Skip to content

the Science of First Impressions

The Perfect Publication

– an Original Oratory –

Over the summer after my sophomore year, I attended a pre-college program at Columbia University. I found myself immersed in a community full of people from all over the world, and I met this one girl named Elana. At first, to myself and everyone else in my creative writing class, she seemed to have the perfect life. She was rich, pretty, an amazing writer, and definitely famous. I mean, she had over 10 thousand followers on Instagram. She was basically Taylor Swift.

Only 17 years old, she’s written two books: a novel and an autobiography. How many high school students decide one day that they’re bored and that they’re just going to write a book about their lives? Even better, Elana was getting it published. Some publishing company actually wanted to publish a book that she’s written about her 17 years of life. It was only the first day, and I had already learned so much about her. What I didn’t realize, though, was how much she was actually struggling. I was blinded by my first impression of her, and I lost time that I could have spent getting to know her better.

It didn’t take me long to realize her crippling social anxiety, self-trust issues, and inability to genuinely connect with those around her. She hid it all behind a dust jacket, and my newfound discoveries about her true self made me wonder. If the only way I saw through this facade of perfection was through her writing, would I have even realized her struggles if I hadn’t been in this class with her?

And my friendship with Elana isn’t an individual occurrence. We are all affected by these initial reactions, but we often don’t realize aspects of it outside of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” idea. Our reliance on first impressions limits our decision-making and can ultimately cause us to lose opportunities. So, first let’s read about the problems with first impressions, then the impacts that they have on our life stories, and, finally, publish some solutions.

We all have a natural tendency to focus on the first piece of information we receive about something or someone. In 1974, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a study asking people to estimate how many African countries were part of the U.N. They first spun a wheel painted with numbers from 0 to 100 and rigged it to always land on 10 or 65. When the spinning stopped, they asked the person in the experiment to estimate what they thought was the actual percentage. Tversky and Kahneman found that people who landed on 10 guessed around 25 percent and those who landed on 65 said around 45 percent.

This psychological phenomenon is known as anchoring. Anchoring occurs when we rely on what we are initially told or what we first experience to make future decisions. It’s a cognitive bias that is reflected in many real-life situations, such as the one I experienced with my friend Elana.

For example, when we first meet a new person, there’s always one thing about them that we notice first. Maybe it’s the classic “the first thing I noticed about you was your eyes” scenario, or maybe it’s the fact that you thought your best friend was a weirdo when you first met them because they play some obscure instrument. Okay, yes, the second one is what my best friend personally told me, but I’m sure a lot of people get that, right? We center our attention on a single thing at first, and that single thing is the basis for the majority of our future opinions.

Anchoring is not the only issue with first impressions, though. We also have a natural tendency to believe that we can predict the future based on earlier experiences. This idea is known as projection bias. When we first meet someone new, we automatically group them with someone similar that we’ve met in the past. Just because someone reminds you of a bully from back in middle school, does that mean that this new person is also mean? Of course not, but our natural reaction is to dislike this new person simply because of who they initially remind us of.

We’ve all made mistakes like these, where we believe in the claim that history will repeat itself. When we find ourselves in a deja vu type of situation, we automatically assume that we’ll get the same outcome that we got the first time. What we don’t think about, though, is the way we get to that outcome.

So what exactly happens when we anchor ourselves on a first impression? Well, as much as we like to deny it, all of our thoughts that come after that are inherently biased. We paint a picture of someone or something in our mind that is primarily good or bad. This is called the halo effect. In the 1920s, psychologist Edward Thorndike gave this phenomenon its name in reference to how we view some people as having a halo.

When we make these kinds of assumptions, we’re incredibly likely to create false images of them in our minds. Just because a girl is kind, it doesn’t mean she’s generous, and a boy’s shyness doesn’t make him quiet.

But the Halo Effect doesn’t only apply to personality traits. In one study, teachers were asked to grade essays written by third- and fourth-grade children. The children were only identified by their names, which were either common or unusual. The researchers found that the same exact essay was graded almost an entire mark lower when the writer had an unusual name than when the writer had an ordinary name. This experiment proves that the Halo Effect can have an impact on two completely uncorrelated factors: the name of a student and the quality of an essay.

And categorizing people and situations based on those we’ve experienced before stops us from taking new opportunities. Categorizing a person prevents us from viewing him or her as an individual person and, ultimately, from getting to truly know them. After all, if you continue to think of someone as the same as someone else, how can you really know who they are?

In the same way, when we go into a situation believing that we know how it will turn out, we become overconfident in our predictions. Being skeptical before assessing the entire situation can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our false belief becomes a warped version of reality, and, in turn, we never learn the true nature of the situation.

So how can we solve these issues that have developed so naturally throughout our lives? Well, to start, we can be more aware of the order in which we perceive information. If we deconstruct the connections we have between our initial thoughts and those that come after, we can better understand the different aspects of a situation or the different characteristics of a person.

As for making sure our confidence in predicting the future doesn’t go too far, we should first acknowledge the fact that each incident and person is different. Categorizing our experiences doesn’t make preparing for the future any easier. By doing so, we’re only hiding from reality behind a blindfold. After this realization, we can evaluate how to approach situations in ways that keep us from reliving the past. If you explore different paths you can take to reach a desired outcome, you can avoid befriending harmful people or walking straight into decisions that you know you’ll regret.

So, maybe if I had set Elana’s seemingly perfect life to the side in my own mind, I could’ve given myself a chance to read more into her story. I shouldn’t have assumed that she was defined by the first thing she told us about herself. Nobody is. Those three weeks that I spent with her taught me a lot about my personal instincts, and our friendship made me realize how important it is to understand our own thought processes. If we all think about the real impact that first impressions have on our lives, past all the cliches about book covers and whatnot, we can uncover truths that are far from perfect. Only then will we be able to write our own stories about ourselves and our interactions with the people around us.

Skip to toolbar