First impressions, perception and reality

​You know first impressions matter, right?

Wearing that creased up, faded shirt to your interview is not going to end well. Trying to be all alpha on the first date won’t net you a second.

But why do first impressions matter? I didn’t really know until the other day.

Reviewing Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power, (which is a more research-based take on the mechanisms of power and influence than one of my favourite books, Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power) I came across some answers.

First impressions are critical for four reasons.

The first is termed attention decrement:

​“…because of fatigue or boredom, people don’t pay as close attention to later information as they do to information that comes early, when they first form judgements.”

The second is cognitive discounting:

​“…once people have formed an impression of another, they disregard any information that is inconsistent with their initial ideas.”

The third is that “people engage in behaviour that makes their initial impressions of others come true.” Pfeffer gives an example:

​“…when people believe they are interacting with a qualified, intelligent individual, they ask questions and provide opportunities for the other to demonstrate competence and intelligence. Behavioural dynamics tend to reinforce initial impressions and reputations, making those impressions become true even if they weren’t originally.”

The final reason is called biased assimilation:

“…taking later information and reinterpreting it in ways consistent with our original beliefs and judgements.”

​The implications?

First impressions are rapidly formed and remarkably durable. If you make a good first impression, people will think better of you, even if you act in a way that contradicts that evaluation. If you make a bad first impression, people will always think less of you, no matter what you do.

You thought entering new situations and meeting new people was intimidating before? Now you know how much is riding on those first few seconds, the pressure just intensified.

But fear not.

You have two options. The first is to try and game it. To deliberately alter your appearance, manner or actions in order to create a desired effect. Don’t turn up your nose. We all taper ourselves to the demands of the circumstances in some form. 

And as George Horace Latimer wrote in Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, “Appearances are deceitful, I know, but so long as they are, there’s nothing like having them deceive for us instead of against us.”

The second option is to enter into new situations with no agenda. As naive as it sounds, the best way to make a good first impression is to be honest and authentic.

The former option, engineering the situation, will be useful if you want everyone to think you’re something other than you are. The latter option will be preferred by those who are comfortable enough with their own identity to not try and distort it.

Perception becomes reality. If you do first impressions right, your reality (who you are, what you can do, how you can help) becomes the other person’s perception. Meaning, other people see you for what you are.