First Impressions

The third wave of research in social cognition, after dissonance theory in the 1950s and attribution theory in the 1970s, involved person perception.

A great deal of information processing related to person perception occurs in a small amount of time. Psychologist John Bargh has done many experiments on rapidly formed first impressions. He concludes, "Much is understood about other people in a matter of milliseconds" ("Invited Addresses", 1994). This includes stereotyping, a feeling of liking or disliking, and the triggering of behavioral responses, all without our intention or awareness. Basic positive or negative emotional responses are particularly quick. According to Bargh, "We're finding that everything is evaluated as good or bad within a quarter of a second of seeing it" (Azar, 1998).

What do "snap judgments" depend upon?

Consider the picture shown next, from the United States Library of Congress. Watson, deBortali-Tregerthan & Frank (1984) ask, "What do this woman's appearance, facial expression, and dress tell you about her personality and her life-style?" They might have added, "In what country does she live, and in what era? How educated is she? How wealthy is she? What does her voice sound like? Does she live by the mountains or by the sea?" And then, finally, lest we forget, we should probably ask ourselves, "What do we really know about this person?" Nothing at all. Snap judgments can be completely erroneous.


A picture used to illustrate "snap judgments"

Snap judgments require some domain-specific knowledge about particular cultures. The picture of the woman is evocative for Americans born in the current era (if only because of images seen in movies and television programs). For somebody from another country, or for somebody far in the future, the picture might not carry any meaning. Snap judgments depend upon "frequent and consistent activation" which means the patterns must be common in one's environment. Social judgments are automatic, in many cases, but only after repeated activation.

How does stereotyping save work?

Uleman and Bargh describe stereotyping—the formation of a simplified image or type that stands for a whole category of people—as a form of cognitive economy. In other words, it saves work by providing a ready basis for performing new judgments without a lot of thinking. This corresponds well to the thinking of Walter Lippman, the journalist who coined the term stereotype. Lippman wrote in 1922 that modern life contains "so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations...we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it." (Lippman, 1922, p.16)


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