First Impressions Hard to Change, Studies Suggest

man and woman drinking coffee at a cafe.
People both have a hard time getting over the first thing they know about someone, and that they're actually pretty good at judging a book by its cover, research finds. (Image credit: Phase4Studios | Shutterstock)

First impressions are hard to dislodge, new research finds. The good news is that people's snap judgments about others tend to be accurate.

Two new studies presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas, reveal that people both have a hard time getting over the first thing they know about someone, and that they're actually pretty good at judging a book by its cover.

"Despite the well-known idiom to 'not judge a book by its cover,' the present research shows that such judgments about the cover are good proxies for judgments about the book — even after reading it," Vivian Zayas, a psychologist at Cornell University, said in a statement. [5 Ways Your Emotions Influence Your World]

Snap judgment

Zayas and her colleagues asked participants to view a photograph of a person and make a snap judgment about how he or she would feel about that person if they interacted.

More than a month later, the participant and the person in the photo did actually interact. People's predictions of how much they'd like the person in the photo were surprisingly accurate, Zayas and her colleagues report.

On the other hand, no one can be right about everything. Psychologist Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto and colleagues wanted to know what happens when initial information about a person conflicts with new discoveries that come out as they get to know each other.

To test the question, the researchers took advantage of real-life gaydar: On average, people are able, with about 65 percent accuracy, to tell from a person's face whether they are gay or straight.

The researchers asked participants to look at pictures of both gay and straight men. In half of cases, the photos were labeled with the person's correct sexual orientation. In the other half, the label was wrong, saying that a straight man was gay or vice versa.

Next, the participants had to take a computer quiz, correctly recalling whether each man was gay or straight, according to the labels. They saw each face come up on screen and had to answer correctly for every single photograph three times. If they made a single mistake, they had to start all over again.

"By the end, they really knew who was gay and who was straight," Rule told Live Science.

The twist, Rule said, was that the participants were given different amounts of time to see the faces in the quiz section. Some went through the pictures at their own pace; others had as little as a 20th of a second, the amount of time it takes people to judge sexual orientation from a face alone.

The importance of the face

People who saw the faces for only a 20th of a second were more likely to go with their gut feeling on the person's sexuality — meaning they were likely to guess the person's real orientation instead of what the false labels said. People who had all the time they needed were more likely to answer according to the labels.

In a second experiment, the researchers replicated the findings with trustworthy and untrustworthy faces, matched with labels describing either trustworthy behavior like volunteering at a hospital or untrustworthy behavior like stealing. People remember untrustworthy faces and untrustworthy behavior better than they recall goodie-two-shoes, but the memory boost for the faces is stronger than for the behavior, Rule and his colleagues found.

The findings suggest that every time an individual sees another person, their initial snap judgments of them re-emerge, Rule said.

"Their face is a constant reminder to us of that initial impression," he said. With more time, people recover their knowledge of what they learned about the person, but first impressions remain very important and seem not to fade, he added.

Other research has found that teachers who are introduced to certain students with assurances that these children will bloom by the end of the year focus more attention on those kids, essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers also prefer students who are more attractive, and attractiveness predicts success in life.

"It goes to show that perhaps the opportunities that one gets in life can be very much shaped by one's face," Rule said.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.