How Are The First Impressions Formed

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March 27, 2009

U.S. neuroscientists at New York University and Harvard University claim that they have identified certain brain regions that play role when we form our first impressions of other people.

People have always believed that whenever they meet someone new, their first impression is very important and in fact, crucial. And whether it is a good impression, or not quite a pleasant one, it may be pretty hard to overcome it, and therefore scientists decided to figure out how and why the impression is being created. Very often, when forming their first impression of a new person in their lives, most people are wrong in their judgment, a trait that experts have yet to fully understand and unravel. In their latest research, they have looked at and analyzed the way in which individuals encode social information, and afterwards rely on it in order to form their first impression of someone else.

The study that was conducted by Professors Elizabeth Phelps and James Uleman of NYU, Assistant Professor James Mitchell of Harvard, and researchers Daniela Schiller and Jonathan Freeman, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to scan the brain of people the very moment their first impressions were formed based just on simple descriptions and initial evaluations. They involved 19 volunteers - 12 men and 7 women - with the ages between 18 and 31, and gave all of them profiles of 20 fictional individuals, along with photographic images. The profiles, presented together with photos, included positive features of these fictional people, such as intelligence, and negative ones, such as laziness.

The participants then had to report what were their impressions of the people, whether be it good or bad, while laying in an fMRI, while the neuroscientists measured the blood oxygenation in their brains to figure out which regions were the most active. The results of a neuro-imaging experiment showed that there was a significant activity in two regions of the brain during the encoding of information that was relevant to impression formation. The first region, called the amygdala, is a small structure in the medial temporal lobe that previously has been associated with emotional learning about inanimate objects, as well as social evaluations based on trust or race group. The second region, the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) has been known to facilitate economic decision-making and assigning subjective value to rewards. The researchers said these 2 parts of the brain showed an increased activity when they encountered information that was more important in forming the first impression.

The goal of the experiment was to evaluate social stimuli, or how human brain forms impressions of other individuals. "We wanted to simulate real-life events," Schiller said. "For example, one inspiration is online dating: You see an image, you get information and you quickly decide whether you want to have more contact with that person. There are quick evaluations in everyday life."

The scientists note that people have little choice but to create and form impressions based on ambiguous and complicated information. But still, they assert, people have the ability to quickly judge how they feel about other individuals, and the ability to do this is because of the innate abilities of various brain regions. Dr. Phelps says that even when we only briefly meet or see other people, brain regions that are important in forming evaluations immediately get activated, leading to a quick first impression. First impressions, the researchers conclude, are largely formed in advance.

The findings are published in the last edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.




Tags: Mental Health

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