Primacy effect: First impression draws the first blood

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

YOUNG Jonathan, who had been promised a new puppy for his tenth birthday by his parents, had a tough time choosing one from more than a dozen likely candidates at a neighborhood pet shop. After much thought, finally, he decided on one ordinary hairy pup that was furiously wagging his tail.

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He explained: “I want the one with the ‘happy ending.’”

In people management, how would you predict the “happy ending” of any work relationship? Generally, if we’re to take it from American president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) – “the best way is to create it.” Employees are more likely to do more and do well than what are expected of them, if only managers know how to establish and maintain the right environment.

Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.

Motivating employees is too broad a subject and most of the time, an ambiguous term for those in management. In fact, there are many things to talk about. That’s why it’s best for us to talk one thing (or one step) at a time. For instance, one age-old management theory is about the “primacy effect” in organizations. In ordinary language, the primacy effect is known as having the first impressions that last about a certain individual.

It is the general perceptual error of people to quickly form an opinion based on the first impression we receive about a certain individual. For example, if we meet a man who wears untidy, crumpled clothes, some of us in the male chauvinist movement would immediately form an opinion that he has an uncaring, devil-may-care wife. On the other hand, if that person dresses appropriately, many of us would think that he has the money to spend for a laundry professional.

It is easier to remember the person as someone who dresses appropriately or inappropriately than to talk about the total goodness and the overall result of that first encounter. Once an inaccurate first impression is made, it is difficult for us to change it, even in the face of a truckload of new evidence that contradicts the first impression.

Thus, the person whom we think has a poor taste for his clothes will have the difficulty of shaking off this first impression if he continues to commit the same mistake and some of us may wonder why he has not separated from his wife.

That example, of course, tends to hook you in with a smile. But in the real world, if we are confronted with a job applicant who came in late for an interview, we tend to consider it as a mortal sin, especially these days where employers are enjoying a heyday in choosing one applicant from several hundreds.

The “primacy effect” is a distant cousin of “halo error” when our first impression of a job applicant is usually based on one distinct element (for example, he’s not a graduate of UP, La Salle, or Ateneo) that wrongfully colors our total perception. Halo error happens when hiring managers are not sufficiently motivated to search for other positive characteristics of an applicant and rely much on that one single requirement.

Instead, they focus on the absence or presence of that one element (a product of three exclusive schools) before making a decision and in the process ignoring the total characteristics of a job applicant.

And so, how do you bypass the “primacy effect?” The obvious answer is to accept it but one must consciously attempt to reduce its wrongful bias on any judgment.

I vividly remember when I was with a Sri Lankan fellow management researcher in Tokyo more than eight years ago. Hashan (not his real name) asked me: “Rey, how is it in your country? Would you marry someone who is not a virgin? I mean, are single Filipino men like us Sri Lankans who have an important bias to marry only virgins?”

I’m not sure about the effects of nightly Kirin beer on him, but he was deceitfully critical of his wife. I was told that for decades, Sri Lanka practices a custom that requires a brand new bride to bring with her a white sheet to the honeymoon. The morning after the first night, relatives will examine this white sheet for blood stains. If blood stains are found, she will be gifted with a bunch of red roses and is treated as morally upright for the rest of her wedded life.

If there’s no blood on the white sheet, the bride is treated with excessive suspicion that signals the start of a miserable and an unhappy married life. Was that the reason why he was in Tokyo for that five-year doctorate scholarship? I hoped not.

I hope it was not bad. The point is that, if a manager (or any man for that matter) relies heavily on the “primacy effect,” it will be disastrous for any relationship, if you will judge a man or woman without full trial.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on human resources elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts.

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