First impressions: fire, observe, adjust

“Matt, this is Adam.”

I look at him. He’s got a scraggly beard sitting right above his shirt and tie. His brogues are gleaming in the sun. His chin is raised and jutting out. His shoulders are drawn back. It’s like he’s trying to take up more air than the dimensions of his body allows.

“Matt, this is Eve.”

I look at her. Her gaze leaves the book for a second as she says “hello” and snaps back to the page. She’s leaning forward like she’s about to fall off the cushions she’s surrounded herself with, and into the imaginary world that she’s reading about.

First impressions are remarkably resistant to change. As I learnt from Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power, there’s four different reasons for that. 

  • Attention decrement – we pay more attention to information received earlier on, than information gained later.
  • Cognitive discounting – we tend to disregard information that doesn’t align with our original impression.
  • Acting to confirm expectations – if we think someone is intelligent, we’ll give them opportunities to display that quality. If not, the reverse.
  • Biased assimilation – we reinterpret later information to align with our original judgement.

Do you know what a mortar is? It’s a small, short range device that propels an explosive on a high, arcing trajectory. They’re useful for hitting people and vehicles shielded by hills and walls and other obstacles. 

In the 19th and 20th century, before the onset of technologically assisted aiming, mortars were aimed and targeted manually. The first strike was let off and it’s impact observed. Adjustments were made. The second strike was released and observed. Adjustments were made. This process of fire-observe-and-adjust was repeated until the mortar fire was dropped right on the adversary’s head.

It’s the opposite of how we deal with our impressions of people. We get a first impression—the equivalent of the first mortar shell landing—and then refuse to adjust. Even when we know that we’re not hitting the mark. Even when the person’s words and actions conflict with the picture we have of them.

The solution to the rigidity of first impressions? Consciously look for distinctions between what you saw then and what you see now. Always be looking, not to confirm, but to disprove your impression of an individual