It was in 2016 when I traveled to Bolivia and on the road had an opportunity to witness how first impression and lack of information can narrow your vision and lead to friction in communication.
I was travelling on a public bus from La Paz to Sucre. A twelve hours long overnight ride that started pleasantly enough but quickly turned into a twenty-four hours long adventure. Half into the journey we came to a roadblock that threatened to last the whole night so the bus driver decided to take a detour.
Out of the nice tarmac way and onto a dirt road. No signposts, no navigation. Only dirt and later on a sandy road. Eventually, we got lost and a while later even stuck in a deep sand. Forty angry passengers who know they won’t get to their destination on time. Some just sat down and complained, some took it as a challenged and started helping the driver to free the bus.
It took us four hours, but ultimately, we were able to get the bus going and after couple more hours of being lost we found the original road behind the roadblock and were on our way. At that point, the confidence of the passengers in the driver was extremely low.
He risked an unknown road because he wanted to get his passengers to their destination on time. It didn’t work out and now everyone on the bus thought he is incompetent. Bad first impression.
We were riding again in our double decker bus and everyone was looking forward to get to the destination. Except, the driver was stopping at every second crossroad. I was sitting on the upper deck and heard the rumbling of people around me, “That guy is impossible, he is lost again.” “I believe we are actually going in the wrong direction, someone should go tell him to turn around.” “Look at how slow he is driving, he probably never drove a bus before.” “We should call the company and tell them to send another driver, or someone from the passengers should drive.” There was a zero trust in the abilities of that driver.
When he stopped for the tenth time, I went downstairs to talk to him but before I had that opportunity, I saw an old lady getting off the bus and walking to a nearby village.
The driver wasn’t stopping because he was lost. He was stopping to let people on and off the bus. He knew perfectly well where we were and was able to tell me how far and long we still have to go, and that there will be a shop twenty minutes from now. There he would give everyone an opportunity to buy some refreshments.
I stayed on the lower deck for a while to see how he is driving. Yes, he was driving slow. He was observing the speed limits and didn’t go faster than the limits allowed. He followed the rules!
This was a good guy who was doing his job, who was reasonably competent, and who had only the good of the passengers on his mind. And yet, we all felt the exact opposite because of the original impression we formed when being stuck in the sand and the consequent lack of information about what’s going on.
That experience narrowed our vision so much that we didn’t even realize that buses might be stopping to get people on and off.
What was going on? None of us knew the driver. Our first real experience with him was a negative one when the bus was stuck. We didn’t have the information about the roadblock and we didn’t have the information about the landscape. We felt helpless and the only person who could help us seemed lost himself.
That first impression immediately changed our way we looked at him. Instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt, any question, any uncertainty we had, immediately led us to the conclusions that reinforced the original impression. We didn’t even try to verify whether our impressions are correct. We didn’t even ask why he is stopping at every second cross road. We just assumed he is lost because he was lost before.
The power of first impression has a name, the halo effect. Probably the most frequently quoted cognitive bias that makes you transfer positive or negative traits you observe in a person in one area of life to another area even if they are in no way connected. For example, “this guy has a nice shirt… he must be great… at selling software.”
It may sound ridiculous when you think about it, but the danger is that you don’t even realize you are doing it. We are talking about a subconscious dialog that exhibits itself in the form of us deluding ourselves.
How to break it? Think about it! Don’t make any assumptions and if you find yourself getting emotional with someone else, take a deep breath and think. What exactly the person did that makes you believe he or she is incompetent, or has hostile intentions towards you? You may discover that they didn’t do anything yet. You are just “reading between the lines”, making assumptions, and getting angry proactively and without a good reason.
Next time you find yourself in a conflict think whether it wasn’t you getting angry with others because you misunderstood their intention. Maybe they just wanted to get someone off the bus.
What is your take on the power of first impression? Do you have a story that illustrates how damaging it can be? Have you ever had a situation when it worked to your advantage?
Photo: TheDigitalArtist / Pixabay.com