14 February 2008

Can we go beyond first impressions?

Can we go beyond first impressions?



It is well established that first impression influence our decisions enormously. What is at issue is how much do they influence our actions and how accurate are they. By and large this is the concern of psychologist, neurologists and psychiatrists. And I'm sure that evolutionary biologists can enlighten us even more about the history and mechanics of first impressions.*



Does this leave any room for philosophy to say anything relevant on the subject?



A very relevant area for philosophy would be to look at the consequences, both positive and negative, and how we should deal with the negative consequences. How should this class of consequences be interpreted, for example, when compared with other negatives consequences we experience?



First impressions are first and foremost an information processing activity. And as many studies have suggested, it is more linked to the way information is transmitted to us than it is about our ability to interpret information. Given that perceptual information reaches us very fast in normal life we need to react to situations just as fast. The classical example is the curled up snake in our pathway. Our ability to see the snake and take evasive action is more important for us /especially our ancestors/ than being able to identify the snake as being poisonous, aggressive or what ever. That can be done later after we've neutralized the snake.



Inevitably there is a survival struggle between our ability to recognize a harmful creature, be it man or beast, and our survival adversary being capable of preventing or delaying our discovery of this adversary. The snake wants us not to see it, but we want to see it and do something about it as soon as possible. This, of course, is nature and evolution at their best. From our part we have very little to argue about this point. Today the balance has more than shifted in our favour to the fatal detriment of the snake. Although some snakes are still dangerous.



This survival game also applies with human beings, not just snakes, there has always been an equal struggle to survive between groups and individual human beings. Being able to recognise those who wish us harm immediately would give us an advantage in the same way we would have an advantage against the snake. As an evolutionary instinct, first impressions have played a useful and, on the whole, advantageous part. After all we are still here, aren't we?



So where is the philosophical issue? It is one thing to evolve strategies and adaptations to survive against an equally able adversary. For example, two people from different tribes camouflaging themselves to capture a gazelle would be fair play in most circumstances. But would it be fair play to adopt strategies to exploit an adversary? We can adopt a strategy to be more efficient at catching gazelle or we can adopt a strategy to take away from our adversary a gazelle they have efficiently caught? Most people would say (never mind what they actually do for now) that taking away from others is not fair play.



You will remember that the idea of fair play does not carry with it strong moral implications of words like steal or rob, exploit or cheat. Moral labels are not that relevant for us compared to understanding the balance or equilibrium that has to exist if we are not to end up in oblivion. To put it in an other way, given the capacity and the force this survival strategy can have on, how can we stop it from going into a super critical evolution; i.e. go out of control?



I intentionally borrow concepts from physics here, since nuclear physics have give us the very excellent concepts of, sub critical, critical mass and super critical. (Google the respective concepts) For our purposes, a critical mass is reached when a reaction (human evolution) has reached a sustainable level (human survival) over time. But we do not want that such a reaction goes super critical and thus out of control and unpredictable; in our example it would mean the distraction of the species: in physics, at the very least, we expect something like the China Syndrome.



What does all this have to do with first impressions? That first impressions have served a purpose is not in doubt. But what if we were to turn this strength in humans into a weakness in our competitors or adversaries?



The use of the words adversary and competitor are used differently in every day life from the specialised context of survival strategies. My competitor in life would be another English teacher, and since I do not aspire to make a living from philosophy I am not really a competitor to professional philosophers. By the same token, the manufacturer of my pc is probably a competitor of the manufacturer of your pc. Adversary follows the same logic. Someone who does not want to compete with my services, but wants to cheat to prevent me from having work would be an adversary. Someone who wants to take your pc because they couldn't be bothered to save for one would be your adversary.



In the case of the survival struggle a competitor would be someone or some creature who is seeking the same resources as us. Therefore, as long as both the lion and us are chasing the same gazelle for lunch we are competitors, as soon as we catch the gazelle and the lioness starts chasing us the lioness becomes our adversary; lions do not usually get involved with the cooking unless it's a desperate situation.



Thus on the more technical interpretation my competitor need not be another fellow teacher, but maybe a post graduate college which is also competing for the learning motivation of a prospective student. And an aggressor would probably be someone who introduces an employment policy in a company who now requires employees to have a master's degree rather than being proficient users of English. Of course one does not exclude the other, but the student needs to accommodate both activities with all the economic choice implication that has. To take another example, a competitor of a pc mf might not be another pc manufacturer but maybe a car manufacturer. Today most people have access to a pc at work with a connection to the internet, but not a customised car.



This is where first impressions come into their own. If first impressions can lead us to making certain decision, if not cause us to make certain decisions, wouldn't it be an unfair advantage if a manufacturer could attract customers in such a way that would make them abandon other purchases that might be more useful for them? Think about it, how many times have you bought something on an impulse (impulse purchase) because you liked the wrapping or because of the positioning of the product which you might have regretted later on? Maybe a bar of chocolate that you knew what it was not really good for your cholesterol level?



Of course, knowing that something is a gazelle in a fraction of a second can help a great deal in our hunt for the animal. However, someone can easily use this fact to exploit our instinct for example by making the wrapping of a bar of chocolate attractive or eye catching. Maybe, you might argue, this no more sinister than a brightly red coloured mushrooms in the forest. But could not this situation be described as one is attracting our attention whilst the other is exploiting our attention? It is certainly hard to answer.



