First Impressions

Opening night of Big Brother 4 will be an intense and fun event, especially for us devoted fans of the show. Within just a few seconds of getting our first glimpse of each new housemate, we will be forming our first impressions of them. Those first few moments of assessment can often have long term implications on how we perceive the people we are observing. 
   Upon observing someone for the very first time the most amazing process happens. Even though an observer might only have heard a person speak a words, or walk a few steps, they can still form a complex initial impression of them. Within a matter of seconds we can feel a strong liking, or an utter aversion to a particular person. This is quite a stunning psychological process, which most of us do a few hundred times each day. Consider each time you venture forth from your home, you form a complex assessment for every single person you meet whilst during your day. This ability is essentially automatic and requires relatively little conscious effort. Given a few seconds we 'just know' if a person is going to annoy the hell out of us or not. Consider the standard job interview, the applicant walks into the interview room, and usually within a few seconds the personnel officer will know whether the person will be acceptable or otherwise.
   When you observe someone for the very first time, what do you perceive first ? What aspects of a person do you notice first of all ? Doubtless there will be great variability amongst different people, and so exploring why person A likes person B after just 7 seconds of exposure is not easily answerable. According to Oscar Wilde (1891) "It is only the shallow people who do not judge by appearances". However is it really all about appearance, or do other factors have any bearing on how we initially feel about someone new ?

Factors involved in First impressions

There are a great many variables that an observer might take into account when they form their first impression of someone. Here are a few of the main ones (in no particular order of importance).

Ψ Accent/ Spoken Vocabulary - The voice tone, the regional accent of the person could have a noticeable effect on whether someone likes them or not. An accent is of course neither qualitively good nor bad, yet I suggest that many people have their own preferences. Some people will love a soft Scottish accent, whilst another observer might find a London accent utterly annoying. With just a few words uttered a housemate may fall out of favour with millions of viewers for good ! Similarly the vocabulary type/style of a person is an important aspect. For instance a person that says '... ya know wat i mean' as an add-on to every second sentence, can drive some people (myself included) totally insane.

Ψ Dress Style - Particular dress style may well find favour with some viewers. There is of course the element of dressing to look sexually appealing, although that in itself might annoy some people. Imagine the BB housemate on opening night, trying to look casual, but still smart - trying to maintain the delicate balance between scruffy and an overly posh look.

* As a side note, I was particularly interested in a recent news story - posted by DS:BB reporter Kiera Tsenti, that housemates might be required to wear a fixed uniform upon entering and leaving the house. Personally, I think that it would  take away a lot of the individuality of the housemates. Dress style can indicate a lot about a person's attitude, besides do we really want to see them wearing all the same thing ? I don't think so.

Ψ Posture - The general way in which the person 'holds themselves'. Do they stand tall, hold their head high, or do they walk crooked, and shuffle along as they walk ?

Ψ Name - A person's name might be said to hold intrinsic value for some people. Does the viewer associate the new housemates name with a past ex-lover ? Does the name bring to mind thoughts of elegance, or thoughts of tacky common rough manners ?

Ψ Similarity: Cultural aspect - This is a delicate issue, but must be addressed. Some people clearly are outright prejudiced against certain ethnic groups. A few seconds of exposure will be enough for some viewers to dismiss a few of the housemates merely on grounds of their ethnic background. One theory is that people tend to show distinct preferences for people who share their same personal background - they feel more able to relate to them.

* Will an Asian or black housemate ever have a real opportunity to win Big Brother UK ? Perhaps, although I suggest that there remains a measurable chunk of British Society that remains stuck in the dark ages of total racial prejudice (around 12-17% in my view). Maybe BB6 or 7 ? You never know.

Ψ Physical appearance - Body size and general physical status remains one of the leading determinants for people forming their initial impression. The first time we observe someone is usually in a visual way, and that initial view can have a big effect on our first impression. One idea is that people favour others who are roughly as attractive as they are. The idea is that we seek/prefer people who match us - this is part of the 'matching hypothesis' relationship theory. People tend to choose a partner who is roughly as attractive as they are, and usually not much more so. There is actually quite an amount of research dealing with this issue. For Big Brother, viewers might thus form their most positive impression for a housemate who are generally the same 'level of attractiveness' as the observer.

