Imagine you’re at a cricket game when this bogging guy sits next to you. He’s loud, he spills his drink on you, and he makes fun of your team. Days later, you’re walking in the park when suddenly you see an old lady trying to cross the road. Who should show up to offer help first? The same guy from the game. Do you change your mind about him based on his second encounter, or do you go with your first impressions and write him off?

According to social psychology research, we have a tendency to judge others quickly and accurately based on their actions. With some effort, we can accomplish this by drawing conclusions about stable character traits from a single action, such as a harsh phrase or a clumsy step. We can successfully anticipate how others will act in the future by using our impressions as a guide. You might anticipate more of the same down the line if you knew the guy from the cricket game was a jerk when you first met him. If so, you might decide to stay away from him the following time you meet him. Nevertheless, we are able to alter our opinions in the wake of fresh facts. Consistent patterns that appear to direct this process of impression updating have been found in behavioural research.

Moral take on first impressions

On the one hand, learning something really bad and highly immoral about someone usually has a bigger impact than learning something very good and highly moral. Consequently, our new acquaintance from the cricket game may have displayed worse behaviour at the game than at the park, which is sad. According to research, this bias exists because morally questionable actions are more indicative of a person’s genuine nature.

Okay, so by this logic, updating always favours the bad above the good. Well, maybe not always. This form of negativity bias doesn’t seem to result from some kind of learning. For example, this bias reverses after learning about another person’s skills and abilities. Actually, the information that is weighted more highly is good information. Let’s revisit that cricket game. A player’s ability to score a goal eventually affects you more than their ability to miss the net does. In the end, there is a lot of agreement between the two sides of the ongoing tale. In general, extremely immoral behaviours and highly competent actions are the kinds of conduct that people tend to weigh more largely when developing and updating impressions. So, when we update our impressions, what is going on at the brain level?

Work done by the brain

Researchers have discovered a vast network of brain regions that react to new information that is contradictory with first impressions using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. These include regions that are frequently linked to social recognition, focus, and cognitive control. Activity in the superior temporal sulcus and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex corresponds with perceptions. And the frequency of certain behaviours in daily life when impressions are updated depends on people’s behaviour.

In other words, the ability to form complicated judgements about the morality of others appears to depend on the brain monitoring low-level, statistical characteristics of conduct. It must decide whether the person’s behaviour is typical or unusual. Your brain replies, “Well, in my experience, pretty much anyone would lend someone their umbrella. But the way this guy acted at the football game, that was unique,” in the case of the annoying football fan who later became a good Samaritan. So you make the decision to trust your initial judgement.

The good news from this research is that it shows that your brain cares more about someone else’s really awful, immoral behaviours than their very excellent, moral ones. This is due to the relative rarity of such bad behaviours. We’re accustomed to seeing people as essentially decent like when they take the effort to assist a total stranger. The fact that good is more prevalent in this situation may make bad seem stronger than it actually is. Consider the last time you made a snap judgement about someone based only on their actions. Especially, if it was a situation where you genuinely felt that your opinion had changed. Was the behaviour that caused you to update your impression something you’d expect anyone to do, or was it something totally out of the ordinary?

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