All In Your Head
Each of us has a unique perspective on the world, and it changes as we interact with others. But is our perception always the reality? How do our brains properly or improperly assess situations? Dr. Mark Weinberg, a Vancouverbased psychologist, discusses the concept of first impressions and the effect they have on our lives and future communications.
Dallas Gawlick: I’ve heard that first impressions tend to stick. In your experience working with people, do you find that first impressions impact future relationships?
Dr. Mark Weinberg: As you say, they are said to stick. That’s in accordance with the literature and the research in the area. But I can tell you in general, I don’t actually personally agree that they stick as much as the literature would say.
DG: Oh, really?
MW: You have a first impression of a person, then when you get to know them at a later point, you may realize that you were incorrect. Let’s say you have a negative impression—you may be cautious. But that person will start to show traits you didn’t realize they had when you made that first impression. You start to see things that are outside of your assumptions.
DG: So it’s kind of a face value judgement, not necessarily accurate.
MW: The empirical sign of interaction will be that you may come to learn things that contradict your initial impression.
DG: I learned that first impressions are called schemas in psychology. They’re the framework we use to make these judgements. Based on my last question, would you say that these schemas can be detrimental to interacting with people?
MW: Just to clarify, you’re right about the use of the word schema in that context, but schema is also almost a map in our heads, a model in our heads of how we understand much of the world. So your question, it depends on the people, and if you’ve formed a negative schema about a particular person. As you mentioned, these are impressions—these are not necessarily empirically validated points of view. So they can be [detrimental] for sure. But we have many negative schemas or positive schemas about ourselves, so they can be very limiting in many ways.
DG: So it’s important to understand how we’re making schemas, not just that we’re making them?
MW: We really need to understand that this kind of mechanism exists in our worlds. We tend to believe that because we feel or think something, it has a truth to it. We think that because we think that person doesn’t like us, for example, that means that person doesn’t like us. Whereas, when you examine the evidence, it’s actually not necessarily true—it’s based on some fleeting assessment. As organisms, on average, we tend towards the more negative appraisal of situations, because these systems were brought from an evolutionary point of view to keep us safe, to keep us hyper-vigilant. We recognize patterns of negativity rather than positivity first.
DG: It’s safer to assume the worst, because it’s easier to protect yourself if you’re already on guard.
MW: Exactly. I find in my practice that to people, it’s an important first step. There are obviously people who don’t fit that mold, who are more spontaneous, more risk-taking. But on average, we tend to be a little more anxious than we need to be.
What I do for most of my sessions is provide education about how the mind really works in these situations. Because people often are not aware of how their evaluations are biased.
DG: They just assume that they’re correct because they’re making them.
MW: Exactly. Often they’re right, I’m not saying people are always wrong—it’s just that we assume we’re right.
DG: Interesting. So it often turns out our interpretations of the world can be pretty different from reality. Would you say they’re more important than what actually happened, because they affect us directly?
MW: I think I would agree with what you just said. Once you get into the argument of what actually happened, it’s all open to interpretation. I do think we live more in a world of assumption and interpretation than we realize.
DG: In your practice have you found any effective ways of adjusting our perceptions so we can see what might be happening behind the curtain, instead of just assuming at face value what’s going on?
MW: The first day I see people, I give them a list of what are known as cognitive distortions— and there are many of these, but there’s a top 10 that I’ve got. I go through them with people, and we work together on understanding where examples of these sorts of distortions in their own lives stand. We go through this list to give people a little glimpse behind the curtain. And I find that quite often, it’s very eye-opening for people. They go through the list and say, “Oh, I do this, I do that,” and we’ll go through examples of where that happens. The bread and butter of the kind of work I do is challenging schemas, and getting people to understand that a lot of what they’re doing is based on quite common misapprehensions—which have adaptive function, they’re there for a reason, they helped keep us safe for millennia. But they’re also not necessarily empirical observations.