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The power of first impressions

Monday, April 18, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

When we run mock trials or focus groups we are often asked why the video clips we show of witnesses are so short. Most often we recommend a clip that is 6-8 minutes long. “Wait!” say our clients. “This person will testify for hours. I want to be sure they have a good sense of the witness—not just a snapshot.” And we explain our reasons.

Part of it is due to time constraints but more of it is based on the fact that first impressions are powerful and jurors (both mock and real) base their impressions on short snippets of testimony and behavior. We’ve written about many aspects of witness preparation before and have come to the belief that people come to firm conclusions about most witnesses very quickly. Now, as is so often handy, we have new research that shows us (again) why first impressions of witnesses are so very important.

Researchers had two separate groups of more than 100 people meet in a “getting-acquainted” session much like speed-dating, until the people had spoken with everyone else in the group for three minutes each. At the end of each 3-minute chat, they rated each other’s personalities, and [also] rated how well they thought their impressions “would agree with someone who knows this person very well.”

There is a large body of research that shows impressions can be accurate with short interactions, and the participants did a reasonably good job of seeing each other’s personality. And the more accurate they felt, the closer their ratings to the friends’ and parents’ ratings (although this correlation was not perfect). The participants also found the highest accuracy from people who rated themselves moderately accurate—when people were highly confident of their judgment, accuracy was not greater than for moderate levels of confidence.

Immovable first impressions seem like very high stakes. Yet as the research above confirms, longer exposures tend to confirm the first impressions. We find over and over again—our mock jurors provide very useful information for witness preparation. And usually, our clients concede that the jurors are usually very insightful. A recent research project [on a patent case] elicited very blunt juror reactions about a number of witnesses from both sides of the case:

My overall impression of the witness is he seems to be knowledgeable and answers questions with certainty. Difficult to tell whether he is truthful or a good liar.

Appears arrogant, almost defiant – seems to have rehearsed responses. Lacking knowledge for VP position.

Eyes rolling upward when asked questions, as if he had to remember what to say.

Seems shady, kept rubbing his nose. Maybe he had a cold or coke problem.

Not sure of what he wanted to say, lost train of thought, seemed to be lying.

Evasive. Needs haircut.

Seems shifty and wouldn’t state a fact. Used double talk about court and not his opinion. Seemed dressed well. Fidgety when questioned. Not good.

He is on medication that prevents him to accurately recall information. I mainly remember him saying “I think” and “not sure” multiple times.

Biting his lip, very serious, a little smug, professional looking.

Talks a lot but not quick with the point. Needs to say whatever he needs to say quicker “um”s and “uh”s a lot.

You probably want to know if a mock jurors wonders if your witness has either a cold or a cocaine problem. Don’t dismiss those first impressions—they last longer than you might think. You learn crucial information about distracting non-verbal behaviors, mannerisms, speech patterns, hair styles and more. So what is the value of a first impression? It’s priceless.

Jeremy C. Biesanz, Lauren J. Human, Annie-Claude Paquin, Meanne Chan, Kate L. Parisotto, Juliet Sarracino, & Randall L. Gillis (2011). Do We Know When Our Impressions of Others Are Valid? Evidence for Realistic Accuracy Awareness in First Impressions of Personality. Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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