Friday, May 14, 2010

The Detriment of First Impressions

In general society humans seem to favor instant categorization. Perhaps such a mindset is brought on through evolution and survival instincts. First impressions allow humans to instantly categorize a new person which gives them a better handle on how to interact with them and what value they may have. The problem is that once this categorization occurs people resist changing it even if they are faced with behavior or evidence that contradicts that initial interpretation. The reason for this persistence is two fold. First, it is natural that most humans resist the very notion that their opinions could be wrong invoking many psychological defenses to convince themselves that they are right regardless of the evidence or facts. Second, it takes work to change your first opinion, researching why the initial opinion is wrong and coming to a new more accurate conclusion that will replace the old incorrect conclusion.

However, hard work and the potential for being wrong do not permanently deter people, so why does it appear to be more difficult for people to overcome first impressions made in social interaction? One reason stems back to basic labeling theory where if enough people characterize a person in a certain way, weaker people begin to apply that characteristic regardless of whether or not it is true. Thus, the incorrect even idiotic assumption could become true through irrational and stubborn behavior by those who make the idiotic assumption. Unfortunately this happens more often than it should.

A second reason is that rarely do visible and calculated consequences exist for these improper assumptions. If someone mischaracterizes an individual as having a certain weakness when they do not that first individual is rarely disciplined for that error. Without consequences for incorrect assumptions or misconstrued analysis, individuals are unlikely to change their opinions or the methodology that lead to the error. Basically without genuine and significant consequences personal pride becomes the only motivating factor driving individuals to correct mistaken opinions.

Unfortunately even if there are consequences most of the time they are difficult to identify. For example suppose an individual characterizes a stockbroker candidate incorrectly due to an erroneous assumption, which leads to the belief that he/she does not have the skills to succeed at higher risk trading. In reality if given the opportunity this individual would have high levels of success and generate large amounts of money. However, these gains are difficult to identify as a detriment because they only materialize if the individual is given the opportunity to succeed. If the individual is not given the opportunity the company does not lose any money they already have, they just lose money that they would receive in the future. Without that knowledge, and why would they have it because they already characterize the individual has not having the necessary skill set to produce success, it would be difficult to realize the potential of the lost revenue and that loss as a consequence of the initial incorrect assumption.

A third reason people do not change first impressions easily was alluded to above in that most of the time the individual who is mischaracterized is never given an opportunity to prove this erroneous assumption wrong. One of the reasons no opportunity is afforded to these individuals ties back to simple arrogance. The initial evaluator is naturally going to believe their initial impression correct and any test to prove otherwise would be at best a waste of time and at worst a personal insult and waste of company money. In these situations it is up to someone of a higher rank than the initial evaluator to give the individual an opportunity to displace errors.

With all that has been said, it would be inappropriate to assume that all first impressions are incorrect. The point of this issue is to suggest that first impressions are not infallible and thus should not possess some ‘magical’ additional weight when evaluating an individual’s skill set or the prospects of a social or professional relationship with that individual. Also rectifying evaluation errors is a two way street. The evaluator has to be open to changing his/her opinion in the face of new conflicting evidence, but the individual being evaluated has to honestly assess his/her own abilities and if he/she feels that a characterization is unfair a protest must be lobbied against that characterization. The protest is the key element to initiating any correction because if the individual in question does not believe that the evaluation is in error then there is no reason to change it.

Some may argue that the first impression may be in error even if the individual does not realize it. He/she may have the skills required or a different temperament, but simply has never had to utilize those skills, etc. Unfortunately such an argument does not seem to hold much merit because if an individual does not have a skill or any experience with said skill how is it unfair of the first evaluator to come to the conclusion that the individual lacks that skill? It is not the job of the evaluator, be it for a job interview, performance review or just meeting someone for the first time, to test the individual on all relevant elements and skills to determine if the individual can perform a given skill even if they have no history of being able to do so.

In the end first impressions should just be a microcosm of general opinion and thought where individuals take personal initiative to make sure their opinions are correct. Unfortunately first impressions seem to move beyond similarities with other more empirically derived opinions. Until we can overcome the weighed ego and emotional attachments that come with retaining our first impressions, humans will never be able to maximize their abilities as individuals or a society.

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