01 April 2006

First impressions of others

First impressions of others

There are many recent studies on how people behave when meeting potential
mate partners for the first time. Speed dating, for example, is also very
popular these days. You know, when someone is interested in finding a
partner and in a formal setting they meet members of the opposite sex for a
few minutes. Depending on the opinion they have of the prospective partners
they give their details to those they are interested.

We already know some of the psychological aspects of first impressions. A
tall handsome guy is more likely to attract the attention of a group of
females than an average looking male. Guys, as we know, are more practical
and tend to give the benefit of the doubt and be interested in most females
they happen to come across. A person outside our social or racial group is
more likely to be discriminated against than someone with whom we have grown
up with.

We also know about the evolutionary and genetic implications of first
impressions. Aggressive or friendly behaviour needs to be identified very
quickly because our survival might depend on it. We also instinctively hold
back at the sight of blood. Presumably this is because it creates some sort
of fear probably related to self preservation.

This raises a very relevant question. How can philosophy contribute to this
debate? Especially given these two heavy weight divisions that flank the
central ground of the debate on first impressions.

"First impressions," are part of a well known English saying which states
that, "first impressions count." And typical of English, we also have a
saying that is totally contrary to the first, "don't judge a book by its
cover." What do we mean by first impressions count?

This common language saying can be divided into two technical parts. The
first part involves sense perception and the second part involves, an
opinion based on a value judgement. Of course, not a moral type of value
judgment, but a choice type where one chooses one option instead of an
other. The expression also implies two practical questions. How long do we
need before arriving at a first impression? And what should we do after we
have the first impression? We can even rephrase the first question to; how
long does it take us to reach a first impression?

There is the danger here that some people might understand by "having an
opinion" as being correct about the opinion one has of the other person. In
other words, if I see someone for the first time and have the impression
that they are friendly, it does not follow that I am right about them being
friendly. Having an opinion has nothing to do with being right or wrong. To
begin with, being right about something involves knowing the relevant facts,
or at least, enough relevant fact to see you home and dry. But when I say we
have an opinion about somebody, this must mean we believe that there will
come a point in the future that what we believe about this person and what
this person is really like will coincide. This interpretation also allows
the alternative meaning that our opinion could be about facts that happened
in the past, but we don't know those facts now. However, we assume that we
have a good chance to discover the truth about this person.

As we all know, beliefs about the future are at best highly probable. But
highly probable is not the kind of fact we are after. The nature of an
opinion is that we have a certain type of information on which to
rationalise our actions. Of course, our opinion might be wrong which is not
only an inbuilt assumption about opinions, but also a disadvantage to the
desired effect; for example someone being friendly. Our opinion that a
person is friendly is compromised by the fact that it is our opinion and
nothing to do with the person. For all we know, the person might think he is
socially inept with others. To complicate matters somewhat, the desired
effect might still take place independent of why we have a particular
opinion. For example, this person might still turn out to be friendly, maybe
not because the way he or she is dressed, but because they started taking
therapy. Hence, the reason why I say having an opinion is a disadvantage
rather than an outright certainty is because reality might have nothing to
do with how we think it is.

An opinion is also about a value judgment. The fact that it is my opinion
already suggests that I have decided in its favour whether there were
alternatives or not. And it is a value judgement even if I decided to adopt
someone else's opinion. Take this situation, if, in my opinion, a person is
untrustworthy, but I still trust them with something important I usually
have to justify this seeming contradiction. Thinking that someone is
untrustworthy is a value judgement and this has certain implications, as far
as the normal meaning of the word is concerned. Any deviation from this
normality requires an explanation.

It might be suggested that this first impression is not really a value
judgement at all. How can we have an opinion about someone we hardly know?
This chain of though is once again based on the assumption that our opinions
are always right; one might have an opinion make a value judgment, but still
be wring. And if it is not a value judgement, then what is it? Maybe, the
short time span goes against the possibility of first impressions being
value judgements. If you really want a rational test on this point, try
this. Go to your nearest road junction during the rush hour and stand in the
middle of the road. Do you think that the drivers will stop their car and
try to get to know you before calling you a crazy idiot? They don't have to
think about it, they would know you are crazy in all senses of the word. And
they came to that opinion is a fraction of a second.

