First impressions really are the most important, according to new research showing that the opinions we form in the first few minutes after meeting someone play a major role in determining the course of the relationship.
If two people take an immediate liking to each other, the relationship will most likely grow over time. But if one of them is cool to the other, it's probably not going to work.
That doesn't mean, of course, that subsequent developments won't alter the relationship, possibly even turning love into hate, but it does underscore the value of those first critical minutes.
"It happens so rapidly it's amazing," says Michael Sunnafrank, a professor of communications at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and lead author of a report on the research published in a recent issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Sunnafrank and Artemio Ramirez Jr., assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University in Columbus, studied 164 college freshmen over a nine-week period.
College freshmen are social animals, so they offered a fertile field to test out Sunnafrank's "predicted outcome value theory," which holds that we predict the future of a relationship as soon as we begin communicating with another person. And that old bromide about first impressions seemed a logical place to test the theory.
If first impressions really do matter the most, then that first meeting ought to have a predictable impact, and the researchers say they found that to be the case. In fact, even after the students had been compelled to interact with each other over a nine-week period, those first impressions still played a major role in foretelling the relationship between students who had been paired together at the beginning of the study.
Sunnafrank says he had thought that all that subsequent interaction would dilute the effect of the first impressions because there were many opportunities for the students to discover things they liked, or disliked, about their partner during the nine-week period.
"But it just astounded me that after all that opportunity, there was such a continuing strong impact of those first impressions," he says.
For the study, the students were paired on the first day of class with another student of the same sex. Sunnafrank says he avoided male-female pairings because students might be less likely to pursue a relationship with someone of the opposite sex who they had just met if they already have a romantic relationship with someone else.
In other words, he wanted a clean slate, and eliminating romance made that more likely.
The students were asked to introduce themselves to their randomly selected partner and talk for either three, six or 10 minutes. After the conversation they were asked to predict whether their future relationship would be one of nodding acquaintance, casual acquaintance, acquaintance, close acquaintance, friend or close friend. They also filled out a variety of questionnaires about the person they had just met.
Over the next nine weeks the classroom setting required them to interact with other students, rather than just listen to a lecture, thus providing plenty of opportunity to discover new things about their classmates.