Impression Formation theory

Over the last few decades social psychologists have researched extensively into why people like others. Research continues today at a rapid pace, and is particularly focused on matters of 'liking and loving'. However there are various schools of psychology, each of which hold to quite different ideas. Psychology as a 'science' remains very much split, and there are quite literally different schools that hold to quite different orientations of perspective. I won't go into each broad opinion on the matter (that would take weeks), suffice it to say that a cognitive-behavioural view seems the best of the current theories.

There are a few pieces of research worthy of note, all are related to how appearance is a major factor in how we perceive others. Feingold (1990) conducted a meta-analysis of previous research, and suggested that both men and women place a high value on attractiveness, but that men placed more importance on physical appearance that women do. The importance of attractiveness in 'liking and loving' has also been observed for same sex attraction (Sergios & Cody, 1985). The key issue is that many studies tend to suggest that physical attractiveness is the strongest predictor of whether someone will be liked. A further issue to note at this point is that culture also plays a part. Different cultures have slightly different attitudes as to what is deemed attractive. Every culture is of course developing, and preferences for particular types of  beauty have certainly been observed to change with time. Just think of how today's catwalk models compare to how women looked in the 1960's.  

One rather unsettling piece of social research that has been investigated, is the effect of cosmetic surgery on how a woman is judged to be attractive or not. Kolick (1977) noted how both men and women rated the post-op female patient (breasts enhancement) as more 'warm, sensitive, and sexually responsive', than the same pre-surgery women. This is a somewhat depressing piece of research, - the conclusion being that women with bigger breasts tend to be equated with also possessing other 'good personalities'. Note again that the findings also apply to women's attitudes of women too. It is not just your average sexist male that appears to think this way.

Extrapolation of physical attractiveness to Personality 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the physical attractiveness issue, is that people tend to associate physical attractiveness with other personality factors. For instance a 'beautiful woman' is generally assumed to also possess other positive personality traits. This has been termed the 'beautiful is good stereotype' (Dion, Bersheid, & Walster, 1972). In an analysis of previous research one interesting aspect was that the beautiful is good stereotype does not apply for all cases. Research suggest that the 'beautiful people' are not deemed to have more personal integrity or to be more empathic, compared to the 'less attractive'. This is quite important for Big Brother contestants. Despite the fact that good looks do tend to garner favour with the viewing public, good looks are certainly not going to make up for a deceitful and cold hearted personality. Last year in the DS:BB forum, I noted how the personality facets personal 'integrity' and 'empathy' were sometimes cited by forum posters, as lacking in some of the housemates. This was despite the fact that such housemates were arguably attractive. A great body and generally pleasing overall appearance can certainly contribute to a positive initial impression, but appearance does not outweigh a dull or nasty persona. So there is hope indeed for those of us that don't look like a fashion model, yet who have the spirit of an angel and the kindness of a saint.

Are First Impressions accurate ?

The answer lies probably somewhere between 'usually' and 'sometimes'. The initial impressions we form of someone do of course change as we collate ever more information about the person. With time and further observation comes a greater degree of accuracy in our assessments of people. Aronson, Wilson and Akert (1997) noted "It is not particularly earth-shaking to conclude that the longer we know someone, the better we know that person". Yet how much difference does it make in accuracy terms, knowing someone for 11 seconds compared to 15 weeks ?  In one study the accuracy of personality ratings for some students were compared between people who had only observed the students for 5 minutes, and close friends of the students . Funder and Colvin (1988) demonstrated that close friends were 5 times more accurate at assessing their close friends, compared to the personality assessments given by complete strangers. 

People appear to be over-confident in their initial assessments - we are not as accurate at assessing people as we would like to believe. Dunning et al (1990) found that although a group of students were fairly accurate at assessing each other, the students were consistently overestimating their level of accuracy.

No one is perfect at forming impressions all of the time, sometimes we may well feel a deep aversion to a particular person we have observed for the first time. Later though as we get to know them, our first impressions of them may give way to eventual respect and admiration. Such changes over the course of time are certainly understandable - with time and experience, we may discover something about them that elevates or reduces our liking for them. However, why do we sometimes make errors in our first assessments of people ?

