First Impressions

UMD's Sunnafrank Says it Takes Only Minutes to Decide if a Relationship Will Last.

You interview someone for a job, or you are introduced to someone at a restaurant. How long does it take you to form a first impression? The answer is something TV's Discovery Channel wants to find out. They came to the UMD campus on February 3, 2005, to interview Michael Sunnafrank, from the UMD Department of Communication about his research on first impressions. According to a new study by Sunnafrank and Artemio Ramirez Jr. of Ohio State University, it can take a little as three minutes to determine how a relationship will progress. In a survey of 164 college freshmen, the two professors found that first impressions had a strong influence on future relationships. Below: Videographer films for the Discover Channel.

Sunnafrank and Ramirez's findings differ with previous research that assumed that it takes days, even weeks, to determine how a relationship will progress. “We found that if two people take an immediate liking to each other, the relationship will most likely grow over time. It happens very rapidly," said Sunnafrank, lead author of a report on the research published in a recent issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

The study methodology paired college freshmen with other same-gender students whom they had never met. The study was conducted on 82 pairings without their knowledge of the experiment. "We caught them the first day so they didn't know each other," Sunnafrank said. "We said, 'OK, we're going to take a few minutes and let you get to meet someone... we've assigned you a partner.'” The pairs introduced themselves and talked for three, six, or 10 minutes. Later, the study participants were asked to predict whether or not they would have a positive future relationship with the person they just met. They were asked to classify the new social contact into a category: nodding acquaintance, casual acquaintance, acquaintance, close acquaintance, friend, and close friend. They also answered other questions about how much they had in common and how much they liked the person they just met. “They thought it was the end of it there.” Sunnafrank said, “They did a little questionnaire at the end of the first day of class and that's it." Below: Mike Sunnafrank.

The students were in multiple sections of low enrollment classes (no more than 22 per section) in which students were required to interact with classmates at each meeting throughout the semester. Not only were there many opportunities to interact and overcome first impression effects but there were many times when the students would be in working
groups with their partner and communication/observation of the partner would result. Despite all these opportunites to alter first impressions and their relational effects, first impressions did have a strong influence on the relationships that had developed by the end of the term.

After the ninth week of class, researchers came back and asked multiple questions about the state of the relationship. Those who gave their partner a high positive rating at the first meeting tended to sit closer in class and talk to them more. They were also more likely to report a closer friendship had developed. In fact, how positively people rated a potential relationship was more important than how much the participants said they had in common, and how much they said they liked the person at first meeting. The amount of time students spent talking to each other initially (three, six, or 10 minutes) had no effect on the outcome.

"That tells you things are happening very quickly," Ramirez said. "People are making snap judgments about what kind of relationship they want with the person they just met." This follows what researchers call predicted outcome value theory, which states that when we initially begin communicating with another person we make predictions about the relationship's potential and act accordingly.

"We make a prediction about what kind of relationship we could have with a person," Sunnafrank said. "and that helps determine how much effort we are willing to put into developing a relationship. It is NOT that people are good at sizing others up or knowing who will or will not be a good relational partner. Instead, people seem to make these predictions based on first impressions and then act in a manner that makes the relationship become what they expected. i.e., 'I think you will be a positive person to be around and therefore, I'll communicate more, tell you more about myself and do things that will help ensure a friendship does develop.' If they have a more negative prediction about a future relationship, then they will restrict communication and make it harder for a friendship to develop. Our research results don't really point to accurate first impressions but self-fulfilling ones. We saw students achieve their self-fulfilling prophecies."

SOURCE: Sunnafrank, M. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, vol 21(3): pp 361-379.

Written by Cheryl Riana Reitan. Posted Feb 4, 2005

Cheryl Reitan, Publications Director,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830


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