The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
According to the old adage, one never gets a second chance to make a first impression. Might that hold true for the presidential candidates?
There would seem to be plenty of opportunities between now and Election Day—including nonstop coverage of the horse race, policy statements, debates and live campaign events—for the candidates to share their views and values and for voters to analyze them in order to make an informed choice.
But past research suggests that one of the most influential predictors of how we vote might have already been determined: our first impressions. According to psychological studies, voters’ initial impressions of candidates are an important determinant of how they evaluate them and eventually cast their ballots.
For example, social psychologist Alex Todorov from Princeton University examined voting data in elections for the U.S. Congress and found that whether a candidate’s facial features conjured up a sense of competence predicted approximately 70 percent of voting behavior. (This finding has been replicated with French, Japanese and Bulgarian politicians.)
Findings like these and others imply that what may matter most to voters isn’t the candidates' voting record or what they say during the campaign but simply what face they were born with.
Implicit versus explicit
Although there is no strict definition of what exactly counts as a first impression, it is generally understood to be our first sense of a person as good or bad, which in turn can be based on a variety of sources of information.
In addition to facial characteristics, these could include a person’s group membership (for example, one’s gender) as well as the kinds of behaviors (mannerisms, humor, arrogance, etc.) the person displays when we first encounter him or her (for example, how Bernie Sanders behaved during the first national Democratic presidential debate).
Cognitive and social psychologists have argued that there are two types of impressions: explicit and implicit. Whereas our explicit impressions are those that we can easily feel and report to others (e.g., “I really love Hillary!”), our implicit impressions are those that we may or may not be conscious of.
Psychologists measure implicit impressions by administering tests in which subjects unknowingly and unintentionally reveal their preferences. For example, instead of asking voters how much they like Hillary Clinton on a scale from 1 to 10, an implicit measure would assess how much voters display positivity or negativity toward photos of the former secretary of state presented rapidly on a computer screen.
The respondents on this kind of measure do not realize that their impressions of Clinton are even being assessed. (Ideally, this kind of measuring eliminates the self-editing that subjects do when they describe their own impressions, and reveals preferences and biases that might not otherwise be identified.)
Implicit impressions, as measured by psychologists, have been shown to uniquely predict people’s decisions and behaviors, including voting behavior. So when it comes to choosing a candidate, our conscious thinking and feeling about a candidate might not be the only thing that drives our behavior and choice. Our implicit impressions also seem to play an important role.
Minds made up
Many findings to date have shown that implicit impressions are especially difficult to change once they have been formed.
For example, in one series of experiments, participants learned about two novel groups, one of which was described as evil and the other as benevolent. The researchers then measured participants’ implicit first impressions of the groups. As expected, participants implicitly evaluated the “evil” group as negative and the “benevolent” group as positive.
Then the researchers tried to get the participants to revise their first impressions—to change their implicit mind about the two groups. They told participants that they had accidentally mixed up the information about the groups and that the one that had been described as evil was actually good and the one described as good was actually evil.
The researchers also tried to give participants a long and detailed story about how the groups eventually changed their moral character (e.g., the formerly evil group eventually started to regret their behavior and tried to make amends, etc.). The participants’ explicit impressions changed in line with the new information. No matter what the researchers tried, however, the subjects’ implicit impressions did not budge. These findings have been interpreted to mean that we might not be able to move beyond our implicit first impressions of others, even if we say differently.
So should we give up on reading policy papers from the candidates? Or listening to the debates? Can we sit back and assume that our (implicit) mind is made up?
A little wiggle room
Recent work in our research lab suggests that the answer is no.
We demonstrated that implicit first impressions in fact can be changed, even immediately and in a lasting manner. Research I conducted with Williams College social psychologist Jeremy Cone and Cornell University graduate student Thomas Mann showed that learning even just one new and highly diagnostic piece of information about someone can swiftly lead to corrected implicit impressions.
Instead of examining attitudes toward groups, as some prior research did, we focused on individuals, and on how a single, extremely diagnostic piece of information might influence first impressions of them. Whereas people may not believe that entire groups can shift their moral character, they do seem to believe that individuals can sometimes behave in surprising ways and that an extreme behavior reflects something meaningful about the person and should be used to update first impressions.
In some of our studies, for example, participants learned about a person named Bob who was described as performing consistently positive behaviors (e.g., “Bob helped the elderly person cross the busy street”). All participants formed strongly positive implicit first impressions of Bob after learning about these behaviors.
But then participants learned about one additional behavior that was very negative and rare and therefore extremely diagnostic of Bob (for example, he had been convicted of mutilating a small animal). Contrary to the predominant view that implicit evaluations are almost impossible to update on the basis of a single new piece of evidence, participants instantly moved from a strongly positive implicit view of Bob to a strongly negative one.
Across six experiments with over 1,250 participants, we found replicable and strong evidence that people rapidly reversed their implicit first impressions after learning a single piece of new information.
So perhaps we can move beyond an initial positive implicit impression to a negative one, but can we move from an initial negative implicit impression to a positive one?
Set in stone?
Lots of psychological research has found that negative (vs. positive) information has a greater influence on our judgments of others.
Learning that someone who has been characterized as hostile did something heroic just does not have the same weight as learning that someone characterized as nice did something horrific. As today’s campaign managers likely know, it takes only one horrific gaffe to trigger a fall from grace, but an extraordinary amount of laudatory behavior to redeem oneself.
This is true of our implicit impressions as well. Although our recent work shows that we can update our implicit positive first impressions to negative ones, it is harder to move people’s impressions in the other direction.
Is there ever a case in which initial negative implicit impressions can be rapidly and instantly undone? What about when the initial negative evidence is discovered to be unfounded?
False accusations and innuendos typically run rampant in any election season. The National Enquirer recently published a story alleging that Ted Cruz had extramarital affairs with five women, an accusation that Cruz has strongly denied and that hasn’t been confirmed by any other publication or source. How might this story affect voters across the country who may be just starting to pay attention to Cruz? If it turns out that the accusation is indeed false, will those voters nevertheless remain negative toward Cruz because of it, perhaps unconsciously?
Our lab recently showed that participants were able to correct even an extremely negative implicit first impression of a target to a strong positive one if they later learned that the person’s initial negative behaviors had been misinterpreted. For example, if someone is told Bob broke into a house—creating a negative impression—and then later informed that the reason was that there was a fire and he was saving his neighbor’s children, it is likely they will change their implicit negative impression into a strong positive one.
This new work shows that earlier studies on changing implicit first impressions were not the final word on this issue, and that—in some cases—the damage from a false accusation can be undone.
It’s never too late
Yes, first impressions can be powerful, shaping the ways in which we look for, interpret and believe information we subsequently encounter.
A person’s facial features and first behaviors can influence how we interpret their later actions. And, in the absence of any strong evidence to the contrary, a candidate’s electoral success may well be predictable by her or his face.
But our lab’s recent work shows that these first impressions are not unmovable. When we learn something new (and reliable) about someone that is strongly discrepant with our first impressions, we can change even our implicit mind about them.
Although you’ve already formed your first impression of the candidates, there are many months to go in the campaign season. As our research shows, you could still change your mind by Election Day.
Melissa J. Ferguson receives funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
This article was published in collaboration with Scientific American Mind.