By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The witness is in the box, questioning began a few minutes ago, and the thought goes through the witness's nervous mind, "I hope I make a good impression." Well, not to make that witness more nervous, but chances are, that impression has already been made. It could have been made in the first few moments of examination, or as she stepped up and took the oath. Perhaps it was made even earlier, when the witness was seen at counsel table, or even in the courtroom hallway. Impressions don't form gradually and they don't wait on the substance of testimony. Instead, they're made on sight, and they're strong and lasting. In a habit with evolutionary roots, we tend to quickly make assumptions on likability, the bedrock of trustworthiness, as soon as we see a new face. New research (Gunaydin, Selcuk & Zayas, 2016) shows that these impressions are not just powerful, but durable as well, lasting at least a month based on a single viewing of a face.
In the study, 636 participants were asked to make judgments of liking and personality after viewing just a number of headshots of individuals they did not know. Then, the participants interacted live with one of the individuals they saw in a photograph a month later. The result was that judgments based on one quick look at a photograph strongly predicted later judgments after more intensive interaction. Participants behaved more warmly toward those whose photos they evaluated favorably, and vice versa. "Once perceivers form favorable impressions of another person," they write, "they tend to attribute desirable characteristics to them" and to notice and remember information that confirms these characteristics. "Even after having 'read the book,' one still, to some extent, judges it by its cover." In litigation, of course, we know about books, covers, and first impressions, but we hope that over time, what matters most is the substance. Don't count on it. Assessments can be revised, but the research shows that longer-term exposure to a person is more likely to reinforce those first impressions rather than revise them. For witnesses in trial, this means that first impressions matter, a lot. In this post, I will share a few reminders on forming a positive impression when presenting oneself in court.