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First Impressions Formed by Unconscious Bias

As readers of our blog know, we spend a lot of time considering the implications of unconscious bias — its impacts on how we treat others as well as new research into the concept — which is still poorly understood and not well recognized.

In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Shankar Vedantam — NPR’s social science correspondent and host of the Hidden Brain podcast, which “reveals the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, the biases that shape our choices, and the triggers that direct the course of our relationships” — discussed recent research that looked at the way we humans form and retain initial impressions of people in photographs.

“These impressions are very quick and we not only see superficial things, we read meaning into photographs. We draw inferences about someone's personality from the way they look in a photo,” says Martin. She tells of a conversation she had with Vivian Zayas, a psychologist at Cornell University. Zayas noted that while most people recognize the powerful impact that photos can have on their perceptions of others, we have a tendency to believe that we will update any impressions formed from a photo when we actually meet someone in person. Not necessarily so!

In fact, it is actually quite difficult to shed these first impressions. Here’s how the stud worked:

Zayas and her colleagues, Gul Gunaydin and Emre Selcuk asked volunteers to look at photos and identity their first impressions. Then, a month later the researchers asked the volunteers to return and interact with someone. Unbeknownst to them, the individual they interacted with was the same person as in the photo they had observed previously. Their findings: not only did they draw the same conclusions about the person as they had previously, but they acted in ways to substantiate those impressions.

According to Zayas, “When you spontaneously like someone, you are warmer. You engage more. You smile more. You lean into the conversation more, and that person responds in kind. They will respond by being warmer. They'll get more engaged in the conversation. And then you pick up on that as well, and then you have this self-fulfilling prophecy.”

There are some significant implications to this research. Consider the recruitment process, for instance. Our initial impressions of whether we like—or don’t like—will color our subsequent decisions, basically becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. “If you're a job recruiter, you know, you may want to remind people who are sitting on interview panels how powerful faces are in forming impressions of people and how these impressions can become self-fulfilling,” says Vedantam. “That, in other words, we like someone, we're warmer to them. They respond in kind, and then we come away with the impression that this person really is wonderful.”

This research certainly reinforces the power of unconscious bias can be. While difficult to detect these biases can be easily triggered. It’s a cautionary note for all of us to be continually vigilant and open to the distinct possibility that unconscious bias may be coloring the decisions we make

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