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?
Ackerman, J. M., Shapiro, J. R., Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., Becker, D. V., Griskevicius, V., Schaller, M. (2006). They all look the same to me (unless they’re angry): From out-group homogeneity to out-group heterogeneity. Psychological Science, 17(10), 836–840.
Adams, R. B., Jr., Gordon, H. L., Baird, A. A., Ambady, N., & Kleck, R. E. (2003). Effects of gaze on amygdala sensitivity to anger and fear faces. Science, 300(5625), 1536.
Ambady, N., Bernieri, F. J., & Richeson, J. A. (2000). Toward a histology of social behavior: Judgmental accuracy from thin slices of the behavioral stream. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 32, pp. 201–271). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Ambady, N., Krabbenhoft, M. A., & Hogan, D. (2006). The 30-sec sale: Using thin-slice judgments to evaluate sales effectiveness. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 16(1), 4–13. doi: 10.1207/s15327663jcp1601_2
Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431–441.
Anderson, N. H. (1974). Cognitive algebra: Integration theory applied to social attribution. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 7, pp. 1–101). New York, NY: Academic Press;
Asch, S. E. (1946). Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258–290.
Bar, M., Neta, M., & Linz, H. (2006). Very first impressions. Emotion, 6(2), 269–278. doi: 10.1037/1528–35220.127.116.119;
Belmore, S. M., & Hubbard, M. L. (1987). The role of advance expectancies in person memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 61–70.
Bingham, W. V., & Moore, B. V. (1931). How to interview. Oxford, England: Harpers.
Bond, C. F., Jr., & DePaulo, B. M. (2006). Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 214–234.
Buller, D. B., Stiff, J. B., & Burgoon, J. K. (1996). Behavioral adaptation in deceptive transactions: Fact or fiction: Reply to Levine and McCornack. Human Communication Research, 22(4), 589-603. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.1996.tb00381.x
Carlston, D. E., & Skowronski, J. J. (2005). Linking versus thinking: Evidence for the different associative and attributional bases of spontaneous trait transference and spontaneous trait inference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 884–898;
Clarke, T. J., Bradshaw, M. F., Field, D. T., Hampson, S. E., & Rose, D. (2005). The perception of emotion from body movement in point-light displays of interpersonal dialogue. Perception, 34(10), 1171–1180;
de Bruin, W. B. (2005). Save the last dance for me: Unwanted serial position effects in jury evaluations. ActaPsychologica, 118(3), 245–260. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2004.08.005
DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. J., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H. (2003). Cues to deception. Psychological Bulletin, 129(1), 74–118.
Dijksterhuis, A., & Aarts, H. (2003). On wildebeests and humans: The preferential detection of negative stimuli. Psychological Science, 14(1), 14–18.
Ekman, P., & Davidson, R. J. (1993). Voluntary smiling changes regional brain activity. Psychological Science, 4(5), 342–345;
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1974). Detecting deception from the body or face. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(3), 288–298. doi: 10.1037/h0036006
Falconi, A., & Mullet, E. (2003). Cognitive algebra of love through the adult life. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 57(3), 275–290.
Fletcher-Watson, S., Findlay, J. M., Leekam, S. R., & Benson, V. (2008). Rapid detection of person information in a naturalistic scene. Perception, 37(4), 571–583.
Frank, M. G., & Ekman, P. (1993). Not all smiles are created equal: The differences between enjoyment and nonenjoyment smiles. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 6(1), 9–26.
Gilbert, D. T., Krull, D. S., & Malone, P. S. (1990). Unbelieving the unbelievable: Some problems in the rejection of false information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(4), 601–613.
Hansen, C. H., & Hansen, R. D. (1988). Finding the face in the crowd: An anger superiority effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 917–924.
Haselton, M. G., & Funder, D. C. (2006). The evolution of accuracy and bias in social judgment. In M. Schaller, J. A. Simpson, & D. T. Kenrick (Eds.), Evolution and social psychology (pp. 15–37). Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press.
Haxby, J. V., Hoffman, E. A., & Gobbini, M. I. (2000). The distributed human neural system for face perception. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4(6), 223–233.
Heberlein, A. S., Adolphs, R., Tranel, D., & Damasio, H. (2004). Cortical regions for judgments of emotions and personality traits from point-light walkers. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16(7), 1143–1158.
Hood, B. M., & Macrae, C. N. (2007). Look into my eyes: The effect of direct gaze on face processing in children and adults. In R. Flom, K. Lee, & D. Muir (Eds.), Gaze-following: Its development and significance (pp. 283–296). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; Mason, M. F.,
Hostetter, A. B. (2011). When do gestures communicate? A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (2), 297–315.
Ijzerman, H., & Semin, G. R. (2009). The thermometer of social relations: Mapping social proximity on temperature. Psychological Science, 20(10), 1214–1220
Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(4), 887–900.
