Hello, I’m Evaluating You

magnifying-glass-741749I’m intrigued by a study that came out recently in Nature Neuroscience on the neural circuitry of first impressions. Researchers from New York University and Harvard joined forces to identify what neural systems are in play when we first meet someone.

This has been the subject of quite a lot of observational research (some of which was brought to light in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink), but this study was designed to delve deeper.  Here’s a summary of the methodology from EurekAlert:

To explore the process of first impression formation, the researchers designed an experiment in which they examined the brain activity when  participants made initial evaluations of fictional individuals. The participants were given written profiles of 20 individuals implying different personality traits. The profiles, presented along with pictures of these fictional individuals, included scenarios indicating both positive (e.g., intelligent) and negative (e.g., lazy) traits in their depictions.

After reading the profiles, the participants were asked to evaluate how much they liked or disliked each profiled individual. These impressions varied depending on how much each participant valued the different positive and negative traits conveyed. For instance, if a participant liked intelligence more than they disliked laziness, he or she might form a positive impression. During this impression formation period, participants’ brain activity was observed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Based on the participants’ ratings, the researchers were able to determine the difference in brain activity when they encountered information that was more, as opposed to less, important in forming the first impression.

The results: two areas of the brain showed significant activity during the coding of impression-relevant information– the amygdala, which previous research has linked to emotional learning about inanimate objects and social evaluations of trust;  and the posterior cingulate cortex, which has been linked to economic decision-making and valuation of rewards.  

In other words, both of these areas of the brain have been linked to value processing.  While the line from study results to behavioral inference is never straight (and frought with Voodoo perils), it appears that this study indicates we’re all hardcore value processors even before “Hello” comes out of our mouths. The subjective evaluation we make when meeting someone new includes–to put it bluntly–what’s in it for us.

This is, of course, just an interpretation, and not nearly as cynical as it may seem. We’re all wired to evaluate others in large part on a trust basis, and trust is about rewards.  It makes sense that our brains begin this evaluation from the first moments we make someone’s acquaintance.

Schiller, D., Freeman, J., Mitchell, J., Uleman, J., & Phelps, E. (2009). A neural mechanism of first impressions Nature Neuroscience DOI: 10.1038/nn.2278

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