The Folly of First Impressions

It has often been said that you don’t have to commit a great deed for someone to like or hate you. You can be admired or despised for just about anything you do, or don't do. And everyone on our planet has their share of admirers and haters from various people they know or even don't know. But have you wondered why people like or hate somebody, even the ones they have never met before, or personally interacted with? The obvious answers could be plenty, but the starting trigger for this judgmental behaviour usually lies in one hidden reason. And that hidden reason is the ‘first impression’ or a ‘memory burn’ that occurs with the very first encounter we have with someone. A large percentage of people make their lasting impressions and judgments about others within the first few minutes of an encounter. The encounter can be in the form of a meeting, reading, hearing or just seeing something (positive or negative) about them. In many cases people even form pleasant to completely warped opinions of someone just by looking at a photograph of a person who they may not even know personally. And first impressions are so powerful that its effects can often last a lifetime, and will influence all future mutual interactions. While this could be a popular method of framing judgments by millions of people, blindly following such a method always can often do more harm than good. Though many people swear by first impressions, however on close examination they are often wrong and misleading in most of the cases. For example, to see how easily we can be influenced by what we read about someone let us use a small joke that I had read somewhere. The slightly modified joke is as follows.

Suppose it is time to elect a new world leader and you have to take a decision, and only your vote counts. And you have to make a selection based only on the candidate's description without knowing who exactly they are, while their real names are inside a sealed envelope. Now who would you vote for?

Candidate-A: Associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's had two mistresses, chain smokes, and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.

Candidate-B: He was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, arrogant type, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.

Candidate-C: He is a decorated war hero. He is mostly a vegetarian, always smiling, loves his own people, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer, and has never cheated on his wife.

Which of these candidates would be your choice? It will most probably be Candidate-C.

Now open the envelopes and read out the names.

Candidate A is Franklin D. Roosevelt

Candidate B is Winston Churchill

Candidate C is Adolf Hitler

The above example will show how you can be easily fooled by what you read and easily frame opinions about someone if you don't dig further. This is how people normally get misled by first impressions. We quickly frame opinions and judgments of others without even meeting them based on what we hear, read or see about them from various sources. It happens to each one of us many times in our lifetime. So if you had all along believed that first impressions were useful or guaranteed judgment methods, here are a few reasons why you should never solely depend on them.

On our planet a very large percentage of people give too much importance to first impressions to form their permanent perceptions about someone. But it is wrong to brand a person permanently based on what you saw or heard for a brief time. Maybe you caught the person at the wrong time or wrong place. Maybe you were not getting the complete picture or facts. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is not a crime or always avoidable. Everybody cannot be in the right place at the right time, or say the right things at the right moment to make a stunning first impression. The same rules apply to you also. Hence, people need several impressions both ways to know and understand each other. It takes a long time to understand someone and cannot be based on some singular or brief incident.

Appearances can be deceptive. It has been said people look normal until you get to know them better. The reverse is also true. People can also look abnormal until you get to know them better. Hence, you should always aim to know people leisurely, and you will soon discover they just have faults different from that of yours. And history is full of numerous cases of people who have made awesome first impressions, but failed miserably later. For example, a well-dressed and smooth talking person displaying a great first impression may eventually turn out to be a con man, while a mediocre person with an initial shabby personality may prove to be an honest trustworthy person. To quote another example, when we first met our college biology professor most students were taken aback at his small meek structure and somewhat odd behaviour. But when he started his lectures on botany he was awesome. His lectures were so electrifying and he could hold the entire class into a hypnotic trance through his powerful teaching and great anecdotes. Though a lot of students were aiming for engineering, nobody would miss his class, and not a single cranky student would disturb his session.

First impressions should not be confused with intuition, which is entirely different. Intuition is a mysterious message we get than can give us a warning about someone. The first impression I am referring are mainly about real world stuff like physical appearance, dress, handwriting, mediocrity, shyness, weak or strong hand shakes, colour, speech abilities or disabilities, nervousness, etiquette issues, ignorant and unintentional acts, cultural behaviours, etc. Don't judge a book by its cover. Lack of flamboyance is not a lack of capability as believed by Mary Kay Ash, the legendary founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, a billion dollar cosmetics giant. It has often been said she never paid much attention to anyone's physical appearance, and always focused on who he or she was as a person. Positive dressing and impressive displays, though necessary in the business world, can never be a substitute for getting things done and achieving results as a reputed manager once said, ‘Give me a team in denims and T-shirts who can do the job efficiently, caring for the customers and who are real and secure about themselves than people with very little substance.’ Often people who spend too much time dressing and behaving elegantly to make great first impressions are usually hollow, as they often spend too much time in front of the mirror and too little time growing their knowledge, products and people.

Many people proudly claim they have the magic or psychic ability to easily judge a person just with one glance or a brief encounter. But such a claim is completely naïve and misleading. Only ignorant or gullible people take first impressions as permanent characteristics. Except in some hardcore cases, the person you may have seen last year is not necessarily the same person next year, as human beings are dynamic creatures and constantly changing (or evolving) for better or worse. But true professionals, leaders and credible establishments like the law courts in most developed and democratic countries never get influenced or carried away by first impressions. They always believe in thorough investigation, facts, proof, etc., no matter how tedious or long it takes. They always make their independent assessments about someone based on facts. Otherwise, if first impressions were assumed to be correct and let loose, then thousands of people will be hanged, lynched and buried alive based on media hype, overwhelming public opinion, trial by media, newspaper reports, etc.

However, with all the above arguments against first impressions there are certain areas and a percentage of cases where judgments based on first impressions are true and correct. On our planet nothing is 100% right or wrong. So, for example, while dealing with street punks, people who are a menace to society, the stubbornly obnoxious, criminally oriented, and those who deliberately exhibit boorish or uncouth behaviours, etc., you can easily take your first impressions as final without bothering to investigate further. But you must consciously remember that such cases will normally be applicable only to a small percentage of cases, and any negative experiences based on such encounters must not be universally applied to the remaining large percentage of cases.

Finally we can conclude this chapter with a great quote from Violet Asquith, a British politician, who said, ‘The first time you see Winston Churchill you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend discovering his virtues’  

Article Author - Thejendra B.S

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