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February 5, 2015

How to overcome a bad first impression—and make a good second one

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This story was updated on May 26, 2017.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Heidi Grant Halvorson—an associate director at the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School—explains the key to overcoming a poor first impression.

Halvorson says it is common for missed social signals to create a bad first impression. She shares the story of a friend who inadvertently mistook a suggestion to try an item of food during a job interview as an invitation to eat off of the interviewer's plate. In this case, the misinterpretation caused problems, and he did not get offered the job.

Halvorson argues that the key to overcoming such negative impressions is becoming more attuned to how people think so you can strategically overcome poor judgments about your personal qualities.

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The psychology of perception

Halvorson says it is easy to be misunderstood, pointing to research that suggesting that subtle emotions are difficult to read. "The majority of times that you've thought, 'I made my intentions clear' or 'They know what I meant,' you didn't and they don't," she writes.

The causes of misconceptions are "highly predictable," according to Halverson, meaning people can strategically compensate for misperception by being mindful of psychology.

The first thing to understand about the psychology of perception, Halvorson writes, is that it occurs in two phases:

  • The first is automatic and occurs immediately. People subconsciously evaluate you based on cues like your appearance, body language, and stereotypes.
  • The second is more analytical and comes later. The perceiver tries to integrate "disparate data" and works harder to "draw informed, thoughtful conclusions about you," Halvorson writes. But the second phase does not always occur.

In many cases, impressions made in both phases are influenced by the psychological "lenses" of the perceiver. For instance, if you are meeting someone who is naturally anxious, going out of your way to be empathetic and patient can help you be accepted quickly. In other cases, such as when a perceiver psychologically identifies as being powerful, demonstrate your usefulness in reaching mutual goals.  

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Overcoming a bad first impression

When people fail to make a positive first impression, they need to work harder to revise a person's opinion. The evidence for prompting a reevaluation should be "plentiful and attention-getting in order to activate phase two thinking," Halvorson writes.

In some cases, overcoming a bad first impression, such as when you miss a deadline, can be as simple as making sure you turn in subsequent assignments early. However, Halvorson says you can strategically activate people's "desire to be fair" to give yourself a better chance of being positively reevaluated.

Halvorson points to research that finds "when perceivers are genuinely committed to being fair, and when fairness has been recently reinforced in their minds," they are more likely to guard against biases that can influence their perceptions. People who are trying to overcome a poor impression can activate the desire to be fair by complimenting a "perceiver on his 'fairness,' 'unbiased assessment,' 'keen perception,' or 'uncanny accuracy' in evaluating people," Halvorson writes.

Halvorson says the most direct way to get someone to perceive you correctly is to "ensure that you have a role in their success." When their goals are dependent on your performance, they are more likely to engage in the thoughtful "phase two" thinking that helps overcome a negative initial impression. Halvorson suggests identifying opportunities to work collaboratively and taking on greater responsibilities as ways to prompt a reevaluation of your personal qualities.

Seizing the moment

Sometimes, the best way to get someone to think about you differently is to help them in a moment of stress. Halvorson notes that when people are stressed, they often attempt to reassert control over their lives in other areas by being more thoughtful and detail oriented. Connecting with someone during one of these moments can prompt them to think more deeply about their perceptions of you as well.

Using these strategies, Halvorson says it is possible to get people to see you in the best possible light. "If you do, then it is really never too late to make the right impression," she writes (Halvorson, Harvard Business Review, January 2015).

The takeaway: It is easy to unintentionally make a bad impression, but one expert argues that overcoming someone's negative judgment is achievable—you just need to make a strong, concerted effort to do so.

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