There's plenty of science around first impressions and most of it is scary. Research shows people's initial judgements of each other are lightning fast and incredibly sticky. The negative opinions generated by a less than stellar initial meeting really can be hard to counteract.

But hard is not impossible. At least according to new research out of Cornell recently featured on the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog.

To simulate a rocky initial meeting, the research team behind the study presented 200 participants with a scenario that involved a fictional character named "Francis" breaking into locked homes and making off with the owners' prized possessions. Unsurprisingly, the volunteers rated this apparently sticky-fingered character as unlikeable, mean and uncaring.

Next the researchers tried to turn things around for Francis, using various strategies to counteract the participants' horrible first impression while measuring the volunteers' implicit as well as explicit feelings towards Francis with a clever test. To get at the participants' unconscious feelings towards Francis, the team had them rate the pleasantness of images flashed before them when a quick glimpse of felonious Francis was also shown. If the participants still felt negatively about Francis they rated these images as less pleasant.

Don't try to balance the scales

The first strategy tested by the team seems simple and intuitive -- they tried to show Francis in a better light to balance the scales, telling the study volunteers about Francis's heroic actions saving a baby from an oncoming train. If any good deed could get them to improve that initial impression, surely this selfless act of bravery would be it, but no dice. Despite Francis' valor, tests of implicit bias showed that the participants couldn't shake their impression of Francis as a shady character.


The researchers also attempted to suggest to the participants that, when it came to the initial charge of breaking and entering, the police got the wrong man or a witness had recanted. Rationally Francis should have been rehabilitated in their minds given the new information, but tests of implicit bias showed he was still shadowed by that negative initial presentation.

What does work

So what did finally turn around their opinions? While additional details about Francis didn't work and neither did a straightforward suggestion that the initial information was invalid, another intervention did finally manage to scrub away the participants' hostile feelings: recasting the story of Francis' "crime" so that volunteers had a clearer (and more positive) view of his motivations.

"Implicit judgments can shift quickly if participants are given a reason to see the initial negative information in a new light," BPS reports of the findings. "[The researchers] presented participants with a twist: Francis had entered only burning houses, and the precious things he took were the households' trapped children. Following this revelation, both explicit and implicit attitudes to Francis shifted from negative to positive."

The takeaway for entrepreneurs looking to mend a bad initial impression are pretty clear -- you're not trying to offer the other party new information about you (even saving babies probably won't get them to budge) but instead to present an explanation for your previous behavior that they will find credible and sympathetic.

So if you were late for that first meeting, you really need to let your contact know that it was because you had to take your sick child to the doctor. Or if an attempt at humor fell flat, it probably will behoove you to explain that you got a bit nervous when you respect someone and are particularly keen to impress. Or as BPS sums up the implications of the study: "difficult past events often need to be addressed rather than pasted over."

Want more advice? Here's a roundup of more research-backed advice on correcting a bad first impression.

Published on: Jun 2, 2015
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