I have read several quotes from Beston Jack Abrams lately. He is an 89-year-old retiree who posts on Twitter and other social media. Some of his fans call his observations “Abramisms.” As I read this particular quote, I thought about some “first impressions” I had formed over the course of a single day:
The first impression reveals as much about the observer as the observed. Beston Jack Abrams
It was a Saturday, and I started the day by participating in a fundraising race for charity. The race distance was 3.1 miles (5K). Over more than 30 years of competitive running, I have learned to run the first mile slower than the remainder of the race. About a half-mile into the race, a young female runner passed me. I guessed that she might be 10 or 11 years old. With only that amount of “data” about this person, I thought to myself, “Here’s another one of those young runners who is probably starting out too fast! I’ll be passing her at some point in the race as her lack of good pacing catches up with her!”
Sure enough, at about the half-way point in the race, I caught up with her and then ran past her. I smiled and congratulated myself on “reading the situation right!” Yet, in the last mile of the race, she passed me back and beat me across the finish line. I was actually speeding up each mile, yet she beat me anyway! Turns out she was 12 years old. My first impression of her was wrong! She did NOT go out too fast. She was a well-conditioned runner!
Later the same day, I went to a memorial service for someone I have known for several years. After the service started, a young baby started coughing excessively during the minister’s eulogy. I looked over and wondered why one of the parents wasn’t taking the child away to someplace where the coughing would not be a distraction. Later in the service, the mother (holding the child in question) got up and spoke eloquently about the person who had passed away. Turns out, she was his granddaughter and the child was his most recent great-grandchild. It was clear that she was very proud to be part of that family. My impression of her shifted in the space of an hour!
I see both of the above examples as evidence of how my own biases and expectations can create unreliable first impressions of others! Perhaps too many of us think that we are better at “sizing people up” than we really are!
How Can We Make More Accurate Assessments?
- Question the data we are selecting. If I am forming a quick impression, what am I seeing or hearing that is leading me to a conclusion? Am I quickly putting someone in a “category” (e.g., young, inexperienced runner) when I have very little data to go on? Do my expectations of “appropriate behavior at a memorial service” lead me to judge someone else too quickly when those expectations are not fulfilled?
- Ask “How important is it for me to make a quick assessment of a person?” There are certainly situations when we must quickly ask ourselves, “Am I taking a big risk if I give this person the benefit of the doubt?” Sometimes our “gut feelings” warn us NOT to interact with certain people when we may be in a vulnerable situation! Yet, most of the time, there is no need for us to make such quick assessments!
- Beware of “Confirmation Bias.” This concept relates to the human tendency to notice behavior that tends to “reinforce” our existing impression of someone, while being less likely to notice behavior that runs counter to our existing impression of that person. Our first impression may be “reinforced” through Confirmation Bias!
To learn about actual research related to first impressions, follow this link.
Questions for Reflection:
- How much do you trust your first impressions in determining whether you would enjoy getting to know someone better?
- If you have had the opportunity to interview and hire job candidates, how often have your first impressions proven to be accurate?
- Have you ever ignored your first impression (some call it “instincts”) and wished that you had trusted it more?
- What are you “taking away” from this post that you can use at work or in your personal life?
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