Among the many forces that influence our social lives — geography, age, personality, history — laziness is kind of an underrated one. Who we like, who we don’t, who we think is kind of boring but we’re fine hanging out with in group settings: All of these categories are shaped in large part by quick judgments that typically just become too much of an effort to reconsider.
As Science of Us has previously explained, humans are “cognitive misers,” expending only the minimum amount of mental energy we need to in order to reach a conclusion — when we meet someone for the first time, the path of least cognitive resistance is to assume they’re presenting themselves the way they always are, not that some extenuating circumstance is making them act a little differently than usual. It’s not impossible to change that first impression, but it’s hard.
And it’s harder still if the first impression is a less-than-flattering one. In a study recently published in the journal Social Cognition, researchers from the University of Chicago examined what they call the “moral tipping point,” the moment when our view of someone shifts from bad to good, or vice versa — and that moment is a lot tougher to get to, they found, if we’re deciding that a person has changed for the better.
Study participants read a series of scenarios about people whose behavior patterns were shifting over time. One of these, for example, described a woman named Barbara who generally kept to herself at work, acting cordial and neutral toward her colleagues most of the time. Every so often, though, Barbara would swing in one direction or the other, either showing brief flashes of niceness, like paying someone a compliment or else temporarily breaking bad, like spreading a piece of gossip. But lately, the participants read, she’d been breaking out of neutral more frequently, generally becoming friendlier or nastier to the people around her. Other groups read similar scenarios about a person tipping more or less than usual at restaurants, or being more or less generous with reward money co-earned with a partner.
In each case, the volunteers reported how much time — how many weeks, meals, or payouts — it would take for them to conclude that the new behavior was something more than a fluke. On average, the researchers found, it took longer for someone to “become good” than for the opposite — in Barbara’s case, for example, the study subjects who were told she was acting more positively also said they would need to see more weeks of improvement before they were convinced that she was actually a more moral person. The people who were told she was on a downward swing, on the other hand, were quicker to pronounce that her character had changed.
It just takes a few bad acts, in other words, for us to decide that someone’s rotten to the core, but a lot more effort for them to convince the world that they’re actually pretty okay after all. It’s kind of a bummer of a finding, but not exactly a surprising one — even in first impressions, we tend to give more weight to the information we don’t like, a phenomenon known as negativity bias. Describe someone with an equal number of good and bad traits, for instance, and we’re more likely to dwell on the bad ones, building an image that’s unflattering rather than neutral.
Our tendency to cling to our initial judgments also means that often, the way we think of someone comes down to chance: Did we happen to catch them at a happy moment, or one where they were stressed-out or moody or otherwise less than pleasant? A first impression, it seems, often comes down to timing as much as to the people involved. “Character is found in the smaller acts of virtue and vice common in daily life,” the study authors wrote — and most people’s days contain plenty of each.