Finding the Good in People…

First impressions are important; at least the conventional wisdom would lead us to believe so. The trick with most of the research supporting this, however, is that the majority of this research compares extremely immoral deeds (selling drugs to kids) to ordinary acts of kindness (sharing an umbrella). The comparison is skewed because the acts described are not balanced. What happens to people’s impressions if the acts were balanced and less extreme? Researchers from Oxford, Yale, and University College London collaborated to explore this very question.

In their paper, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers had 336 lab-based, and online participants read about two fictional people who made 50 decisions about how many electrical shocks should be administered to a third party in exchange for money. One of the fictional people had a cost-per-shock threshold which was higher than the average while the other’s cost threshold was comparably lower than the average. Before seeing the decisions in each of the 50 scenarios, participants were asked to predict the decision of the two characters. After every three decisions, participants were asked to rate how nasty or nice the fictional individual was along with specifying the confidence the participants had in their rating.

Study participants were more willing to change their mind about an individual when the initial first-impression was negative. These data suggest the brain may not completely write off someone at the first sign of trouble.

Where the study’s scenarios are not reflective of real-world situations, the findings suggest that the brain may absorb more information in threatening situations. This additional information may allow the brain to alter the negative impression of an individual later on. Therefore, the adage on first impressions may still be accurate. With the caveat, of course, that an initial negative impression may not be as set in stone as once believed.

This was Article 106 from the .

Works cited:

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Face Properties in the Human Amygdala. J Cogn. Neurosci. 19, 1508–1519 (2007).

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C. & Glick, P. Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and

competence. Trends Cogn. Sci. 11, 77–83 (2007).

Hutson, M. (2018). Bad First Impressions Are Not Set in Stone. Scientific American. Retrieved 16 December 2018, from

Siegel, J. Z., Mathys, C., Rutledge, R. B., & Crockett, M. J. (2018). Beliefs about bad people are volatile. Nature Human Behaviour, 2(10), 750.

Todorov, A., Pakrashi, M. & Oosterhof, N. N. Evaluating Faces on Trustworthiness After Minimal

Time Exposure. Soc. Cogn. 27, 813–833 (2009).

Uleman, J. S. & Kressel, L. M. A brief history of theory and research on impression formation. in

The Oxford handbook of social cognition (ed. Carlson, D.E.) 53–73 (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Yu, H., Siegel, J. Z., & Crockett, M. J. (2017). Modeling Morality in 3D: Decision‐Making, Judgment, and Inference. Topics in Cognitive Science.

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Theodore (Ted) Stark

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Empirically minded User Experience professional with a bias towards the science that informs human-computer interaction.

Studio Quick Facts

The bi-weekly series focused on the science behind how humans interact with technology.