went on to demonstrate very positive behaviour after a leaving a bad first impression, these positive actions are still tainted with a negative brush, "oh he's just pretending", "I've seen his true colours", "It's trying to change my impression". 

Good grief, this sounds like a vicious cycle - if it starts bad, it stays bad. 

Fortunately, there are some ways to overcome a negative first impression. We have discussed how i
mpressions are formed based on the brain's innate preference to quickly categorise a person based on one or two observations. Correcting a negative impression requires an updating of this categorisation.

In particular, from brain scans, we are able to observe which parts of the brain are most active when updating an initial impression. These are the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the superior temporal sulcus (the names are not important). What do these regions do? Interpreting social signals. Assessing emotional cues. Story perception and story updating. Differentiating noise from information to take note of. And a measure of frequency of occurrence - something that does not happen often is weighed much more heavily.  

And 2 of the most effective ways to create this updating are:

Image by David Vilches

1.   Abilities and competencies


Even if a person had left a bad impression, finding out about his/her abilities or competencies causes us to reassess our story of him. The more outstanding the ability or competency, the more we use this as the main heuristic to categorise someone. 

For example, you might have met an older lady at work who is very conservative and bureaucratic. You hate working with someone like that, rigid and hierarchical. But one day at an office party, this lady comes out and performs the most beautiful piece on the violin. Or perhaps you find out that she's actually a gamer who is very good at the game you are playing. Or perhaps there is a problem that our department is facing, and she provides a convincing solution. 

Abilities and competence force our brains to update our assessment, because they are simple and major heuristics that we cannot ignore. 


2.   Selflessness

The second way to change a negative impression is a display of altruism or selflessness. When someone does something for someone else that is clearly not in his/her own best interest. 

The reason behind this is also easy to understand. Almost everything we do is for ourselves- we spend most of our lives thinking and acting on what we want and don't want. The common and expected behaviour is self-centredness.

Selflessness is the direct opposite of this. It shows that person isn't thinking for himself/herself, but others. We are all capable of selfless behaviour but is much more effortful and hence rarer.


A display of elflessness forces us to reassess our initial categorisation of someone. For example, you might have a very bad impression of someone because he regularly contributes the cheapest food items for the weekly office potluck . Later, you find out that he quietly donates a large part of his monthly paycheck to charity. Or when you were getting blamed for something you didn't do, he always the only one who stood up for you even though it was obvious you didn't like him. 


When we see a display of selflessness, our brain starts to ask itself, can he really be that bad? Sure he seemed a bit stingy, but he's also extremely kind even when no one else is looking. Just like we took notice of the original heuristic (stinginess) and used this to categorise someone, the new heuristic (genoristy) cannot be ignored. We recognise that the original categorisation is inaccurate, and we developed a more nuanced and layered view towards a person. 

There appears to be a "minimum threshold" for selflessness. You're unlikely to change a bad impression because that person "selflessly" lends you a pen, or congratulates you for work well done when everyone else had also done so. Someone who offers you a spare umbrella, who offers to share an umbrella with you, or who shelters you while themeves getting wet is reviewed differently; all these actions keep you dry in the rain, but the cost to the other person varies widely. Our brains make an assessment of the social value and scarcity of the action. 

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