Why First Impressions Matter Too Much
Large literatures discuss our widespread human emphasis on first-impressions, and the difficulties faced by late-bloomers (who do well later after poor first impressions). These tendencies are typically described as biases, though many seem them as heuristics to save on judgement effort. However, I’ve just read many articles on these effects, and find that none of them mention what seems to me the most obvious explanation. (Though many factors surely contribute.) So let me present that here.
We are all judged not only on our base features, but also on our judgements of others. We are judged more highly the more consistent are our judgements over time, and the more consistent they are with judgements of others. Especially the judgements of others judged highly by our communities (i.e., mutual admiration societies). And the more confident our judgments, the more we are penalized for judgment deviations, and rewarded for consistency.
When the first person in our community meets a stranger, their judgment of that stranger is little constrained by needing to be consistent with their own prior judgements, nor with the prior judgements of others. Though they will feel constrained by what they expect to be later judgements by themselves and others. Later judgements that they can guess at now by looking at initially visible features.
But once we or others in our community, especially well-judged folks, have made prior judgements about someone, we feel constrained in our own future judgements to not deviate too far from those prior judgements. Especially when such prior judgments are more confident. Such deviations tend to count against us when others judge us. And thus we are less willing to change later judgments as evidence changes.
Initially attractive people, who happen to have good looking features early on in their association with our community, together with their allies, have reasons to want to encourage this process. So they’ll want to get the early associates of a community to make early visible displays, and get many well-judged people in the community to make visible judgments about those early displays.
In addition, they’ll want to raise the confidence levels of those estimates, and get everyone to coordinate strongly on which early-visible features are to be used how to form early judgements. And also to induce hard-to-reverse investment and allocation choices based on these early judgements. To make such judgements more visible, and lock in first impressions, so as to keep competing late-bloomers out of key mutual admiration societies.
Now later observed features and behaviors can also constrain later judgements. So in areas of life where such later observations are more likely to exist, matter, be clearer, be judged, and have those judgements judged by others, then in those areas of life people need to keep their judgements less confident. To watch and be ready for possible reversals, wherein some who gave poor first impressions show themselves to be valuable late bloomers. Those with initially good features according to the local coordination will tend to avoid such areas of life, while others will seek out such areas of life. A sorting that seems bad on net for society.
Thus first-impression and late-bloomer effects are in fact biases on net, and these biases are lower the more it becomes possible to prove one’s value later in life, regardless of one’s first impressions. The fewer strong investment and allocation choices are made early, and the more later competition, the better. And incentivizing judgments more via connections to future outcomes, such via prediction markets, helps.
Note: if this is a social problem, it won’t be solved by lecturing people to watch out for personal biases. It needs new equilibria, such as via new institutions.