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.