Turns out it’s nearly impossible to get past a bad first impression

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It’s hard to revise your initial perceptions.
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Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design/Flickr

Making judgments about someone’s personality based on the way they look is something humans do automatically, without thinking.

Once you get to know the person, those judgments gradually dissipate and get replaced by new assessments of what they’re really like.

Except that second bit, while believable, isn’t exactly true. According to new research, our first impressions of people in photographs influence our perception of those people even after we’ve interacted with them personally.

There are a number of things that are fascinating about this research, which was led by researchers at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey; Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey; and Cornell University. Here’s the first: In a small preliminary study, people said they believed that their initial impressions of a person in a photo would change if they had the chance to meet the person.

This belief turned out to be unsubstantiated.

For the main study, 55 “perceivers” looked at photos of four females either smiling or displaying a neutral expression. They were asked to evaluate the people in the photos on how much they liked them and how attractive they were, and to rate them on different personality traits, including openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

Between one and six months later, the perceivers arrived at the lab, supposedly to participate in a study on social interactions. They were asked to interact with another participant while being videotaped.

A second fascinating bit: What the perceivers didn’t know was that the other participant was one of the people whose photograph they had viewed a month earlier.

The two participants interacted for 20 minutes: for 10 minutes in a trivia game, and for 10 minutes during which they were asked to get to know each other as well as possible. Once again, the perceivers were asked to rate the other participant on likability and different personality traits.

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If your first impression of someone is positive, you’ll probably act warmer toward that person.
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Flickr/University of Exeter

As it turns out, personality judgments based on the photos were almost the same in the real-life condition, with the exception of extroversion. The perceivers rated the participants even more similarly on likability.

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this study is that, when independent observers reviewed the videotapes of the interactions, they found that perceivers who’d viewed the people in the photographs more favorably acted more warmly toward those people when they met them in real life. The photographed people reciprocated by acting more warmly toward the perceivers, confirming the perceivers’ positive impressions of them.

The general takeaway here is that first impressions are a lot stickier than we’re inclined to believe – and often they work like self-fulfilling prophecies.

That said, psychologists have found that there are certain ways to reverse first impressions, if you’re actively trying to do so (which the perceivers in this study weren’t). For example, if someone views you negatively, you can help them see your behavior in a new context:

Say you ignore an acquaintance on the street because you just had a massive fight with your partner and aren’t in the mood to talk. Later you find out that the acquaintance thinks you’re a jerk. You might want to get in touch with her and explain that you normally love talking to her, but you’d just finished sobbing and didn’t want to embarrass yourself or her.

Now that you’re aware of how durable first impressions can be, you can take steps to counteract this effect. As you’re getting to know someone, ask yourself questions about how you feel about the person and why – and whether any of those perceptions are ripe for revision.