Meeting a stranger can change your life. So you need to be able to make quick and reliable judgements about someone new. Who to be friends with, who to date, who to avoid … Decisions like that are so important that your brain’s wired up to make them automatically.
And it does pretty well. Sizing up strangers within seconds. That’s not bad when you think about everything that has to be taken into account. But the process is far from perfect. So you need to be careful about first impressions!
Like you’ve probably met someone new and thought they’re just great. Only to discover a few weeks later that they’re driving you nuts. Or they’re abusive. Or unreliable. In other words, your initial impression was wrong.
That happens because initially we only notice someone’s more obvious traits, such as being outgoing. And miss their more private feelings, like a tendency to be suspicious.
We also rarely take account of our own feelings. So you’re much more likely to like someone new when you’re feeling good, and much more likely to notice their bad side if you’re feeling down.
We also tend to think that physically attractive people are intelligent. That people with big eyes are honest. That tall people make good leaders. A deep voice means they’ll be a good lover. The list is endless — and there’s not much truth in any of them …
We assume that someone else’s behaviour is due to their personality rather than their circumstances. And to do exactly the reverse to ourselves! So if my friend fails an exam, it’s because he’s lazy. But if I do badly, it’s because the wrong questions came up!
But that also means that we overlook how someone’s behaviour might be affected by their environment. Like how people in restaurants aren’t showing their usual everyday character, because they’re trying to be posh.
We assume that we’ll like people more when we spend time with them, while the opposite is what usually happens. We assess people as members of a social group rather than as individuals.
So our judgement is coloured by our preference for some groups over others, like their gender, profession, nationality and so on. We also tend to view people from our own social group much more harshly than others. And once we’ve made an initial impression, we only notice things that seem to back up our feelings.
Which is why it’s so difficult to recover from a bad reputation, no matter how much you’ve changed!
The brain takes rough and ready shortcuts like these because it can take weeks to make a completely accurate judgement of someone’s character.
And it’s better to be seventy per cent right in a few seconds rather than one hundred per cent right in six weeks.
But even when you’ve known someone for a long while, that doesn’t mean you know everything there is to know about them. Particularly in relationships. So never stop being interested in your partner!