Under new anger management
When my boyfriend and I started dating, he was kind of a hothead. His first encounter with my friends was a game of touch football on the beach. He and another guy collided, and he lost his temper. There was a good bit of yelling, and I think people were pretty shocked. To his credit, he realized he had an anger problem. Over time, he has worked hard on it, and now he doesn’t blow up anymore. He really is a changed man, and I thought people would recognize it, but I’ve recently learned that they all still see him as the scary-angry guy. Is there any way to change that? –Asking For A Second Chance
In touch football, you’re only supposed to put a hand or two on another player – as opposed to, oh, tearing out his soul.
Sure, in the months following that friendly Sunday afternoon death match, your friends had various opportunities to see that your boyfriend’s changed. Sadly, this probably hasn’t made the slightest dent in their opinion of him, thanks to our brain’s penchant for energy conservation. Once we’ve figured something out – some bit of information or how to do something – our brain creates a cognitive shortcut, shrink-wrapping and storing the knowledge set so, the next time around, we’ll react automatically instead of having to think the thing through. These cognitive shortcuts work great when you, say, want more light to read by. You know to reach over and switch on a lamp; you don’t have to figure out what a lamp is or whether yanking the dog’s tail might make his eyes light up the room.
Unfortunately, this autothink makes undoing first impressions like trying to unspill red wine on a white rug. The next time we see a person, our brain shoves us our mental flashcard on them – “Oh, right, Explody McSploderson.” There’s no mulling over whether that view of them might be due for revision. Researchers, predictably, call this cognitive laziness “first impression bias.” It’s a form of confirmation bias, our tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs and ignore any that suggests we might be mistaken. Information updates are especially easy to overlook when they’re subtle, like an explody guy shrugging off a small affront, which is far less visual and memorable than that time he turned into Conan The Touch Football Barbarian.
A way to overcome first impression bias, suggested by research by Kai H. Lim, is presenting new information about your boyfriend in such “unambiguous” and “vivid” ways that it becomes hard to ignore. Tell friends straight-out that he’s changed, and explain his motivation – ideally while walking past him meditating on a park bench with the Dalai Lama or running a rescue for hummingbird single mothers. At the very least, tell stories – true stories – laying out how differently he now responds. Information presented in story form tends to be stickier, and “vivid” mental pictures of his transformation may quash the ambiguity that helps maintain first impression bias. Finally, add a call to action – a request that friends give him a second look through the lens of this new information.
©2014, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon. Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).