Johnson, K. L., Gill, S., Reichman, V., & Tassinary, L. G. (2007). Swagger, sway, and sexuality: Judging sexual orientation from body motion and morphology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(3), 321–334;
Jones, E. E. (1968). Pattern of performance and ability attribution: An unexpected primacy effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(4), 317–340.
Keeley, J. W., English, T., Irons, J., & Henslee, A. M. (2013). Investigating halo and ceiling effects in student evaluations of instruction. Educational And Psychological Measurement, 73(3), 440-457. doi:10.1177/0013164412475300
Kelley, H. H. (1950). The warm-cold variable in first impressions of persons. Journal of Personality,18(4), 431–439.
Knapp, M. L., & Hall, J. A. (2006). Nonverbal communication in human interaction (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
Koppell, J. G. S., & Steen, J. A. (2004). The effects of ballot position on election outcomes. Journal of Politics, 66(1), 267–281.
Krauss, R. M., Chen, Y., & Chawla, P. (Eds.). (1996). Nonverbal behavior and nonverbal communication: What do conversational hand gestures tell us? San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Langleben, D. D., Loughead, J. W., Bilker, W. B., Ruparel, K., Childress, A. R., Busch, S. I., & Gur, R. C. (2005). Telling truth from lie in individual subjects with fast event-related fMRI. Human Brain Mapping, 26(4), 262–272.
Macrae, C. N., & Quadflieg, S. (2010). Perceiving people. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 428–463). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Manstead, A. S. R. (Ed.). (1991). Expressiveness as an individual difference. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press;
Mason, M. F., & Macrae, C. N. (2004). Categorizing and individuating others: The neural substrates of person perception. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16(10), 1785–1795. doi: 10.1162/0898929042947801
Miller, J. M., & Krosnick, J. A. (1998). The impact of candidate name order on election outcomes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 62(3), 291–330.
Mills, J. (2007). Evidence forming attitudes from combining beliefs about positive attributes of activities follows averaging (Unpublished manuscript). University of Maryland, College Park.
Montepare, J. M., & Zebrowitz-McArthur, L. (1988). Impressions of people created by age-related qualities of their gaits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(4), 547–556.
Newman, M. L., Pennebaker, J. W., Berry, D. S., & Richards, J. M. (2003). Lying words: Predicting deception from linguistic styles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 665–675.
Pennebaker, J. W., Rime, B., & Blankenship, V. E. (1996). Stereotypes of emotional expressiveness of Northerners and Southerners: A cross-cultural test of Montesquieu’s hypotheses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(2), 372–380.
Pratto, F., & John, O. P. (1991). Automatic vigilance: The attention-grabbing power of negative social information. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(3), 380–391.
Richeson, J. A., & Shelton, J. N. (2005). Brief report: Thin slices of racial bias. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 29(1), 75–86.
Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296–320.
Rule, N. O., & Ambady, N. (2010). Democrats and Republicans can be differentiated from their faces. PLoS ONE, 5(1), e8733;
Rule, N. O., Ambady, N., & Hallett, K. C. (2009). Female sexual orientation is perceived accurately, rapidly, and automatically from the face and its features. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(6), 1245–1251.
Rule, N. O., Ambady, N., Adams, R. B., Jr., & Macrae, C. N. (2008). Accuracy and awareness in the perception and categorization of male sexual orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1019–1028;
Rule, N. O., Ishii, K., Ambady, N., Rosen, K. S., & Hallett, K. C. (2011). Found in translation: Cross-cultural consensus in the accurate categorization of male sexual orientation. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1499-1507. doi:10.1177/0146167211415630
Sears, D. O. (1986). College sophomores in the laboratory: Influences of a narrow data base on social psychology’s view of human nature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(3), 515–530.
Shapiro, D. A. (1969). Empathy, warmth, and genuineness in psychotherapy. British Journal of Clinical and Social Psychology, 8(4), 350-361. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1969.tb00627.x
Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A. N., Goren, A., & Hall, C. C. (2005). Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes. Science, 308(5728), 1623–1626.
Todorov, A., Said, C. P., Engel, A. D., & Oosterhof, N. N. (2008). Understanding evaluation of faces on social dimensions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(12), 455–460. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.10.001
Turati, C., Cassia, V. M., Simion, F., & Leo, I. (2006). Newborns’ face recognition: Role of inner and outer facial features. Child Development, 77(2), 297–311.
Walker-Andrews, A. S. (2008). Intermodal emotional processes in infancy. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 364–375). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Webster, D. M., Richter, L., & Kruglanski, A. W. (1996). On leaping to conclusions when feeling tired: Mental fatigue effects on impressional primacy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32(2), 181–195.
Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing physical warmth promotes interpersonal warmth. Science, 322(5901), 606–607.
Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions: Making up your mind after a 100ms exposure to a face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592–598.