The Primacy Effect

The order in which we discover something about a person can also influence its impact. It is often said that first impressions are critical, and a good deal of research bears this out. Studies show that information often has greater impact when presented early in a sequence rather than later. This phe- nomenon is known as the primacy effect.

What accounts for primacy effects? There are two basic explanations. The first is that once perceivers think they have formed an accurate impression of someone, they tend to pay less attention to subsequent information. Thus, when research participants read a series of statements about a person, the amount of time they spent reading each of the items declined steadily with each succeeding statement.

More unsettling is the second reason for primacy, known as the change-of- meaning hypothesis. Once people have formed an impression, they start to inter- pret inconsistent information in light of that impression. Asch’s research shows just how malleable the meaning of a trait can be. When people are told that a kind person is calm, they assume that he or she is gentle, peaceful, and serene. When a cruel person is said to be calm, however, the same word is interpreted to mean cool, shrewd, and calculating. There are many examples to illustrate the point. Based on your first impression, the word proud can mean self-respecting or conceited, critical can mean astute or picky, and impulsive can mean sponta- neous or reckless.

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