The secret to overturning negative first impressions

It can be tough to shift someone’s opinion if you’ve made a bad first impression. They might accept your apology or take on board your good points, but beneath the surface, ill feeling persists. New research from Cornell University suggests that the way to reach those deeper feelings, and earn a second chance, is to get the other person to see your initial actions in an entirely new light.

Researchers Thomas Mann and Melissa Ferguson presented 200 participants with a scenario that raised their ire: a man called Francis West invading the homes of his neighbours. The account was presented through 26 screens that paired a mugshot of the perpetrator with statements that described him flinging water on a laptop and making a getaway with “precious things”.

After the story, participants not surprisingly rated Francis as unlikeable, mean and uncaring. Although his reputation appeared badly tarnished, past research suggests these explicit judgments can be overridden – if new evidence came to light that he was falsely identified, for example, or if he showed his better side. The bigger problem for Francis was that participants also developed a negative implicit judgment. We know this because in a task that involved rating the pleasantness of symbols flashed on a screen, participants were more negative about those that followed a rapid flash of Francis’ face.

These implicit judgments are the ones that are hard to shift; the dislike lingers even if you intellectually accept that “they got the wrong man”, or witness his better side. In this study, hearing that Francis saved a baby from being crushed by a train didn’t eliminate the implicit bias. The evidence suggests it takes a mountain of good news to turn around a bad first impression.

But Mann and Ferguson predicted that implicit judgments can shift quickly if participants are given a reason to see the initial negative information in a new light. They presented participants with a twist: Francis had entered only burning houses, and the precious things he took were the households’ trapped children. Following this revelation, both explicit and implicit attitudes to Francis shifted from negative to positive.

A follow-up experiment showed that if the new information was presented while the mind was kept busy trying to hold an 8-digit number in memory, then despite participants becoming explicitly favourable to Francis, their implicit bias remained negative. This suggests the critical information needs to be re-tagged as positive via an active mental process requiring working memory.

This research helps us understand memory systems, and how reasoned thinking can transform even our unconscious accounts of the world. It affirms the importance of understanding motives, and that difficult past events often need to be addressed rather than pasted over. Was there a clumsy attempt at connection beneath the offensive greeting? Did the parent push past you in the school pick-up area because they had an urgent message that their child was hurt? Truly understanding the humanity beneath an action may be the way to forgiveness and connection.


Mann, T., & Ferguson, M. (2015). Can We Undo Our First Impressions? The Role of Reinterpretation in Reversing Implicit Evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000021

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.