When negotiating a contract for a product or service for a specific date, it
is a good idea to stipulate the delivery time. There is no point spending
two thousand euros on a wedding dress if it is going to be delivered three
weeks after the event. But a wedding gown seamstress would know that, that's
why these things tend to be expensive. So, how important is time in order
for us to have a first impression? Once again, first impressions are not
about being right or wrong, but about making a value judgement. The driver
who sees someone in the middle of the road during the rush hour is not
interested whether they crazy or not. But, rather, whether the driver should
stop or simply take evasive action. Hence, first impressions help us do
things now. They are about the here and now and not about the long term

I suggest that when an eligible bachelor sees a young woman arriving at a
party, he is not interested in knowing whether she'll make a good mother of
his children. But whether he wants to date her over the weekend. That's, if
you like, is the practical side, the philosophical issue is this, how we
decide now, will indeed affect us in the long term. If the young man decides
to ask the woman in the party for a date, as she does turn out to be his
dream wife, then that first impression decision certainly did have a long
term effect on his life. But he had to decide what to do in a short space of
time when he saw her the first time. If he didn't someone else might have
asked her out, and that would have affected his long term life just as much.

This is important because this will determine what is reasonable and what is
improper to do with first impressions. This explains why employers go
through so much trouble when they employ someone new. But having said that,
we know from experience that they do not always get it right. Why does this
happen? I'm sure there are many reasons why certain employees do not live up
to expectations, and I'm also sure that one of them is a dud first

Earlier on I started by saying that, first impressions can be split into two
technical parts; sense perception and opinion. Whilst opinions serve as
motives to our actions, sense perception affects our beliefs. Sense
perception is none other than raw data or information from the world around
us which we need to process before it becomes useful to us. Take the case of
someone in the middle of the road during the rush hour. The information the
drivers receive through their visual perception triggers the need to process
that information into something intelligible. Is this idiot going to jump in
front of my car; are you safe; can I keep on going and so on? This is a new
situation and there it contains a lot of new information that needs
processing and interpreting in a very short time. The outcome of that
process will determine what happens next. An unexpected situation carries
with it new information; see entropy and information theory. The better we
are at processing that information the more chances we have at making the
right decision.

But this processing and interpretation of sense perceptions does not happen
in a void or in isolation. The first influencing factor is our state of
mind. A driver caught in the rush hour might be forgiven if they went into a
fit of panic when seeing someone in the middle of the road. Maybe, in a
different situation the same driver might just slow down and calmly avoid
the person in question. The same reasoning may be applied to the young woman
who had just entered the party. Some other guy might equally have had a
positive first impression about her, but due to his early heavy drinking
with the lads he was not as quick on the mark as the guy who ended up
marrying her.

However, first impressions could not service their purpose without that very
important feature we call beliefs. Without our beliefs we do not know what
to do with our sense perceptions. And without our stock of knowledge there
is no way we can expect to arrive at a reasonably valid conclusion. Think of
the many times in the distance past when someone saw a plane high up in the
sky and they thought they were seeing a bird.

The kind of beliefs we bring into play when we see someone for the first
time determine the kind of opinion we have about that person. A person who
is racially prejudiced would bring into play certain racists beliefs when
they meet someone from a different race. An employer who went to a
prestigious university might be inclined to favour a fellow alumni. Maybe
out of some sort of loyalty to one's old university or, more probably, from
the need to network.

Which brings us to judging books by their cover. Of course, as we already
know, books should be read and not seen; unless they are a picture book that
is. But as every publisher would tell you the cover of a book can make or
break the success of a book. Which is not surprising given the number of
books being published today. The irony is that reading is our best source of
knowledge and information about people and everything else. Hence, the more
we read the more we are able to judge a book by its cover, but also by its

The same goes for people, I guess. The more we try to get to know people the
more we are able to have the right impressions about people in general and
the better we become in having a reasonably valid opinion about them.

Take care,


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