Researchers Examine Whether First Impressions Are Lasting

Dec 22, 2016
Originally published on June 12, 2017 2:03 pm
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So we know that a picture speaks a thousand words, but NPR's Shankar Vedantam is here to tell us how it also gives us really strong impressions of people that we can't seem to shake. Hi, Shankar.


MARTIN: So what is this? A new study, I'm guessing, because that's what you do. You bring us new studies.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. I mean, and the first part of the study won't come as a surprise to you, Rachel. We form impressions of people from photographs.


VEDANTAM: These impressions are very quick, and we not only see superficial things, we read meaning into photographs. We draw inferences about someone's personality from the way they look in a photo. I was speaking with Vivian Zayas. She is a psychologist at Cornell University. She said most of us know that photos have a very powerful effect on us, but most of us also believe that we can update our initial impressions drawn from a photo when we actually meet someone in person.

VEDANTAM: If you were to judge a person based simply on the photograph and then later on have an interaction with that person, do you think that you would revise your judgments after the interaction? And overwhelmingly, people think that they will revise their judgments after a live interaction.

MARTIN: OK. So I'm guessing that you're probably going to tell me that that's not the case...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...'Cause that's what you do.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right, Rachel. So Zayas and her colleagues, Gul Gunaydin and Emre Selcuk, they had volunteers look at photos and draw first impressions based on those pictures. Now, if you show someone pictures of a person and then have them meet the person right away, you might say the volunteers just remembered their first impressions and this carried over into the meeting.


VEDANTAM: So what the researchers did is they waited for a month before inviting the volunteers back into the laboratory, and then they had the volunteers interact with someone. What the volunteers didn't realize is that they were interacting with the same person whose photos that they had seen a month earlier. What Zayas and her colleagues found was that people not only drew the same conclusions about people when they met them face to face, but they acted in ways to make those initial impressions drawn from the photograph come true.

VIVIAN ZAYAS: When you spontaneously like someone, you are warmer. You engage more. You smile more. You lean into the conversation more, and that person responds in kind. They will respond by being warmer. They'll get more engaged in the conversation. And then you pick up on that as well, and then you have this self-fulfilling prophecy.

MARTIN: I mean, this is fascinating, right, because we live in a time where there are a lot of pictures in our lives when you think about social media and our profile pics, dating sites.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. I mean, there are all kinds of big implications, you know, and there are different implications for different groups of people, Rachel. If you're a job recruiter, you know, you may want to remind people who are sitting on interview panels how powerful faces are in forming impressions of people and how these impressions can become self-fulfilling. That, in other words, we like someone, we're warmer to them. They respond in kind, and then we come away with the impression that this person really is wonderful.

There might be different implications if you're the person who's applying for the job or the person looking for the date. You know, the photographs of you on the internet and other public places really matter because they shape the way people think of you possibly on a permanent basis. So the funny picture that you took of yourself after that all night party might not be the...

MARTIN: What? I don't know what you're talking about, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: No idea.

VEDANTAM: Might not be the best thing that a recruiter should see first.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Makes me think I should go update my profile pic right now.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam - he regularly joins us to talk about social science research. Follow him on Twitter - @HiddenBrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.