Consider what Prof Olson is reported to have said and quoted in the Science Daily article (First Impressions Of Beauty), ""Attractive people are paid more, are judged more intelligent and will receive more attention in most facets of life. "This favoritism, while poorly understood, seems to be innate and cross-cultural. Studies suggest that even infants prefer pretty faces," Olson said.



Should we treat this as the news item of the century or as a taboo we would rather not talk about? Whilst accepting the opinion of sceptics and non-believers, what are the implications of this situation? It would be reasonable to assume that if any situation needed to go beyond first impressions this would be it?



If physical attraction does result into favouritism, would this be at par with say racial discrimination, sex discrimination and would it be in the same class of discrimination as discrimination against handicapped people? Maybe not as severe as being handicapped, but certainly as severe as discriminating because of race.



Although we have no doubt to trust the veracity of Prof. Olson's conclusion I don't think we need to worry that mush because we're going to be over run by attractive and pretty people. In the same way that not all governments are fascists or communists. This is not, however, an invitation to be complacent, but a warning to be on guard for such things as discrimination or racism; or simply frivolous policies.



However, the implications of first impressions in today's everyday life are worth considering. These negative aspects do not only apply to buying chocolates or looking for a mate. I would venture and ask how do first impressions affect people in such areas as employment (at interviews), medical care, in courts of law, restaurants an so on?



Before going beyond first impressions, there is a detail which I have been intentionally holding back. When scientists say that first impressions can be an accurate representation of reality, what they mean is that the aggregate results of a study point in the right direction. But just because a group of people can agree who is attractive at a fraction of a second or recognise a snake in on the path way, it does not follow that all the individuals, including you and me, can accurately identify something or a situation from first impressions.



But while first impressions are useful collectively, exploiting this instinct in others is, in my opinion, an individualistic event. Although you might not be right about the true worth of a bar of chocolate, the producers wants you as an individual to have an erroneous first impression in their favour. Maybe this difference between aggregate results and individual experience plays an important part in evolutionary stability; not everyone gets it right nor gets things wrong, but enough to keep a steady dynamic process going.



As I said earlier, information is the key; be it expert type of information or self awareness type of information. With the right information, I suggest we might be able to activate the cognitive part of the brain that gets by passed when we instinctively react to a first impression. (see First impressions: Computer model....). It is believed that in normal day to day first impressions we instantaneously (sometimes even as quick as 50 milliseconds) can categorise an image and take the appropriate action without activating the cognitive part of the brain. Once we categorise something some thing as being a snake we get out of the way; and once we categorise something as a good bar of chocolate we reach out for it.



It is probably the by passing of the cognitive activity of the brain that is the weak spot of first impressions. The article Selling Customers The Short End..... suggests that people might trust someone who they think is more "savvy" than they are, but not if they think they are there equal. We know this from adverts with people wearing white coats, successful sports people and of course attractive people. But in a way even these savvy or attractive people are being used by others to further their own fortunes. So although attractive people are favoured it is not a completely free ride. Not only do first impressions fail to activate the thinking part of our brain, but this process can be high jacked by implanting irrelevant or even erroneous information.



When we know less about a product than the seller, economists call this asymmetric information. I'm sure we can extend this theory to survival strategies. For example, we do not know how a famous person uses a product they endorse. Nor do we know whether an attractive person is also a competent person. It might be too late when we discover the true answer to these questions.



Having more of the right type of information can reduce the asymmetry gap between the actors. Which is precisely one of the most important things we can do minimise the drawbacks of first impressions. Consider the study reported in the article, The Eyes Have it:... In an eye tracking experiment of consumers looking at adverts, the results supported the theory (Yarbus thesis) that advert information is goal-contingent; "..the eyes are a reflection of consumer goals." Of course, this is very simplistic version of a rather complex process. but the lesson is not lost. If we know what we are looking for we are not fooled or distracted by irrelevant information. And in such situations as employment, courts of law or medical treatment, this is not only desirable but also an imperative.



Even still, with the right sort of information (our goals) together with any information that might reduce any advantage our adversary might have over us we can stand a good chance of going beyond first impressions. It would still be a question of chance and maybe random events, but it's a start. The irony, of course, is that the best way we have of going beyond first impressions is to employ the very same strategy and resources that make first impressions such a complex issue: information gathering.



Take care






* some recent articles on the subject.

First impressions: Computer model behaves like humans on visual categorization task

Published: 17:28 EST, April 02, 2007

* PhysOrg.com




University of Pennsylvania (2006, January 25). First Impressions Of Beauty May Demonstrate Why The Pretty Prosper. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 13, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2006/01/060124223317.htm#



The Association for Psychological Science

July 2006

Volume 19, Number 7

How Many Seconds to a First Impression?




'Thin slices' of life

Psychologists are finding that our first impressions of others can be remarkably accurate--but also can fail us.


Monitor Staff

Volume 36, No. 3 March 2005




Duke University (2007, March 30). Selling Customers The Short End Of The Stick. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070329161807.htm



University of Chicago Press Journals (2007, August 10). The Eyes Have It: What Do We See When We Look At Ads?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 14, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070807135659.htm

No comments: