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Communication in the Real World: Blog

Entries in Perception (2)

Wednesday
Nov062013

The Importance of First and Last Impressions: Communicating for Success

The Importance of First and Last Impressions: Communicating for Success

Think back to the first day of classes. Did you plan ahead for what you were going to wear? Did you get the typical school supplies together? Did you try to find your classrooms ahead of time or look for the syllabus online? Did you look up your professors on an online professor evaluation site?

Based on your answers to these questions, I could form an impression of who you are as a student. But would that perception be accurate? Would it match up with how you see yourself as a student? And perception, of course, is a two-way street. You also formed impressions about your professors based on their appearance, dress, organization, intelligence, and approachability. As a professor who teaches others how to teach, I instruct my student-teachers to really take the first day of class seriously (see post in this blog: "For College Teachers: How to Build Credibility and Create a Positive Class Climate on the First Day"). The impressions that both teacher and student make on the first day help set the tone for the rest of the semester. 

How We Perceive Others Affects Our Communication And Our Actions

Even more generally, the perceptions that we make of others and that others make of us affect how we communicate and act. I explore the role of perception in communication in my book Communication in the Real World. One aspect of perception that many people are concerned about is making a good impression.

Are you a good judge of character? How quickly can you “size someone up?” Interestingly, research shows that many people are surprisingly accurate at predicting how an interaction with someone will unfold based on initial impressions. Fascinating research has also been done on the ability of people to make a judgment about a person’s competence after as little as 100 milliseconds of exposure to politicians’ faces. Even more surprising is that people’s judgments of competence, after exposure to two candidates for senate elections, accurately predicted election outcomes.[i] In short, after only minimal exposure to a candidate’s facial expressions, people made judgments about the person’s competence, and those judged more competent were people who actually won elections!

The Power of First Impressions

The old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a good impression,” points to the fact that first impressions matter.

The brain is a predictive organ in that it wants to know, based on previous experiences and patterns, what to expect next, and first impressions function to fill this need, allowing us to determine how we will proceed with an interaction after only a quick assessment of the person with whom we are interacting.[ii]

Research shows that people are surprisingly good at making accurate first impressions about how an interaction will unfold and at identifying personality characteristics of people they do not know. Studies show that people are generally able to predict how another person will behave toward them based on an initial interaction. People’s accuracy and ability to predict interaction based on first impressions vary, but people with high accuracy are typically socially skilled and popular, and have less loneliness, anxiety, and depression, more satisfying relationships, and more senior positions and higher salaries.[iii]

So not only do first impressions matter, but having the ability to form accurate first impressions seems to correlate to many other positive characteristics.

First impressions are enduring because of the primacy effect, which leads us to place more value on the first information we receive about a person. So if we interpret the first information we receive from or about a person as positive, then a positive first impression will form and influence how we respond to that person as the interaction continues.

Likewise, negative interpretations of information can lead to form negative first impressions. For example, if you sit down at a restaurant and servers walk by for several minutes and no one greets you, then you will likely interpret that negatively and not have a good impression of your server when he finally shows up. This may lead you to be short with the server, which may lead him to not be as attentive as he normally would. At this point, a series of negative interactions has set into motion a cycle that will be very difficult to reverse and make positive.

The Power of Last Impressions

The recency effect leads us to put more weight on the most recent impression we have of a person’s communication over earlier impressions. Even a positive first impression can be tarnished by a negative final impression.

Imagine that a professor has maintained a relatively high level of credibility with you over the course of the semester. She made a good first impression by being organized, approachable, and interesting during the first days of class. The rest of the semester went fairly well with no major conflicts. However, during the last week of the term, she didn’t have final papers graded and ready to turn back by the time she said she would, which left you with some uncertainty about how well you needed to do on the final exam to earn an A in the class. When you did get your paper back, on the last day of class, you saw that your grade was much lower than you expected.

If this happened to you, what would you write on the instructor evaluation? Because of the recency effect, many students would likely give a disproportionate amount of value to the professor’s actions in the final week of the semester, negatively skewing the evaluation, which is supposed to be reflective of the entire semester. Even though the professor only returned one assignment late, that fact is very recent in students’ minds and can overshadow the positive impression that formed many weeks earlier. 

The Take Home Message

As we perceive others, we make impressions about their personality, likeability, attractiveness, and other characteristics. Although much of our impressions are personal, what forms them is sometimes based more on circumstances than personal characteristics. All the information we take in isn’t treated equally, so be conscious of how you are perceived and don't waste a chance to make a good impression. 


