You have researched how people form first impressions. Has anything about this changed as more people have been meeting on Zoom instead of in person?

I don’t think anything in terms of the basic psychology changes, just the medium is different, and the cues are different. To form impressions, people will graft onto whatever information is available. A lot of it has to do with appearance, grooming, and clothes.

Even if you tell them not to use a particular cue, they will still do it. In an experiment, participants who were shown photos of people they were told were in the same industry and had the same salary still said those with the more expensive clothing were more competent. A lot of these processes about impressions are almost automatic, certainly effortless. You can’t help it.

Can you shake a bad first impression?

It’s not that difficult as long as people have good information. If you have a new colleague and your first impression of them is bad, but you have lots of opportunities to observe them, you may change your mind.

The question is whether you will be in a situation where you can shake that first impression, whether you will have the opportunity to observe someone under different circumstances. Stereotypes can persist in the absence of information to correct them.

First impressions can become stereotypes?

Yes, I actually think of first impressions that are based on facial appearance as stereotypes. They draw on certain cues that are not specific to the person we form an impression of but are shared across many people. For example, faces perceived to be trustworthy tend to be smiling and more feminine, and have more baby-faced features.

But these stereotypes can persist. Think about it in a hiring context. I never observe the people I don’t hire. Everything I observe is around the people who got the opportunity. What I see is the positive outcome of my decision.

My colleagues and I are doing some studies on this. Imagine a situation in which you have to decide whether to trust someone. If I trust you, and you reciprocate, that’s positive feedback. And in these situations, a person given trust most likely reciprocates. But if I decide on first impression to remove someone from this interaction in which most people cooperate, maybe because of ethnicity or gender, this is where the problem is. The people I interact with, I observe. The others, I cannot get any information about.

Think about social groups. If I have a preference for particular people, I frequently get good feedback about them. But if I don’t interact with others, I will never learn. I will continue living with stereotypes.

You’re bound to see stereotypes. Kids pick up on this early on. It’s not that kids are born with prejudices; they observe and learn them. Our brains are like statistical machines: we observe things around us, and we learn contingencies. If an unfair fact has a long history, we don’t think about the history, just what we see.

Alexander Todorov is the Leon Carroll Marshall Professor of Behavioral Science and Rosett Faculty Fellow at Chicago Booth.

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