2 Figurines Talking

A Second Chance to Make a First Impression?

We have all heard the famous aphorism that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It was even a popular catchphrase for a shampoo brand for a while. Our basic human factors psychology tells us why this is indeed true. The first impression creates a schema in long term memory. Because it isn’t competing with preexisting structure, it forms relatively easily. But we don’t have any intentional forgetting mechanism or even an intentional changing mechanism. So the second chance has to fight against the first one over and over until it dominates through sheer force of volume.

This has a lot of practical value in HF applications. We know that creating an accurate initial schema is critical in education and training. And overcoming the naïve science that most people develop instinctively as children is often a real pain in the ass. In team deliberation, we know that the first idea presented often dominates the discussion because of information and social cascades (brilliantly described in Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Infotopia).

Cass R. Sunstein develops a deeply optimistic understanding of the human potential to pool information, and to use that knowledge to improve our lives. In an age of information overload, it is easy to fall back on our own prejudices and insulate ourselves with comforting opinions that reaffirm our core beliefs.

There are a few exceptions to this that give us hope. The recent EID article on the Surprise Validator was one. A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describes another. You can find an ungated summary here.

My Take

They looked at a very specific task, but I think a general interpretation is more useful. They presented participants with a story that put a fictional person in a negative light. For example, “Francis broke into his neighbors’ homes and removed valuable items.” Even when they later said that the story was incorrect, participants still had implicit negative opinions about the person. The negative evaluation of Francis could not be erased or changed. This is that first impression we all need to worry about.

So here is the exception – when they completely changed the story. In the revision, it turns out that Francis entered his neighbors’ homes because they were on fire and the valuable items he removed were the trapped children. Of course, the explicit negative evaluation changed. But in this case, unlike the original, the implicit bias changed too.

The researchers explain this by concluding that participants needed to be given a reason to change their evaluation. But I suspect it is something else. Telling participants that the original story is incorrect is a pretty good reason and that didn’t work. It seems to me that the difference needs to be so great that participants created a whole new memory rather than trying to change the one they already had. Because changing a memory really just adds to it, so the negative bias is still there. But for a brand new memory, a new evaluation tag can be included and there is no residual negative one to compete with.

Your Turn

I have two questions for you today:

  1. What do you think of the general finding that implicit negative evaluations are wickedly hard to overcome?
  2. Does my explanation or the original authors’ explanation resonate more with you?

Image Credit: ed_davad

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