Why It’s Hard to Shake a Bad Impression


Negative reputations or bad first impressions are hard to change, even when they’re inaccurate or there’s a behavior change for the positive. Why is that?

Dorie Clark, writing for hbr.org, explains: “… our brains are optimized to conserve energy; if there’s not a compelling reason to re-evaluate something, then we won’t.” People don’t consciously do this—it’s just how our brains work.

To make matters worse, a study noted by sciencedaily.com found that people are also quicker to diagnose moral decline and slower to diagnose moral improvement. For example, if you make a first impression of being friendly, it only takes a couple agitated remarks before that will change to standoffish or rude. Conversely, if you have a reputation for being a control freak and you wanted to change that, you would need to provide much more evidence of your new, relaxed approach for people to change their opinion. Research found that people are more likely to assume positive change is an anomaly.

Study results of Bertram Gowronski of The University of Western Ontario, outlined in livescience.com, observe that context is also a factor. “… human brains store expectancy-violating experiences as exceptions-to-the-rule, such that the rule is treated as valid except for the specific context in which it has been violated.” His research included giving study participants initial negative or positive information about an individual and later providing additional evidence contradicting that initial information.

“To study the influence of contexts, the researchers subtly changed the background color of the computer screen while participants formed an impression of the target person.” When participants reactions were measured, “they found the new information influenced participants’ reactions only when the person was presented against the background in which the new information had been learned.” Against other backgrounds, the first information dominated.

Confirmed: First impressions stick! But, according to Gowronski, you can change them by challenging them in a variety of different contexts. When this happens, these new experiences become decontextualized and the first impression will slowly lose its power, he said. “But as long as a first impression is challenged only within the same context, you can do whatever you want. The first impression will dominate regardless of how often it is contradicted by new experiences.”

He offers several suggestions for changing a negative impression:

  1. Surprise them. Subtlety won’t cut it here. It will take a bold strategy to force a re-evaluation.
  2. Keep up the changed behavior over time. People’s opinions will only change after getting information to the contrary over an extended period.
  3. Don’t avoid the person. If someone has a bad impression of you, avoiding them will not change their opinion. They will have to see evidence of the behavior you’re trying to project.
  4. Wait it out. If the bad impression is not warranted, you may be forced to wait it out. Once the person has spent enough time with you, they’ll eventually come around.

If you want to change people’s impression of you, it can be challenging. Our brains are attached to that initial information and it takes a very compelling reason to cause someone to reconsider. And then it takes consistent, ongoing evidence of the change to make it stick.

Related reading: First Impressions and Why Small Talk Is Such a Big Deal

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  1. Pingback: Be More Positive … Fight the Human Tendency to Focus on the Negative - NST Insights - Career News, Workplace Issues, Employee Development

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