Are Our Impressions of People Context Specific?

You can think of first impressions as a special kind of expectancy about how things are in the world (in this case, what a particular person is like). When such an expectancy is violated, we get a signal that there is something wrong with this expectancy. In such cases, people start to pay more attention to find out what exactly is going on, which also includes the context.

However, paying more attention to the context means that the expectancy-violating experience becomes bound to the context in which it was made (e.g., at the gym). Our research showed that, as a result, this new experience will influence responses only in the context in which it was made (the gym context), whereas the first impression still dominates in any other context (at work, on the street, etc.). It is as if the first impression is treated as a “rule” and the new experience as an “exception to the rule” that applies only in the specific context in which the new experience had been made.

Bertram Gawronski is a Canada Research Chair in social psychology and the director of the UWO Social Cognition Lab at The University of Western Ontario.

Category: Q&A

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