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 future.

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 impression.

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 contents.

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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