Why do we judge people on first impressions?


Thursday 13th February 2014

If you’ve seen the film ‘Hairspray’, you’ll remember the scene (see 3m 23s into the clip above) where the two main characters try out for the dance team and the dance teacher immediately prevents one of them from joining by making a sweeping generalisation of her dance capacities based on her size, weight and appearance.  A snap judgment that goes against everything we mean by the clichéd expression: ‘Never judge a book by its cover.’  Those of you who have recently been reading Pride and Prejudice for your English Literature IGCSE examinations will know where this leads!

On the one hand, the advice is sound, because it fosters an attitude of open-mindedness and tolerance: of course, we’re all different, both physically and intellectually, but we have our own unique talents which are not always apparent at first glance.  In fact, first impressions can often get in the way of knowing someone’s true nature and it’s usually only by taking the first step and actually getting to know them over time that you begin to appreciate someone’s personality.  Furthermore, many a terrible and destructive action has been justified and carried out on the basis of the ‘evidence’ of someone’s instinctive sense of right or wrong: just remember President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq on the basis of his ‘gut feelings’.

On the other hand, remember the rule of thumb that ‘You know everything there is to know about a person within the first five seconds of meeting them.’  How do we reconcile this adage with the book cover one?  One response came in the form of a real life anecdote from one of the students: she was walking home with a friend when they both decided to take a taxi.  When the taxi arrived, she immediately felt uncomfortable in the presence of the driver.  Whether it was something she’d heard on the news about incidents against women on her area or just the way he looked at them, something screamed out to her, ’Danger!’ so they decided against the taxi. Was this on the basis of her ‘gut feelings’?

As so often, we can find an evolutionary explanation for this sort of response (remember, on the plus side, it might be that you discover the man of your life in a flash of intuition much like the taxi incident – it’s called ‘love at first sight’!)  Our emotions (signals of pain or pleasure) and our intuitions (ability to make quick connections between different emotions or ideas or experiences) plug us into the world in a way that enhances our survival chances.  Even in the 21st Century, even though we’re not in the limitlessly harsh and extreme environment of our primitive ancestors, we still need our primitive brains to function sharply in case we meet the modern predator.  In the instant of coming face to face with one, we haven’t got time to think things through (‘Hmm…Is he going to attack me or just take me home?)  It might be too late, so you just have to make a snap decision or judge on your first impressions.  Of course, you might have got it wrong – the taxi driver might have just been having a bad day – but the human mind doesn’t have a built in checking device to filter out errors of perception.  Even if you are wrong, at least you survive another day.

So next time you find yourself in an extreme situation, just remember: sometimes these situations can help you keep the emotional and intuitive functions of your brain sharp and practised; that part of your brain that nature selected for as part of the evolution of your human capacity to judge instantly on first impressions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t situations in which you can think things through rationally…

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