The Fundamental attribution error is one primary reason that has been suggested. Fritz Heider (1958) was the first to theorise that people tend to blame people's behaviour on personality, rather than on the situation. Ross (1977) noted how people tend to attribute behaviour as a result of situational factors. Why do people tend to commit this particular error ? Gilbert and Malone (1995) argued that for much of the time we lack the full details of the situation, in essence they are saying that quite often people will lack the full background information. For example, someone at a party is sitting quietly in the corner of the room. Maybe an observer would think that person is shy and socially introverted. However, maybe the person sitting alone has been stood up by their date ? The fact is that often the outside observer lacks all the information, thus making incorrect assumptions about why the person has behaved in a certain way.

Aronson et al (1997) suggests that attributing behaviour to personality factors is very much a quicker process, and requires less conscious effort, than taking into account situational factors. With regards to Big Brother, it would therefore be useful to remember that the people entering the BB house are in totally 'unknown territory'. The BB experience is arguably one of the most extreme cases in which the situation is very much more the determining factor, rather than the personality in shaping behaviour  Each contestant is of course unique in how they will cope with the insane and unique environment of BB. In general though it thus seems useful that viewers of Big Brother 4 should give more consideration, the impact that the BB environment will have on the behaviour of the housemates.

Beautiful people treated differently from birth

There is some basis in fact for the belief that 'beautiful people' are more socially adept than 'less attractive' people. The beautiful people receive more attention from mainstream society than the less attractive people. This is the case right from birth. Consider a young child who is given more attention in class, or by their peer group in school. That child is going to do better than a child who is shunned and left alone in class or at home. A positive feedback loop can exist whereby the more attractive child is treated more favourably, the child gains in confidence and develops even better social skills, and this confidence results in more attention, and further social skills development.

I myself would like to believe I don't judge people primarily (certainly not entirely) upon their physical appearance. In my own life I have found that the more attractive a person is, the probability increases that I won't like the person. I've tended to find a correlation between 'nasty people' and 'super attractive' people. Perhaps I've just been around the wrong type of attractive people ? Seriously though, even after a few million years of evolution human beings still seem to place a dominating emphasis upon a person's degree of attractiveness.

In summary it seems clear that first impressions do count for something. Just a few seconds of observation can provide an immense of information on which to construct an initial assessment. Those initial impressions do indeed change over time as we gain more information, but it often remains the case that our first impressions are correct. The most interesting aspect is that those first few seconds are sometimes enough for many people to decide if they are going to like a person in the longer term. Aronson et al (1997) sums up the human ability to form impressions..."We do very well indeed most of the time...We become more accurate at perceiving others as we get to know them better. In short, we are capable of making both blindingly accurate assessments of people and horrific attribution mistakes..".

So when the housemates are revealed this Friday evening, keep in mind that the initial opinion you form of the contestants within those first few moments, may well shape your view of them for the rest of the 9 week season.  

Suggested Reading

Aronson, E.,Wilson, T.D., Akert, R.M. (1997) Social Psychology, Addison Wesley Publishing : Chapter's 4 & 10.

Related Websites

Social Perception : Website with some useful notes on how we perceive others

Related Articles

First Impressions BB3 (USA) : Interesting article on how first impressions are important.

How first impressions last : Account of a student entering University life.

What you expect.. you get : Teachers get the type of student they expect.

Hand-shaking : In-depth research on first impressions and hand-shaking.


Aronson, E.,Wilson, T.D., Akert, R.M. (1997) Social Psychology, Addison Wesley Publishing

Dion, K., Bersheid, E., & Walster (Hatfield), E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285-290.

Dunning, D., Griffin, D. W., Milojkovic, J., & Ross, L. (1990). The overconfidence effect in social prediction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 568-581.

Feingold (1990) cited by Aronsen et al (1997)

Funder, D., & Colvin, c. R. (1988). Friends and strangers: Acquaintanceship, agreement, and the accuracy of personality judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 149-158.

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

Kolick (1977) cited by Aronson et al (1997)

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings:Distortions in the attribution process. cited by Aronson et al (1997)

Sergios, P. A., & Cody, J. (1985). Physical attractiveness and social assertiveness skills in male homosexual dating behaviour and partner selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 125, 505-514.

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2003 Philip Calrissian
Last Updated : 25/03/04