September 14, 2007

A Little Bad Behavior Goes a Long Way

New research examines which behavioral impressions are more and less susceptible to change and finds that a few bad impressions can quickly undermine all the good ones that have come before — a harsh reality for leaders and managers who are under constant scrutiny.

Topics: Leadership

First impressions are not necessarily lasting; even more important, a few bad impressions can quickly undermine all the good ones that have come before.

The old maxim that there’s no second chance to make a first impression is founded on the notion that it takes a lot of evidence of good behavior to change a bad impression. But new research by Columbia Business School professors Lara Kammrath and Daniel Ames shows that good first impressions can be precarious.

“One of the things I find shocking about impression research is how little we know about how real-world impressions evolve and change,” says Ames. Much research has focused on first impressions but not on what comes next. As it turns out, sustaining a good impression is a high-maintenance activity.

Ames and Kammrath worked with psychology doctoral student Abigail Scholer to examine how long different kinds of impressions last and which impressions are more likely to change for better or worse over time. They also looked at what it takes to make those changes.

First, the researchers asked college students to rate their new roommates on each of the “Big Five” personality traits that behavioral researchers commonly examine: extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability. The researchers then asked for new ratings for these traits during the year and one last time at the end of the academic year.

For impressions of some key traits, like extraversion and openness, ratings declined only slightly over the academic year, but not a lot. That wasn’t true for all traits. “Agreeableness was the most volatile dimension. The vast majority of the times that it changed, it changed for the worse,” Ames says. Conscientiousness and emotional stability were susceptible to similarly negative changes.

In a second experiment the researchers wanted to learn how often certain traits had to be exhibited for a person to be perceived as possessing that trait — in other words, how much does it take to keep up impressions of each trait? Using a list of 100 different traits, the researchers asked study participants to tell them how often somebody needed to show extraverted behavior, for example, to be seen as extraverted.

“To keep up an impression of extraversion, a person needs to show a moderately high level of talkativeness. But they can also get away with showing occasional reticence and nonetheless be seen as extraverted,” Ames says. “Openness also seems to require only a moderate amount of evidence. But you have to consistently show very high levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness or emotional stability to still be seen as possessing those traits.”

A third experiment reinforced the notion that all impressions require maintenance, and some require much more than others. First the researchers gave participants one piece of positive information about the behavior of another person (known as a target) and asked the participants to rate that person’s personality. Participants then read about 10 additional behaviors performed by the target — 6 positive and 4 negative behaviors, each related to one of the “Big Five” traits. The participants were then asked to rate the target’s personality one last time.

Impressions of openness declined the least; those for extraversion declined somewhat. “But even though there was the same 60-40 mix of positive and negative behaviors that the extraverted targets showed, the participants’ perception of the targets who were initially agreeable, conscientiousness or emotionally stable fell considerably more,” says Ames.

What does it all mean? “Impressions are somewhat fragile,” Ames explains. “You’re more likely to have an impression get worse than better, and a negative behavior can readily undermine a positive one. For leaders and managers, who are almost always highly visible and under scrutiny, even a small and seemingly forgivable slipup can be judged harshly. It reinforces the need for managers to be mindful that they are always on stage.”

Does that mean people should aim to always appear agreeable, even when they don’t feel that way? Not necessarily, says Ames. “One thing people can do is try to clarify that there may be reasons for why they’re behaving in a way that isn’t typical. You can signal, in effect, that a certain behavior ‘shouldn’t count.’ Even something as basic as a circular excuse — ‘I’m really upset because I’m frustrated’ — can satisfy a person, and limit a behavior’s harm, if it’s delivered in a sincere way. For isolated instances, perceivers may let it slide, but over the long haul, actions speak louder than words.”

Daniel Ames is the Sanford C. Bernstein Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics and  is adjunct assistant professor in the Management Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Lara Kammrath, Daniel Ames, Abigail Scholer

"Keeping Up Impressions: Inferential Rules for Impressions Change Across the Big Five"

View abstract/citation  Download PDF  

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