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It’s clichéd because it’s true: You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Or at least scientists thought it was true for years. Specifically, they thought that while you could change someone’s explicit evaluation of you, you’d have a hard time changing their implicit evaluation.
In other words, you could get someone to say, “Sure, I like you,” and even believe that they did. But you couldn’t really alter their deep-seated negative beliefs about you, beliefs that they weren’t necessarily consciously aware of.
Then, in 2015, a pair of researchers at Cornell University devised a clever series of experiments, the results of which suggest that implicit evaluations are, in fact, subject to change if people can see your behavior in a new light.
In one experiment, experimenters had 200 participants read about a man named Francis who had broken into a neighbor’s home, destroying their property and taking “precious things” from the bedrooms.
Unsurprisingly, participants disliked Francis on an explicit and implicit level. Experimenters tested their implicit evaluations of Francis by briefly flashing pictures of his face before showing neutral symbols and seeing how participants reacted.
Then, while some participants read that Francis had thrown rocks at the home from the street, other participants read that Francis had broken into the neighbor’s home in order to save two children from a fire.
Once again, experimenters measured participants’ evaluations of Francis. This time, those who had read that Francis had saved the neighbor’s kids from a fire liked him on an explicit and implicit level.
The key here was giving participants information that allowed them to see Francis’ actions in a new context.
In another experiment, some participants read that, before burglarizing the neighbor’s home, Francis had previously saved a baby from an oncoming train. That didn’t work to change their implicit evaluations, presumably because it had nothing to do with the burglary.
Interestingly, even after three days had passed, participants who had read about Francis saving kids from a fire still liked him on an implicit level. They hadn’t reverted back to their first impressions.
You can easily apply these findings in your own personal and professional life.
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.
The idea is to give the other person a chance to rethink the causes of your behavior. It’s not a given that they’ll forgive and forget, but it’s certainly worth a try.