A social psychologist explains how to recover from making a horrible first impression
've been warned: First impressions are lasting.
"I wish I could take some of the pressure off people when it comes to making first impressions, but the reality is that they are really important, mostly because they are so difficult to change and because they're made remarkably quickly - usually within seconds, before you've even said a word," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, social psychologist, associate director of Columbia Business School's Motivation Science Center, and author of "No One Understands You and What to Do About It."
Luckily, though, they're not impossible to change.
And this is great news because while first impressions can be "fairly accurate," they are never completely so - "and they can sometimes be way, way off," she explains.
In a recent story Grant Halvorson wrote for the Harvard Business Review titled "A Second Chance to Make the Right Impression," she shares the story of her friend, Gordon, who once interviewed for a position with a prominent university.
During his visit to campus, Gordon had lunch with a senior faculty member named Bob. Upon digging in to his lunch, Bob said to Gordon, "You know, this is great. You should try this."
Not wanting to offend his potential future employer, Gordon took a bite.
The rest of the meeting went smoothly - but Gordon didn't land the gig.
Years later Gordon learned the reason he wasn't offered the position: When Bob said, "You should try this," he meant, "You should try this sometime" - not now. He assumed Gordon was disrespectful and ill mannered - which he isn't - and had no desire to work with someone like that.
Gordon was, however, eventually hired for a different role at that same university, and overcame that bad first impression he made on Bob.
"If you make a bad first impression, it is possible to bounce back and redeem yourself," Grant Halvorson tells Business Insider. "But it's like weight loss: You can totally do it, but it's not going to be easy, so don't believe anyone who says it will be."
First impressions are stubborn, she adds. "Our brains are very good at ignoring information that contradicts what we already believe, and at reinterpreting information so it fits with the belief you have."
For instance, if you think a colleague is a jerk, and he happens to bring you coffee one day, you're not going to think you were wrong about him - you're going to suspect his motives, and assume that he wants something from you and is buttering you up.
"Second impressions happen when you can get someone else to open their minds to the possibility that their first impression was wrong, and that it's worth being right," she says. "Keep in mind that people aren't consciously clinging to the first impression - it's just how brains work."
If you made a bad first impression and want to make things right, there are two routes you can take.
The first is to present the perceiver with abundant, attention-getting evidence that they have the wrong idea about you, over a long period of time. "Going back to the coffee example: If the office jerk goes out of his way to be nice, everyday, for a couple of months, I am likely to change my mind," explains Grant Halvorson.
The second route is to create what psychologists call "outcome interdependency."
"Basically, this means I have to count on you to get what I want - as, for example, when two people have to work closely together on a project. On an unconscious level, this makes me really want to be accurate about you, so you have an opportunity to make a second impression."
In Gordon's case, he "thought long and hard about the work that Bob (now a department head) was doing, and took every opportunity to reach out and support Bob's agenda," she writes in the Harvard Business Review. "He also made sure to project warmth during their interactions and to express himself with greater humility. After about a year, Bob invited him to participate on several key committees, and Gordon felt that the pair had established a level of trust. Nowadays, they even have friendly lunches once in a while - without sampling each other's food."
The problem with second impressions is: most people aren't like Gordon - they never try to make one.
"It's a lot like when you try to lose weight, gain a pound, and say, 'Oh, screw it!" she says. "Making a first impression takes mere seconds - but making a second impression takes persistence. Hang in there, and it will happen."
To read more about the science of first impressions, check out Grant Halvorson's HBR piece here.
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