[i] Charles C. Ballew II and Alexander Todorov, “Predicting Political Elections from Rapid and Unreflective Face Judgments,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 46 (2007): 17948.

[ii] Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 280.

[iii] Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 281.

 

Wednesday
May292013

How Do The Big Five Personality Traits Affect Your Communication?

I occasionally have potential employers of students I have taught or supervised call me to do “employment verifications” during which they ask general questions about the applicant. While they may ask a few questions about intellectual ability or academic performance, they typically ask questions that try to create a personality profile of the applicant. They basically want to know what kind of leader, coworker, and person he or she is. This is a smart move on their part, because our personalities greatly influence how we see ourselves in the world and how we perceive and interact with others, which affects our communication.

What is Personality? 

Personality refers to a person’s general way of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on underlying motivations and impulses.[i] These underlying motivations and impulses form our personality traits.

Personality traits are “underlying,” but they are fairly enduring once a person reaches adulthood. That is not to say that people’s personalities do not change, but major changes in personality are not common unless they result from some form of trauma. Although personality scholars believe there are thousands of personalities, they all comprise some combination of the same few traits.

The Big Five Personality Traits

Much research has been done on personality traits, and the “Big Five” that are most commonly discussed are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.[ii] These five traits appear to be representative of personalities across cultures, and you can read more about what each of these traits entails below. If you are interested in how you rank in terms of personality traits, there are many online tests you can take. A Big Five test can be taken at the following website: http://www.outofservice.com/bigfive.

• Extraversion. Refers to a person’s interest in interacting with others. People with high extraversion are sociable and often called “extroverts.” People with low extraversion are less sociable and are often called “introverts.”

• Agreeableness. Refers to a person’s level of trustworthiness and friendliness. People with high agreeableness are cooperative and likeable. People with low agreeableness are suspicious of others and sometimes aggressive, which makes it more difficult for people to find them pleasant to be around.

• Conscientiousness. Refers to a person’s level of self-organization and motivation. People with high conscientiousness are methodical, motivated, and dependable. People with low conscientiousness are less focused, less careful, and less dependable.

• Neuroticism. Refers to a person’s level of negative thoughts regarding himself or herself. People high in neuroticism are insecure and experience emotional distress and may be perceived as unstable. People low in neuroticism are more relaxed, have less emotional swings, and are perceived as more stable.

• Openness. Refers to a person’s willingness to consider new ideas and perspectives. People high in openness are creative and are perceived as open minded. People low in openness are more rigid and set in their thinking and are perceived as “set in their ways.”

Personality, Perception, Reality TV, and Communication

Scholarship related to personality serves many purposes, and some of them tie directly to perception. Corporations and television studios spend millions of dollars on developing personality profiles and personality testing. Corporations can make hiring and promotion decisions based on personality test results, which can save them money and time if they can weed out those who don’t “fit” the position before they get in the door and drain resources.

Television studios make casting decisions based on personality profiles because they know that certain personalities evoke strong and specific reactions from viewers. The reality television show Survivor has done more than one season where they bring back “Heroes and Villains,” which already indicates that the returning cast members made strong impressions on the show’s producers and audience members.

Think about the reality television stars that you love to root for, want to see lose, and can’t stand to look at or look away from. Shows like Celebrity Rehab intentionally cast fading stars who already have strong personalities and emotional and addiction issues in order to create the kind of human train wrecks that attract millions of viewers. So why does this work? It is likely that you have more in common with that reality TV star than you care to admit.

We tend to focus on personality traits in others that we feel are important to our own personality. What we like in ourselves, we like in others, and what we dislike in ourselves, we dislike in others.[iii] If you admire a person’s loyalty, then loyalty is probably a trait that you think you possess as well. If you work hard to be positive and motivated and suppress negative and unproductive urges within yourself, you will likely think harshly about those negative traits in someone else. After all, if you can suppress your negativity, why can’t they do the same? This way of thinking isn’t always accurate or logical, but it is common. 

Hopefully now you have a better idea of how the Big Five personality traits can influence our communication. 


[i] Steven McCornack, Reflect and Relate: An Introduction to Interpersonal Communication (Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2007), 95.

[ii] Robert R. McCrea, “Trait Psychology and Culture,” Journal of Personality 69, no. 6 (2001): 825.

[iii] Steven McCornack, Reflect and Relate: An Introduction to Interpersonal Communication (Boston, MA: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2007), 95.