It has frequently been said that “first impressions matter.” Social psychological research supports this idea. The primacy effect describes the tendency for information that we learn first to be weighted more heavily than is information that we learn later. One demonstration of the primacy effect was conducted by Solomon Asch (1946). In his research, participants learned some traits about a person and then made judgments about him. One half of the participants saw this list of traits:
- Intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious
The other half of the participants saw this list:
- Envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious, intelligent
You may have noticed something interesting about these two lists—they contain exactly the same traits but in reverse order.
Asch discovered something interesting in his study: because the traits were the same, we might have expected that both groups would form the same impression of the person, but this was not at all the case. Rather, Asch found that the participants who heard the first list, in which the positive traits came first, formed much more favorable impressions than did those who heard the second list, in which the negative traits came first. Similar findings were found by Edward Jones (1968), who had participants watch one of two videotapes of a woman taking an intelligence test. In each video, the woman correctly answered the same number of questions and got the same number wrong. However, when the woman got most of her correct answers in the beginning of the test but got more wrong near the end, she was seen as more intelligent than when she got the same number correct but got more correct at the end of the test.
Primacy effects also show up in other domains, even in those that seem really important. For instance, Koppell and Steen (2004) found that in elections in New York City, the candidate who was listed first on the ballot was elected more than 70% of the time, and Miller and Krosnick (1998) found similar effects for candidate preferences in laboratory studies.
This is not to say that it is always good to be first. In some cases, the information that comes last can be most influential. Recency effects, in which information that comes later is given more weight, although much less common than primacy effects, may sometimes occur. For example, de Bruin (2005) found that in competitions such as the Eurovision Song Contest and ice skating, higher marks were given to competitors who performed last.
Considering the primacy effect in terms of the cognitive processes central to human information processing leads us to understand why it can be so powerful. One reason is that humans are cognitive misers. Because we desire to conserve our energy, we are more likely to pay more attention to the information that comes first and less likely to attend to information that comes later. In fact, when people read a series of statements about a person, the amount of time they spend reading the items declines with each new piece of information (Belmore & Hubbard, 1987). Not surprisingly, then, we are more likely to show the primacy effect when we are tired than when we are wide awake and when we are distracted than when we are paying attention (Webster, Richter, & Kruglanski, 1996).
Another reason for the primacy effect is that the early traits lead us to form an initial expectancy about the person, and once that expectancy is formed, we tend to process information in ways that keep that expectancy intact. Thinking back to Chapter 2 and the discussion of social cognition, we can see that this of course is a classic case of assimilation—once we have developed a schema, it becomes difficult to change it. If we learn that a person is “intelligent” and “industrious,” those traits become cognitively accessible, which leads us to develop a positive expectancy about the person. When the information about the negative features comes later, these negatives will be assimilated into the existing knowledge more than the existing knowledge is accommodated to fit the new information. Once we have formed a positive impression, the new negative information just doesn’t seem as bad as it might have been had we learned it first. This is an important factor in explaining the halo effect, which is the influence of a global positive evaluation of a person on perceptions of their specific traits. Put simply, if we get an initially positive general impression of someone, we often see their specific traits more positively. The halo effect has been demonstrated in many social contexts, including a classic investigation by Bingham and Moore (1931) on job interviewing and a far more recent study of students’ evaluations of their professors (Keeley, English, Irons, & Hensley, 2013).
You can be sure that it would be good to take advantage of the primacy and halo effects if you are trying to get someone you just met to like you. Begin with your positive characteristics, and only bring the negatives up later. This will create a much better outcome than beginning with the negatives.
- Every day we must size up the people we interact with. The process of doing this is known as person perception.
- We can form a wide variety of initial impressions of others quickly and often quite accurately.
- Nonverbal behavior is communication that does not involve speaking, including facial expressions, body language, touching, voice patterns, and interpersonal distance. We rely on nonverbal behavior in our initial judgments of others.
- The particular nonverbal behaviors that we use, as well as their meanings, are determined by social norms, and these may vary across cultures.
- In comparison with positive information about people, negative information tends to elicit more physiological arousal, draw greater attention, and exert greater impact on our judgments and impressions of people.
- People are only moderately good at detecting deception, and experts are not usually much better than the average person.
- We integrate traits to form judgments of people primarily by averaging them.
- Negative and central traits have a large effect on our impressions of others.
- The primacy effect occurs because we pay more attention to information that comes first and also because initial information colors how we perceive information that comes later.
- These processes also help to explain how the halo effect occurs.
Exercises and Critical Thinking
- Consider a case where you formed an impression of someone quickly and on only a little information. How accurate do you think your judgment was and why? What information did you take into account? What information might you have missed?
- Consider some of the nonverbal behaviors that you and your friends use when you communicate. What information are you usually trying to communicate by using them? When do you find yourself using more vigorous gesturing and why?
- Give an example of a situation in which you have noticed the effects of central traits on your perception of someone. Why do you think that this happened?
- Describe a situation where you were influenced by either the primacy or the halo effect in your initial perceptions of someone. How accurate did those initial perceptions turn out to be and why?
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