THE BLOG
08/26/2014 10:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

First Impression Bias - How to Avoid the Prejudice Trap

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If the first encounter with a new colleague, team member or customer doesn't go so well, chances are that we fall into a trap: our first impression affects the image we have of people or situations and with that, the future expectations we have of them. This can become a pitfall.

I often conduct the following experiment with the participants of my leadership or communication workshops: First, I ask them to draw a simple geometrical form and then to divide a part of it into separate shapes according to my instruction. This task turns out to be rather complex and demands too much of most people, so it is rare that anyone can solve it. I let their brains go into overdrive for a few moments and then give them the logical solution. Usually, people are quite impressed with this and quickly draw the solution on their own sheets of paper.

Then, I announce the second part of the experiment: Again, I ask the participants to draw a very simple geometrical form and to divide it according to my instruction. This time, though, I vary the task in such a way that it is as easy as ABC. Interestingly and in most cases, nobody is able to solve the task. To the contrary: intelligent and educated adults desperately brood over the task and scratch their heads over this allegedly difficult task. I usually don't let them suffer for too long and give them the solution again. Now the amazement is even bigger, as you can imagine, especially about their inability to solve such a simple task.

What happened?
Of course, apart from experiencing the actual experiment, the following discussion is crucial. Step-by-step I guide the group through what transpired: the participants had a first experience with the first complex task. It was difficult and demanded too much of them. After being presented the solution, they made the first fatal assumption: "Oh, this is obviously about complex geometrical tasks that I am not able to solve." After the announcement of the second task, many made an additional assumption that was just as wrong: "Hmm ... now this is probably going to be even more difficult than the first one!".

These two assumptions that were both based on the first experience, together with the related expectations, formed a haze in front of the participant's eyes. They acted like a filter through which the second task was perceived. This filter inhibited an unbiased and clear view of the task and its simplicity. Would I have skipped the first task, the second could have been solved very easily, of course.

This phenomenon is known in cognitive psychology as the "confirmation bias" and describes the human tendency to select, search and interpret information in such a way that it confirms our own expectations. Moreover, all information that disconfirms our expectations (disconfirming evidence) is blanked out unconsciously.

What are parallels and connections to real life?
This is just one of many ways our thinking can be biased, leading to prejudice, stereotyping and identities that may not be accessible by conscious awareness. The experiment clearly shows how quickly prejudice and preconceived opinions can arise and how they can hinder us from seeing things in an unbiased way.

Imagine the following: you have an initial experience with a new colleague, customer or employee. Maybe something disturbs or annoys you during this encounter, creating a first impression of this person. Sometime later, you go to a meeting - and guess who's sitting there? The said person, of course. If you are not very conscious and mindful in this moment, the filter of your first impression will obstruct your view of the person and the situation. In the worst case you don't even see the person sitting there in front of you, but the concept of this person you already have in your mind. Moreover, this preconceived concept will influence your behavior. But maybe he or she just had a bad day when you first met, or you had one and thus your perception was already biased.

It goes without saying that this is not only true for people but also for situations. Having experienced a situation in a certain way, chances are that we judge and perceive similar situations the same way - even though they turn out to be essentially different. Of course, nothing can be said against experience that helps us deal with the world's increasing complexity. The important thing, however, is to be aware of how our experiences can become pitfalls and keep us from seeing things in a fresh and unprejudiced way.

So, what can we actively do to avoid our experience and thinking from getting in our way?
We basically need two things: awareness of our own filters and a conscious "reset" on a regular basis.

1. Be aware of your own filters
Make yourself aware of the fact that your experiences can also have a negative effect, keeping you from being more effective. Realize that preconceived opinions and ideas can obstruct your view of the essential. With this awareness alone, you're already half way there.

2. Reset your filters on a regular basis
Consciously observe yourself and notice when you approach a situation or a person with a preconceived opinion or expectation. If you notice it, try pushing the "reset" button in your mind by consciously putting anything preconceived aside and try to look at the person or situation as freshly and as mindfully as possible. The often quoted "beginner's mind" is a very helpful attitude for that. With this approach, you give yourself, the situation and all people involved a second chance.

It goes without saying that this conscious and mindful way of handling our own thinking biases and filters of perception has a positive effect on the quality of social interaction. Wherever relationships play a crucial role, e. g. when leading teams, in sales, in customer service and basically any kind of collaboration or social coexistence, this simple principle can remarkably and sustainably improve the quality of these relationships.

For more information, check out Wikipedia's long list of cognitive biases or Project Implicit, a very interesting list of implicit association tests (IAT) available online. Another great source is a book titled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin and Greenwald, two co-founders of Project Implicit.

About the author: Based in Switzerland, Thomas Gelmi stands for executive sparring, coaching and training on an international level. He works for multinational corporations such as Siemens, Credit Suisse and Zurich Insurance, SMEs and private individuals. Thomas Gelmi was born 1968 and speaks German, English, French and Italian fluently. For more information visit www.gelmi-consulting.com.