Brain taps emotion, reward to form first impressions


First impressions matter. NYU scientists have found that the brain works double time when we meet someone for the first time.

NYU (US)—First impressions matter. Now neuroscientists have peeked into the brain to find out why. New study results show that two brain regions kick into high gear when we meet someone for the first time. The findings by researchers at New York University and Harvard University reveal how we encode social information and then evaluate it in making these initial judgments.

“Even when we only briefly encounter others and have limited and ambiguous cues to evaluate, brain regions that are important in emotional learning and representing value are engaged,” says study coauthor Elizabeth Phelps, an NYU professor of psychology and neuroscience.

Researchers say the rather quick act of forming a first impression is actually a complex cognitive feat. Making sense of others in a social interaction is not easy—each new person we meet may be a source of ambiguous and complex information. However, when encountering someone for the first time, we are often quick to judge whether we like that person or not. In fact, previous research has shown that people make relatively accurate and persistent evaluations based on rapid observations of even less than half a minute.

To explore the process of first impression formation, the researchers examined the brain activity of study participants while they evaluated a series of 20 fictional individuals, each with photos and distinct personality traits. The profiles also included scenarios that suggested both positive (e.g., intelligent) and negative (e.g., lazy) traits.

After reading the profiles, the participants were asked to evaluate how much they liked or disliked each fictional character based on their first impressions. The research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze the associated brain activity. Based on the participants’ ratings, the researchers were able to determine the difference in brain activity when they encountered information that was more, as opposed to less, important in forming the first impression.

The neuroimaging results showed significant activity in two regions of the brain during the encoding of impression-relevant information. The first, the amygdala, is a small structure in the medial temporal lobe that previously has been linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects, as well as social evaluations based on trust or race group. The second, the posterior cingulate cortex, has been linked to economic decision-making and assigning subjective value to rewards. These parts of the brain, which are implicated in value processing in a number of domains, showed increased activity when encoding information that was consistent with the impression.

NYU’s Daniela Schiller, the study’s lead author, says the results suggest the brain does some quick sorting and analysis during these social encounters. The end result, she explains, is a summary, “an ultimate score—a first impression.”

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