First impressions matter. They really do! Social psychologists who study impression formation and cognitive psychologists who study presentation order effects, such as the primacy effect, agree that information presented early has a greater impact than information presented later. Impression formation has been heavily researched in social psychology since the 1940s, when Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments in which research participants received a list of personality traits that described someone. The results of these studies revealed that the information presented first had more impact on people’s impressions of others than information presented later. Since these ground breaking studies, considerable research has demonstrated that people often make quick judgments about others, then filter subsequent information based on having made their initial judgment. Think about this in your own life. How many times have we judged someone by his/her appearance? I recently had a discussion with one of my physicians, who has to make hospital visits to his patients when he is on call. He told me that, as long as he is dressed “like a doctor,” that is, wearing a white lab coat or a suit with a tie, he is allowed to bypass the security desk when he walks briskly through the busy hospital lobby. But, on the occasions when he is in casual clothes and presumably, does not fit the hospital security personnel’s definition of what a doctor should look like, he is always, and every time, stopped and asked to show his identification. He is the same person, of course, and the only thing that is different about him is the clothes he is wearing. My late mother, who was not a social psychologist, but who was, nonetheless, knowledgeable about the importance of first impressions, used to scrutinize my attire when we were going out for dinner, shopping, etc. and ask, “Are you going to wear THAT?”. That was Mom’s way of saying she did not think my attire was appropriate for the situation! Mom was, of course, correct in believing that I, and she, when we were together, would be judged differently by people whom we did not know, depending on the first impression we made with our attire. Once again, first impressions matter, sometimes more than they should, but as with many things in our lives, we can manage our impressions to the extent it is important to do so.
In thinking about what to write for this post I immediately had a flashback to a time Melissa and I were scheduled to interview a young man who had recently graduated with a master’s degree in psychology and had a wealthy family background. I guess stereotypes were working in his favor, that is, until he showed up for the interview. He arrived dressed in nice pants, a dress shirt and a tie – good enough to start until we realized that not only was his dress shirt rumpled and untucked, he was sweating profusely. He was overweight, and perhaps nervous, and yes, south Florida can be hot and humid, but, especially without a jacket, he was a mess. That was not a good first impression, and he didn’t make up for his appearance in other ways, unfortunately. As an employer interviewing a potential employee, one must consider the impression that employee will make on clients or customers. Those impressions in a high level professional environment are particularly critical. Sadly for the interviewee, we could never have Magnus’ reputation ride on his appearance. This interviewee is not the only bad impression we’ve encountered. There was the young woman who flew in from out of state for an interview and showed up wearing beach type flip flops – what was she thinking?! We’ve covered this point before in some ways, but the bottom line is you only get 1 chance to make a first impression. Make it count. Impressions are not just about dress and appearance. Our clients are usually well dressed attorneys, but often they are under tremendous stress. Letting that stress show, or, for example, “unloading” on an associate, will be noticed by the jury, by the client, by the judge, or even the bailiff. Putting your best foot forward requires conscious effort and every impression counts. You can’t, as they say, unring the bell, if you mess up at the starting line.