Psychologists reveal what everyone gets wrong about first impressions

It's all about the moral tipping point.

Two people meeting for the first time.
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Why do bad first impressions seem so hard to shake? According to research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, published in the journal Social Cognition, it may be because people’s bad behavior overwhelms good behavior.

“People require more evidence to perceive improvement in someone’s moral character than to perceive a decline,” said a summary of the research. “In other words, it is easier to become a sinner than a saint.”

To reach this conclusion, the researchers conducted a study to see “where people draw the moral tipping point in evaluating others. How many acts must a person commit or cease before that person appears to have substantively transformed in moral character?”

Study participants were asked to read stories about fictional characters who behaved in either a moral or immoral way. For example, participants read about office worker Barbara, who would at times hold the door for colleagues or give them compliments. But other times she’d cut in line or spread gossip.

“When Barbara acted badly, it took only a few such instances for the participants to judge her as having changed for the worse,” the summary said. “Barbara didn’t get any extra credit when she stopped behaving meanly, and when she tried to improve, it took many good actions for her to be seen as changed for the better.”

Meaning, if we do something that is perceived badly by people we meet for this first time, it will take a lot to overcome that first impression — if we’re even given the chance.

Research out of University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business adds more clarity to these judgments. The study found that we evaluate other people’s moral character not simply by what they do, but also the context that determines how those decisions were made. This means that even if someone does something wrong, they can still be judged as being morally correct. For example, a CEO of a social media company who breaches its privacy code to help find criminals may not be judged harshly for his actions.

“Judgments about moral character are ultimately judgments about whether we trust and would be willing to invest in a person,” said study author Clayton Critcher, an associate professor at Berkeley Haas.

So what do these findings reveal about first impressions?

"When people first meet someone, they tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to morality," Critcher said. "It's an adaptive optimism — one that encourages us to operate on enough faith that we can at least learn whether they are worthy of a social investment — until they prove us wrong."

It would seem, according to research, that we only truly make bad first impressions when we do something egregious. Thankfully, findings published in Psychological Science bore this out: We’re actually more likable to new conversation partners than we actually think.

“[We] do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that’s really true.”

“Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us — even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with — is a much more difficult task than we imagine,” said study co-authors Erica Boothby, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, and Gus Cooney, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. “When it comes to social interaction and conversation, people are often hesitant, uncertain about the impression they’re leaving on others, and overly critical of their own performance.”

Across five studies, the researchers found that participants rated themselves lower in questions that asked them how much they liked their conversation partner and how much they thought their conversation partner liked them. One study found that participants focused too much on moments they perceived as negative.

“They seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others’ liking for them, which observers of the conservations see right away,” said study co-author Margaret S. Clark, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology at Yale University. “We’re self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that’s really true.”

So this is good news for all of us nervous about meeting new people. There is, however, one thing to avoid when meeting someone for the first time, especially in a work context: put your phone away. According to research out of the University of Kansas, using your smartphone during a meeting is seen as a big snub.

“We can always infer our own thoughts and motives, but we can't ever know a partner’s thoughts and motives, so we make negative assumptions about others, and we make excuses for ourselves,” said study co-author Cameron Piercy, University of Kansas assistant professor of communication studies. “People expect that technology is used for ill, even when the person using the technology says their use is related to the topic of conversation. … The effect for the phone is ginormous.”


In organizational meetings, mobile media are commonly used to hold multiple simultaneous conversations (i.e., multicommunication). This experiment uses video vignettes to test how manager policy (no policy, pro-technology, anti-technology), device use (notepad, laptop, cell phone) and task-acknowledgment (no task-acknowledgment, task-acknowledgment) affect perceptions of meeting multicommunication behavior. US workers (N = 243) who worked at least 30 hours per week and attended at least one weekly meeting rated relevant outcomes: expectancy violation, communicator evaluation, perceived competence, and meeting effectiveness. Results reveal manager policy and device use both affect multicommunication perceptions, with mobile phones generating the highest expectancy violation and lowest evaluation of the communicator and meeting effectiveness. Surprisingly, there was no effect for task-acknowledgment; however, a match between manager policy and task-acknowledgment affected evaluations. This paper unifies past evidence about multicommunication under the expectancy violations framework, extends theoretical understandings of mobile media use at work, and suggests practical implications for technology use in unfamiliar workplace situations.
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