Social Psychology – Managing Impressions

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

People seem to receive the encouragement to monitor how they are perceived all the time. Such messages can be found on all kinds of media channels like the television, radio and print media; as a part of social interaction, even as a part of training programs. In an ideal world, perception of an individual’s worth, their ability to work effectively and other such factors would not be judged from the way they look, dress and carry themselves. But often, evaluations need to be made on the basis of limited and often superfluous information; and so people tend to use any available information to make inferences [1]. Thus, impressions formed in the span of seconds can often influence the way we evaluate an individual’s worth, and the way we continue to perceive them.

The notion that first impressions are important has stimulated researcher for over five decades, and seminal studies by researcher like Asch, Goffman and Jones among others have provided valuable insight into the resulting analysis has found that these impressions do play an important role in long-term perceptions [2, 5]. When a positive first impression is formed about a person, he/she is more likely to be judged favorably in the future as well. Of course, this should not be taken as an indication that ability can be masked by superficial details. Essentially In the long run, ability is a better predictor of success, while a positive image helps enhance the success associated with this ability [1]. First impressions do help in gaining the opportunity to show one’s talent though. Apparel, jewellery and accessories, body language, speech, physical characteristics, and even perfume are known to affect the initial impressions formed [3]. These impressions in return help predict the extent to which the person is considered similar to the judge and how well they are liked. Positive initial impressions can even help bolster the quality of relationships like marriage that are shared for a considerable amount of time. Although partners do learn more about each other over time, the initial positive evaluation seems to persist even years into a marriage [2].

How Impressions Are Formed

Since we have established that impressions do mater, it is important to understand how they are formed. Research in different contexts has revealed that initially, people use concrete examples of an individual’s behavior (called Exemplars) to form impressions. But as more information becomes available, they form a more general evaluation (called an Abstraction) which contains a composite of different traits [2]. What makes this process remarkable is that both Exemplars and Abstractions can be formed and used within minutes of meeting a person. Not all traits are equally important in impression formation. Asch (1946; in [2]) suggested that there are some central traits (e.g.: warm, calculative, etc.) which play a more important role in impression formation as compared to others (e.g.: friendly, outgoing, etc.). Variation of these central traits seems to influence the way people perceive others more than variation the other more peripheral traits. Also, the traits that are initially observed tend to have a stronger impact on impressions as compared to information that is received later [2]. This preference for initially presented information is called the primacy effect which implies that the most significant information should be presented first in order for it to have a greater impact on the way people perceive us.


We all see advertisements that encourage us to ‘look a particular’ way for a date, or an interview, or a social event. What these messages suggest is that was way a person presents him/herself affects the way others perceive them. Self-presentation is a means of making others think that we are good or competent [1]. In order to form a positive impression, people need to recognize the context in which they are perceived. Wearing a powerful business suit can help a women be considered seriously for a management position; but would lead to her being ridiculed and at a rock concert. Besides the context, the social identity of the person also plays an import role [4]. People form more positive impressions of others whose social contexts they respect, understand or feel an affiliation for. Thus, sometimes, people tend to leave out information that may hurt the way they are perceived; particularly if the information is irrelevant to the task at hand.

The role of cognitive load

Often, people who are trying to present a positive impression are under a significant amount of stress from a number of factors. This stress affects different people’s ability to present themselves differently. People who are otherwise confident and self-assured seem to be negatively affected when they have to do remember a number of things. On the other hand, people who are otherwise diffident and self-conscious seem to handle the stress better [2]. It may be that since they are otherwise occupies, they have less resources available with which they may doubt themselves or worry about decisions.

Providing others with rose-Tinted glasses

Besides self-presentation, people also get evaluated on the basis of how they make others feel. When we make another person feel good about themselves, they also view us as being good [4]. Strategies like praising others differing to their opinions, agreeing with them and acknowledging their thoughts, attitudes and feelings help in making people feel valued [3]. This puts them in a positive frame of mind which encourages them to view the individual who is using these Other-Enhancing strategies as being more likable and to rate them as being similar to self. This perceived similarity to self can foster an in-group involvement, which then leads to a more positive attribution than otherwise [4].

Using Impression Management

Most people use some amount of Impression Management from time to time, particularly when they are invested in being well received. Most people take care to dress when meeting someone new, or when attending an important meeting. When used to accentuate one’s abilities, impression management can help facilitate an individual’s social and professional development. But it is important to remember that impression management does not always work the way we expect it to [4]. Also, the best of first impressions cannot be a substitute for ability and effort. Rather, it is an excellent means of ensuring that this ability and effort are paid the attention they deserve.


  1. Sanderson, Catherine A. “Social Cognition”. In Social Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Pp. 144 – 179.
  2. Baron, Robert A. “Social Perception”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 79 – 109.
  3. DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Self and Self Presentation”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 64 – 114.
  4. Nelson, Debra L. & Quick, James C. “Personality, Perception and Attribution”. In Organizational Behavior: Science, the Real World, and You, (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 78 – 112.
  5. McKinlay, Andrew & McVittie, Chris. “Impression Management”. In Social Psychology and Discourse. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Pp. 99 – 103.