After First Impressions, Changing Perceptions is Difficult

Here’s some interesting new insight into the human mind: first perceptions are even harder to overcome than most people had realized. According to research conducted on an international scale, our first impression of a person, place or idea becomes our brain’s default perception. If we later learn information that contradicts that perception, our brain categorizes it as an exception, rather than using the information to alter the rule. Specifically, we associate the exception with the context of that new information; all other contexts get the ‘default’ association. Say, for example, your first impression of a new coworker is negative, but you end up having a pleasant conversation when you run into him or her at the gym and change your mind. In the context of the gym, you’ll see the person more positively, but anywhere else (be it work, or even a new environment such as a restaurant), you’ll still be guided by your first impression.

This insight is especially interesting for therapists and counselors who help clients overcome phobias, said lead author Bertram Gawronski. “If someone with phobic reactions to spiders is seeking help from a psychologist, the therapy will be much more successful if it occurs in multiple different contexts rather than just in the psychologist’s office.” A similar pattern may be relevant for people struggling with profound anxiety and even PTSD. Learning healthy coping strategies in the therapist’s office can be helpful, but the idea of concept-based perception may explain why people sometimes feel less confident in their ability to apply those strategies in their daily life.

Marriage and family therapists can also gain insight from this research. It’s not uncommon for struggling couples to try and ‘fix’ their problems by taking a trip, moving into a new home, or adopting a new pet. It could be that by doing this, they’re trying to create a new context with a new dynamic, one that will ‘stick.’ But it’s still the exception, not the rule. So to really heal, we need to override and rewrite the default by dismantling it and replacing it with something healthier. It’s certainly possible, but it takes more time and patience than simply trying something new does.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Isabelle

    January 21st, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    oh great! I really blew it with my boyfriend’s parents then. my first impression wasn’t great and now they are going to carry that around with them!

  • r.mascarenhas

    January 21st, 2011 at 2:02 PM

    that is a new for me. it’s funny how prejudicial we humans are,isn’t it?

    when i think of it now, yes, even i have done this for several people and have had prejudices about them stuck in my head. Not only is such a thing bad when you think of others negatively, but it is also bad when you think of others positively. they might just take advantage of that, you know!

  • Rae

    January 22nd, 2011 at 6:08 AM

    We all have to be willing to open our minds a little and be open to new things. First impressions, while powerful, do not have to be the end all and be all.

  • Art

    January 23rd, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    There have been times I have looked at a person I just met, and I immediately think “I don’t trust you.”, and my intuition has so far been very accurate, with most of them turning out to be bad influences or general troublemakers. I can choose to ignore it all I want, but when they show themselves to be the type who borrows money and never pays it back, mean and unpleasant, or a thief who uses stolen goods to fuel his addiction, it just reinforces it.

  • Louise

    January 23rd, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    I rarely find my first impression is wrong. It’s like the saying, you can take the girl out of Kansas but you can’t take the Kansas out of the girl. Location alone doesn’t change who they are underneath. That’s interesting that where it happens matters as much as the interaction itself.

  • Karen

    February 16th, 2016 at 1:52 AM

    First impressions go back to our ancestors, they relied heavily on their ability to read body language very quickly as the spoken word was not so advanced. They sharpened their instincts to be able to work out friend or foe, or an animals potential behaviour (especially the sharp tooth or clawed ones). We still have this ability and it’s deep within our limbic system which is within our brain. First impressions are formed within our brain and our nervous system’s respond to them. Yes, having an awareness of this means we can be more open minded about people, but it’s also true about our instincts and intuition – we are rarely wrong when we get a ‘strong sense.’ When I started studying first impressions I realised that I could separate my behaviour from the physiological response in my brain when I first met someone. In other words, my brain processed it’s ‘perception’ of that person but my behaviour would run away into judgements such as slanderous thoughts. So it isn’t just the first impression process that narrows our opinions, it can be our behaviour afterwards. That’s the great thing about learning this awareness, yo can nib that straight away and it helps you keep an open mind whilst still allowing our instincts to perform it’s duty.

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