Monday, March 9, 2009

Converting First Impressions

Neuroscientists at New York University and Harvard University have identified the neural systems involved in forming first impressions of others. The findings, which show how we encode social information and then evaluate it in making these initial judgments, are reported in the most recent issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.


The neuroimaging results showed significant activity in two regions of the brain during the encoding of impression-relevant information. The first, the amygdala, is a small structure in the medial temporal lobe that previously has been linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects, as well as social evaluations based on trust or race group. The second, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), has been linked to economic decision-making and assigning subjective value to rewards. In the Nature Neuroscience study, these parts of the brain, which are implicated in value processing in a number of domains, showed increased activity when encoding information that was consistent with the impression.

Think Fast, A Vital Ability

In the brain, first impressions seem to be linked to multiple functional areas: to an emotional learning enabler, to the system used in building a sense of social rewards and values, and to how we estimate winning compatibility with our peers. The original first few seconds imprint can then initiate a self-confirming loop of likes or dislikes that will usually stick to us. Specially if corroborated by further information.

But then again, these first impressions can be shattered, switched, eroded or mutated. A friendship of forty years, I started with a strong antipathy; another long-time friend I did not really trust for a long while.

More information, intuition, effort, a revelation or even chance can convert a first impression. It happens. Both ways, from right to wrong and from mistaken to pertinent. The relative reliability and success of this arrangement though, seem to show that we are more often right than we are wrong, fast judgement is probably a vital ability.

The success of this strategy however also might explain why some first impression will never be convertible. Why some people will not be able to change their mind, adopt a different view, reconsider a relationship or the nature of some content. With fast (or lazy) jugments the flexibility seems to be lost.

Hence the hard-core devots, irreductible fanatists and even suicide-cultists.

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