Q: I know that first impressions matter, even in forming friendships. But what are people looking for in a first impression that determines whether they form a friendship with me?
A: One theory, Predicted Outcome Value Theory, suggests that people are looking for value in a relationship. Whether they feel that they will get value from being your friend matters more in a first impression than even if they like you. There is some research support for this theory.
Of course a bad first impression can cause a person to be avoided, damaging the possibility of friendships down the road.
But what about situations where people work together closely and even form friendships? Don’t all the interactions people have over time erase any memory of a first impression?
This is a question that two researchers, one from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and one from The Ohio State University, sought to discover.
The results were published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2004.
A theory that drove their hypothesis is called Predicted Outcome Value Theory.
- In a nutshell, POVT is a way to describe people’s motivations when they get to know each other.
POVT states that when people first meet each other, they make a decision to themselves regarding whether that relationship will pay off in the future, or (conversely) whether it is not worth their time.
- In other words, you might meet a new person and say to yourself, “Boy, I can really imagine having a fun time with that guy in the future. I think I’ll keep getting to know him and maybe one day I’ll get that opportunity.
- In this case you make the conscious decision to get closer to this person and foster a relationship.
- Or on the flip side, you might say to yourself, “This guy is boring and if I put the work into getting to know him, I’m not sure that will ever really pay off. I’m not going to bother hanging out with him.”
- In this case, you’ll move away from this person and seek friendship/relationship opportunities elsewhere.
- All of this happens under our awareness – we may not consciously be aware that these principles are guiding our behavior when meeting new people. They just happen.
- This theory predicts that first impressions are important because they’re the first opportunity we get to predict whether a relationship will pay off in the future.
- But do first impressions really make that big of a difference?
Based on Predicted Outcome Value Theory, these researchers sought to examine whether impressions formed in the first meetings of people really persist over time.
- The researchers found a first-year undergraduate communication course and offered participation in the study for extra credit.
- The study occurred at the end of class, and then there was a follow-up 9 weeks later.
- 258 students took part during the first session, and 164 agreed to follow up after 9 weeks.
- The researchers randomly paired up students to have conversations.
- The pairs were same-sex (to reduce the influence of romantic attraction).
- The get-acquainted conversations lasted a few minutes (3-10 minutes, varied randomly across the pairs and classes in order to examine the influence of conversation length) and then students returned to their seats.
- Then, students completed a questionnaire about the partner they just “got acquainted” with.
- If the student was accidentally randomly paired with someone they knew, their data were eliminated from the study.
- The questionnaire asked students about:
- Their “Predicted Outcome Value” from the other person. Basically, they were asked what they felt the value or outcome of a relationship with the other person might be.
- What kind of relationship they predicted they would form with that person.
- Whether they liked that person.
- Whether they felt similar or different from that person.
- Whether they felt certain or uncertain about their judgments about that person.
- Then, 9 weeks later, the students were asked to fill out a follow-up questionnaire about the same person.
- That questionnaire asked them the same items as the first time, with a few additional questions:
- Over the last 9 weeks, how much they had communicated with the other person (both in class and out of class).
- Over the last 9 weeks, how physically close were the two people in the classroom? This was measured by the normal number of desks separating the two people.
- The researchers had a few hypotheses regarding how the study would turn out. Here are each of the hypotheses, along with whether they turned out to be right.
- The pairs’ assessments of each other will be similar.
- RESULT: CONFIRMED. Generally, partners agreed on whether they liked each other after their first meeting.
- First impressions will influence physical proximity, communication, attraction, and type of relationship over time – even at the 9-week follow-up.
- RESULT: CONFIRMED. A better first impression resulted in closer proximity, more communication, more liking of each other, and whether they considered themselves to be friends.
- First impressions from one partner’s point of view will be related to assessments from the other person’s point of view after the 9-week follow-up (in other words, a person’s partner will generally agree with the person’s assessments).
- RESULT: CONFIRMED. First impressions also predicted a partner’s ratings of proximity, communication, etc.
- The most powerful factor that will predict future friendship/relationships will be Predicted Outcome Value (not how much they liked their partner or how similar they were, etc.).
- RESULT: MOSTLY CONFIRMED. Predicted Outcome Value was the strongest predictor of friendship at the 9-week follow-up in 2 out of 4 statistical tests (compared to predicted relationship, initial attraction, perceived similarity, and degree of certainty). It was a significant factor in the other two (but not the strongest).
- The most powerful factor that will predict a person’s PARTNER’s closeness of relationship will be the PARTNER’S Predicted Outcome Value in the relationship.
- RESULT: MOSTLY CONFIRMED. Predicted Outcome Value was the strongest predictor in 3 out of 4 statistical tests.
- Predicted Outcome Value will be the most powerful predictor of closeness of a relationship when partners’ assessments are put together.
- RESULT: STRONGLY CONFIRMED. Predicted Outcome Value was, overall, the strongest predictor of partner relationships/friendships when everything was combined.
- The pairs’ assessments of each other will be similar.
- So what should we take away from this?
- It means that when people make a first impression, they really do make a judgment regarding whether they think they’re going to get anything out of a relationship.
- That judgment is more important in determining their longer-term relationship than any of the other factors measured (including predicted relationship type, how much they liked a person, how similar they felt to the other person, and how certain they were in their judgments of a person).
- When people meet each other, they want to know what value they will get from the relationship.
- Value was measured in: whether they think they will have conversations with that person, whether their shared likes and dislikes will yield positive interactions, how they believe they will interact with each other, etc.
- This is even more important than whether they liked a person.
- Closeness is more than just liking someone – it’s about whether a person feels that being close to someone will pay off in the long run.
- Thus, if you want to form intimate, close friendships, think about what value you will bring to the friendship (not just about being “liked”).
Sunnafrank, M., & Ramirez, A. (2004). At first sight: Persistent relational effects of get-acquainted conversations. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(3), 361-379. Link: https://library.allanschore.com/docs/AtFirstSight-PersistentRelationalEffects.pdf