First Impressions

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First Impressions
Social Perception
Social Perception
䉴 Do we perceive people and objects in similar ways?
There is a story about a company president who was having lunch with a man being
considered for an executive position. When the man salted his food without first tasting it, the president decided not to hire him. The reason, she explained, was that the
company had no room for a person who acted before collecting all relevant information. The candidate lost his chance because of the president’s social perception, the
processes through which people interpret information about others, form impressions
of them, and draw conclusions about the reasons for their behavior. In this section we
examine how and why social perception influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
The Role of Schemas
A Schema-Plus-Correction
People who see an object like this tend to
use a preexisting mental representation
(their schema of a square) and then correct or modify it in some way (here, with
a notch).
Do we sometimes perceive
people the same way we
perceive objects? (a link to
Sensation and Perception)
The perception of people follows many of the same laws that govern the perception of
objects, including the Gestalt principles discussed in the chapter on sensation and perception (Cloutier, Mason, & Macrae, 2005). Consider Figure 14.1. Consistent with
Gestalt principles, most people would describe it as “a square with a notch in one side,”
not as eight straight lines (Woodworth & Schlosberg, 1954). The reason is that they
interpret new information using the mental representations, or schemas, that they
already have about squares. In other words, they interpret this diagram as a square with
a slight modification.
Schemas about people, too, can affect our perception of them. For one thing,
schemas influence what we pay attention to and what we ignore. We tend to process
information about the other person more quickly if it confirms our beliefs about that
person’s gender or ethnic group, for example, than if it violates those beliefs. Second,
schemas influence what we remember about others. In one study, if people thought a
woman they saw in a videotape was a waitress, they recalled that she had a beer with
dinner and owned a TV set. Those who thought she was a librarian remembered that
she was wearing glasses and liked classical music (Cohen, 1981). Finally, schemas affect
our judgment about the behavior of others (Moskowitz, 2005). Thomas Hill and his
colleagues (1989) found that participants’ ratings of male and female friends’ sadness
were influenced not only by the friends’ actual behavior but also by the participants’
general schemas about how much sadness men versus women experience.
In other words, through top-down processing (discussed in the sensation and perception chapter), our schemas about people influence our perceptions of them. And
just as schemas help us read sentences whose words have missing letters, they also allow
us to efficiently “fill in the blanks” about people. Our schemas tell us, for example, that
someone wearing a store uniform or name tag is likely to know where merchandise is
located, so we usually approach that person for help. Accurate schemas help us to categorize people quickly and respond appropriately in social situations, but if schemas
are incorrect they can create false expectations and errors in judgment about people
that can lead to narrow-mindedness and even prejudice.
First Impressions
social perception The processes
through which people interpret information about others, draw inferences
about them, and develop mental representations of them.
schemas Mental representations
about people and social situations.
Our schemas about people act as lenses that alter our first impressions of them. Those
impressions, in turn, affects both our later perceptions of their behavior and our reactions to it. First impressions are formed quickly, sometimes in less than one second
(Willis & Todorov, 2006), usually change slowly, and typically have a long-lasting influence. No wonder they are so important in the development of social relations (Brehm
et al., 2005). How do people form impressions of other people? And why are these
impressions so resistant to change?
Think about your first impression of a close
friend. It was probably formed quickly, because existing schemas create a
Forming Impressions
Chapter 14
Social Psychology
MAY I HELP YOU? Schemas help us
to quickly categorize people and respond
appropriately to them, but schemas can
also create narrow-mindedness and, as
we shall see later, prejudice. If this
woman does not fulfill your schema—
your mental representation—of how carpenters are supposed to look, you might
be less likely to ask her advice on your
home improvement project. One expert
carpenter who manages the hardware
department of a large home improvement store told us that most customers
walk right past her in order to ask the advice of one of her less experienced male
tendency to automatically assume a great deal about a person on the basis of limited
information (Smith & Quellar, 2001). An ethnic name, for example, might have caused
you to draw inferences about your friend’s religion, food preferences, or temperament.
Clothing or hairstyle might have led you to make assumptions about political views or
taste in music. These inferences and assumptions may or may not be accurate. How
many turned out to be true in your friend’s case?
One schema has a particularly strong influence on first impressions: We tend to
assume that the people we meet have attitudes and values similar to our own (Hoyle,
1993). So, all else being equal, we are inclined to like other people. However, even a small
amount of negative information can change our minds. Why? The main reason is that
most of us don’t expect other people to act negatively toward us. When unexpectedly
negative behaviors do occur, they capture our attention and lead us to believe that these
behaviors reflect something negative about the other person (Taylor, Peplau, & Sears,
2003). The result is that negative information attracts more attention and carries more
weight than positive information in shaping first impressions (Smith & Mackie, 2000).
Does your friend seem the same today as when you first met?
First impressions can change, but the process is usually slow. One reason is that negative first impressions may cause us to avoid certain people, thus reducing our exposure
to new information that might change our view of them (Denrell, 2005). Further, most
people want to keep their social environment simple and easy to understand (Kenrick,
Neuberg, & Cialdini, 2005). We cling to our beliefs about the world, often using our
schemas to preserve a reality that fits our expectations. Holding on to existing impressions
Lasting Impressions
Noticeable features or actions help shape
our impressions of others. Those impressions may or may not be correct.
© Scott Adams/Dist. By United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
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