I will admit, I’m one who forms a lasting first impression when I meet a person for the first time. Well, at least I used to be, that is, until I was proven wrong. I proved my own theory wrong and then I read a research study that proved my first-impression mentality wrong as well. I’ll explain.
Back in May 2015, I started a two-year study program in which I immediately met nearly 100 new people at once. This study program would involve studying at home and online for two years, plus also attending 4 in-residence sessions at a retreat center. The in-residence sessions would last 7 days and would require overnight stays. I would be sharing 3 meals a day and a room with a complete stranger on 4 different occasions.
The first in-resident session was insightful for me. As I nervously walked into the retreat center, collected my name tag and signed in, I stole glances at others around me. They seemed personable, pleasant, and yes, a little plain. No designer luggage was being flung around in this lobby. My mind wondered as I encountered many warm smiles. I wondered the obvious questions — where had they come from, why were they here and how was this going to go?
At the moment, I didn’t realize my own upbringing, my age, my gender and my own biases played a big role in how I first viewed these people. I curiously looked around and seeing all the new faces, made first impressions in my mind. I was labeling these people. It was immature and irrational thinking, obviously, because I didn’t know a thing about any of them.
One year and 3 “in-resident” sessions later, I’m proud to say I’ve changed most of my first impressions. I noticed that during the course of the program, in which I spent hours talking to these people from across the US, my initial opinions changed. I consciously tried to meet each person along the way and I discovered each person in a different light. What amazed me about this process is that initially, I exhibited what is known as “diagnosis bias.” This is when we label people based on our first impressions of them and are unable to reconsider those judgments once we’ve made them.
Had it not been for an assignment given to me, my first impressions might have lasted. During the 3rd in-residence session, I was required to sit and visit with attendees on a much deeper level. Small talk about the weather or our children was not allowed. The assignment was about studying the lost art of having meaningful conversations. It was here that I saw beyond my first impressions. The light bulb went off. I had misjudged many people. These men and women were anything but plain. They were extraordinary!
Then, as almost planned for me, I returned home to a daughter asking me to help her with a summer reading assignment. She was to read the book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior. In the book, authors Ori and Rom Brafman prove the theory of diagnosis bias — our natural tendency to label people and our inability to rethink those initial judgments. Research proved what I had just realized for myself — my initial impressions were wrong.
Brafman says we pay a price for making those initial first impressions and not going back to reconsider them. We miss meeting and knowing some awesome people. Psychologist Franz Epting says we prevent ourselves “from seeing what’s clearly before our face.” My own first impressions taught me this truth.
I believe if we are aware we are doing this, our lives could change. We would possibly give others a chance to be in our lives. I know for myself, I’ll revisit my first impressions when I meet someone new again. I’ll dig deeper into their story and hopefully discover my mistakes of labeling. And who knows — maybe they will not judge me and stay with their first impressions of me either!