Study Reveals Why First Impressions Count

Getting off on the wrong foot can doom a relationship before it begins, as we all know.

Now scientists have studied one reason why this is true. When a person makes a bad first impression, the negative feelings are harder to overcome than a betrayal that occurs after ties are established.

"First impressions matter when you want to build a lasting trust," said study researcher Robert Lount of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. "If you get off on the wrong foot, the relationship may never be completely right again. It's easier to rebuild trust after a breach if you already have a strong relationship."

Trust game

Lount and his colleagues had college students play a computer game in which their partners (actually a computer, unbeknownst to the participants) betrayed their trust either right off the bat or somewhere in the middle of the game.

A betrayal of trust occurred when a player defected rather than cooperated in a round of the game. A cooperative play resulted in more money rewarded to both players, while a defector would get a lot more money than the partner.

After the computer partner made two defector moves, it would follow with 30 rounds of pure cooperation. Turned out that cooperation wasn't enough to gain back a participant's trust. Those who experienced a breach of trust at the game's start were the least likely to cooperate at the end of the game, cooperating less than 70 percent of the final 10 rounds.

Meanwhile, participants who experienced a betrayal later in the game, after 10 rounds of cooperation, showed the most cooperation at the end of the game, choosing to cooperate more than 90 percent of the time.

And in fact, those who were betrayed in rounds 11 and 12 were, on average, nearly 40 percent more cooperative in the last 10 rounds compared with participants who experienced an immediate betrayal.

When asked to evaluate their partners, participants gave more negative assessments of those early betrayers compared with the late ones.

"When the partner started off by defecting, and they were taken advantage of, they really formed these negative impressions — 'That person is immoral,' 'They're a jerk,' 'That's not the type of person I would like,'" Lount said.

The results are detailed in the December issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Real-life relationships

Lount said the results fly in the face of Hollywood's portrayal of characters who don't get along at first but end up developing a passionate relationship. "The likelihood of that happening in real life is pretty low," he said.

Rather, a negative first impression can last a lifetime. "I think we would find this to be even more pervasive in real life, because you're going to be less likely to give these people second opportunities to interact with in the first place. In the game we forced them to interact," Lount told LiveScience.

"Often, a lot of times people end up writing people off. And if they can avoid future interactions with them, they would prefer to."

He suggests a person forms a first impression and sticks to it, looking for future cues that are consistent with this first impression. 

For instance, say you have a lunch date with a new business partner or potential boyfriend/girlfriend. If the other person is late or doesn't show up, you are likely to mistrust that person and probably not set up future dates. But if the other person has been on time for lunch in your first few meetings and then shows up late, you will be more likely to give that person the benefit of the doubt, Lount said.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.