Study: First Impressions Really Matter

ByLee Dye

Sept. 22, 2004 -- 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.

Vital Moments

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.

Rapid Assessments

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.

At the end of the nine weeks, partners who had rated each other positively had the strongest friendships, thus establishing the predictability of that first encounter. That was reinforced by the fact that the students acted accordingly, for example, sitting closer together during class, and communicating with each other more frequently.

And it didn't matter if that first encounter was three, six or 10 minutes.

"The effect was as strong after the three minute conversation as it was after the 10," Sunnafrank says. "It could even be happening on first glance."

"That tells you things are happening very quickly," adds Ramirez. "People are making snap judgments about what kind of relationship they want with the person they just met."

But the strongest effect of all was a negative one.

"It's the person who has the lower assessment of the potential for the relationship that has the strongest effect," Sunnafrank says.

"If I decide you're not really someone I want to get to know, I'm going to restrict my conversation with you, even at the very beginning," he says. "I'm going to look away, I'm not going to seek you out when I come into the classroom. So I'm giving you signs that I'm not interested, which is going to make you uninterested in me. And you're going to act in the way I predicted, which is not positive.

"If I'm not interested in you, I'm eventually going to prevail."

Quick Change

But what works for college freshmen may not work for the rest of us. Sunnafrank notes that freshmen tend to be aggressive in the pursuit of new friendships, and that changes over time, at least for most of us.

"In most situations in life, our time is pretty much claimed by work and family matters, so even when you meet people you really like, chances are not much is going to happen. As life goes on and social networks become solidified, acting on that first impression becomes less likely," he says.

And as they say, nothing lasts forever. We all know people we disliked in the beginning, but learned to like as we got to know them, and vice versa. So relationships are not always predictable, regardless of how strong that first impression may have been.

"Surprising events," as Sunnafrank calls them, can change a relationship in a hurry. "If you stab someone in the back …"

That reminds me of a very elegant lady who taught my English lit class in college. A student complained one day about something we had read in which love had turned to hate. How could that be possible?

"Oh, Miss Evans," the professor said, always as polite as she was eloquent, "don't you know the line that divides love from hate is a very fine line indeed."

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.