How to Get a Second Chance at a First Impression

How to Get a Second Chance at a First Impression

By Sean Braswell

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Because no one always comes off well at first. And some of us never do.

By Sean Braswell

Hate to break it to you, but people judge books by their cover all the damn time, and the Book of You is no exception. Check out OZY’s series What’s in a First Impression to delve into the psychology of appearances, and how to hack it.

Fantasy, fiction and film offer characters a variety of ways to undo a poor first impression, from time travel to brainwashing to reliving the same day until you get it right. In real life, your options are, shall we say, fewer, when you, say, show up drunk to a first meeting with future in-laws or kick your new neighbor’s Chihuahua the day you move in. Redeeming oneself in the eyes of another is fraught with difficulty, and a broad body of psychological research largely supports the conventional wisdom that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

But there is some good news for all you klutzes and screw-ups. According to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

One way to redo a first impression is to get someone to see your behavior in a new light.

“We reasoned that even if it is difficult to stop earlier learning about a person from being spontaneously activated,” says Thomas Mann, co-author with Melissa Ferguson of the Cornell University study, “it might be possible to change what those details mean,” and thus change the reaction that they trigger.

Take the case of Oskar Schindler. Your initial automatic reaction or “implicit evaluation” upon hearing about a Nazi Party member who used cheap Jewish labor in his factories to aid the German war effort would understandably be negative. But, if you later learn how he used his position to shield his workers, your first impression might change. To test this idea, the researchers asked subjects to first read a story about a man who broke into his neighbors’ homes and ransacked them. Later, the researchers provided some of the participants with the exculpatory information that he did so because there was a fire and he was searching for children trapped inside. That crucial nugget of information — forcing a revision to their understanding of his conduct in that instance — was effective in reversing their implicit evaluations of the man, succeeding where statements about his unrelated good deeds did not.


None of us are Oskar Schindlers, of course, and most of our real-life impressions are formed in situations far more complex than the simple, artificial scenarios of the psych lab. “One swallow does not make a summer,” Aiden Gregg, a professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, cautions about the finding’s broad applicability, but it does “make it more likely that reinterpretation can change implicit attitudes.”

Mann and his colleagues recognize that there is more work to be done to see if such reversals hold when it comes to our impressions of groups, or to those formed over a longer period of time or on the basis of visual cues, rather than just textual information. But with this hope of redemption, we can, as Mann puts it, “attack a false first impression head-on” and address the reasons for it, rather than just asking someone to start over or forget about our missteps. And without time travel or brainwashing at our disposal, in the end that may be our best bet for writing our own Hollywood redemption narrative.