From Our 2009 Archives

First Impressions Are All in the Brain

Study Shows How Brain Regions Help Shape First Impressions of Other People

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

March 8, 2009 -- Certain brain regions are geared to pick up cues about other people on a first impression -- with just a little information and maybe a few preconceived notions, a new study shows.

Snap judgments, it turns out, aren't arbitrary at all, but are informed by what we see and know of our opinions about what certain personality traits suggest, researchers report in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Researchers at New York University and Harvard University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people as they formed first impressions of fictional individuals based on simple descriptions and value representations.

Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at NYU, and colleagues, sought to investigate the brain mechanisms that give rise to impressions immediately after meeting someone new.

They designed an experiment in which participants made initial evaluations of fictional people.

Participants were given written profiles of 20 individuals, implying different personality traits. The profiles, presented along with photos of these fictional people, included positive scenarios, such as smart, and negative ones, such as lazy.

The participants read the profiles, and then were asked to evaluate how much they liked or disliked each person.

The impressions varied depending on the values of the people doing the evaluating.

While the participants were forming impressions, their brains were being scanned by fMRI. The researchers were able to tell the difference in various brain areas when they encountered information that was more important in forming the first impression.

The fMRI results showed considerable activity in the amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex regions of the brain during the "encoding" period of information that was relevant to impression formation.

The researchers note that people have little choice but to draw impressions based on ambiguous and complex information. But still, they assert, we're able to judge quickly how we feel about other people, and the ability to do this is due to the innate abilities of various brain regions.

Daniela Schiller, the study's lead author, writes that "when encoding everyday social information during a social encounter, these regions sort information, based on its personal and subjective significance, and summarize it into an ultimate score -- a first impression."

Phelps notes that "even when we only briefly encounter others, brain regions that are important in forming evaluations are engaged, resulting in a quick first impression."

First impressions, the researchers suggest, are largely formed in advance.

SOURCES: New York University, news release. Schiller, D. Nature Neuroscience, March 8, 2009.

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