February 27, 2014

Expect First Impressions to be Carved in Stone

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 


We’ve all heard the old saying: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It is true that when meeting someone new, our brain is quickly putting them into a number of categories. Their background, intelligence, friendliness, attitudes, trustworthiness, and a myriad of other aspects of character are all on their way to being locked into some pretty durable assumptions. In a legal setting, where a juror is reacting to a witness on the stand for example, we might want those credibility determinations to be made over time, informed by the full scope of the testimony. But don’t count on it. Our biological impression-formation machine isn’t known for its patience. Even in situations where our goals are to wait and to keep an open mind, we are still forming impressions almost immediately as a natural consequence of the brain’s penchant for making meaning. We can’t help it. 

Strong first impressions are a fact. The question is, to what extent can those impressions be altered as more facts come in? Recent research provides some additional reasons to be skeptical. A paper presented at the recent Austin conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (Rule, 2014) and covered in a recent Eurekalert, reports on a series of studies showing that we form a broad range of instant impressions on traits ranging from general likability to specifics like sexual orientation. What’s more, these impressions will hold up even when they are at odds with the facts. “As soon as one sees another person, an impression is formed,” University of Toronto professor Nicholas Rule says. “This happens so quickly – just a small fraction of a second – that what we see can sometimes dominate what we know.” This post takes a look at some of the implications this has for trial witness assessment and preparation.  


The Research: First Impressions – 1, Facts – 0

In one study, Dr. Rule and his team started with a set of photographs that had been previously rated based on whether the male subjects in the photos looked straight or gay. Incidentally, this prior research shows we do substantially better than chance, with 60-70 percent of the identifications being correct. Using a fresh group of participants, the researchers then showed each photo and told the participants whether the subject of the photo was straight or gay, quizzing them several times in order to make sure that the factual identifications were memorized and accurate. 

After that learning phase, the study then moved into a test phase. Participants were quickly shown the faces again, using varying amounts of exposure time. That method uncovered the brain’s cheating mechanism: The less time participants had to see the photo in this test phase, the more likely they were to rely on that validated impression (whether the subject looked gay or straight), and the less likely they were to rely on the facts they had learned earlier (whether the subject actually is gay or straight. In other words, in a time-pressured setting, impressions trumped knowledge. 

In another study, Dr. Rule and his colleagues repeated that same effect when looking at the trait of  trustworthiness: The first impression of someone who looks honest even trumps our knowledge of whether that person actually is honest or not. According to Rule, “These studies help to illustrate the often inescapable nature of how we form impressions of other people based on their appearance.” Ultimately, you cannot assume that a knowledge of the facts will overcome a positive or negative first impression. Think of a witness: If he looks smart and honest, then part of the juror’s mind is still thinking of him as smart and honest even after receiving the facts showing that he isn’t.  

The Implications: Inspect Impressions

Here are a few implications for how we approach first impressions in a witness context. 

Assess: Test a Little, Learn a Lot

Mock trials present a great opportunity to look at the first impression a witness makes. We will generally tell the presenting attorneys that all we really need is a few minutes of video showing the witness answering on one or two relevant points. What we’ll often get instead is what I call the “designations” approach. The attorneys will comb through the whole deposition pulling out all of the relevant points (thinking, “we have to get this in…”) and the resulting clip will be chopped up and more than 30 minutes in length. That isn’t necessary. Sure there can be advantages to holding a longer mock trial and replicating the trial structure of openings, testimony, and closings. But within the constraints of most mock trials, the actual facts are more efficiently summarized by the attorney. All we need from the testimony is a small sample: It doesn’t take much for jurors to form a first impression. And as this research shows, additional facts won’t often change that first impression. 

Use Bad Impressions: The Introductory Depo Clip

Another application of witness first impressions that can be enormously useful is in opening statement, particularly when you have some less-flattering video deposition testimony of some of the key players on the other side. Drawing on the “for any purpose” legal language, you can take that one- or two-minute video snippet of the opposing party’s deposition and work it right into the opening: “Let’s meet Mr. Smith…” The studies that Dr. Rule and his team reported on also show that the impressions formed, based on images, tend to be more negative than those formed when meeting someone in-person, so that kind of selective introduction can help create a strong negative first impression of the party before they’re even on the stand. 

Overcome Bad Impressions 

The cynical among you might wonder, “If first impressions are so all-fire important, why do we even bother with extended testimony?” Well, apart from the need to actually get facts into evidence, there is also the fact that first impressions, as durable as they are, can still be overcome. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. As Dr. Rule explains, “With effort, we can overcome this to some extent, but we are continually tasked with needing to correct ourselves.” Remember, the study found that this tendency for first impressions to trump facts was mediated by time. The less time we have to make our judgments, the more likely we are to go with our gut, even over facts. So when the first impressions don’t work in your favor, you need to acknowledge that and take your time in working to change that impression. “Primacy,” or the psychological influence of what comes first, exerts a strong effect, but so does “recency,” the influence of what comes last. So end strongly

Stepping back, these results seem to confirm another implication of the difference between quick draw mental processing and more deliberate cognitive effort: blink versus think. Be aware of the quick reactions and let them work for you when they’re able to. But also don’t discount the stronger and even more durable effects of effortful reasoning when you can get it. 


Other Posts on Impression Formation: 


Rule, Nicholas O. (2014). When to Judge a Book by Its Cover: Timing, Context, and Individual Differences in First Impressions. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Austin Texas, Feb. 14, 2014. 

Photo Credit:   http://www.superbwallpapers.com free computer wallpaper.

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