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Impression formation is the process by which individuals perceive, organize, and ultimately integrate information to form impressions of others. Internalized expectations condition what information individuals deem is worthy of their attention, as well as how it is interpreted. In face-to-face interaction, social cues including physical appearance, verbal and non-verbal behavior, and the social setting combine with information in perceivers’ memories to influence the ways in which they initially form impressions of others and themselves. These initial impressions serve as the basis for subsequent attributions. Research in social cognition provides explanations of general information gathering and processing, expectation states theory offers insights about information integration, while affect control theory provides a mathematical calculus designed in part to predict impression formation outcomes.
Due to limitations in our capacity to both perceive and process information, we rely on cognitive shortcuts to manage information. In addition, our social experiences provide a basis for preexisting expectations for events which further condition what we notice and how we then interpret it. For example, it is important to make ”good first impressions” on those we meet because the temporal ordering of events influences the information processing. Specifically, examinations of the primacy effect and recency effect suggest that individuals weight information acquired first and most recently, respectively, more than that learned in between.
Research using expectation states theory suggests that multiple items of social information are aggregated into organized subsets to form impressions of self and others (Berger et al. 1992). In general, the effects of the salient multiple pieces of (sometimes contradictory) information are combined to form an aggregated expectation state about a social object/ person. New information is likely to have a greater independent effect on status outcomes when presented in opposition to a field of contrary information than if it were presented alone and an attenuation function operates with respect to additional pieces of supporting information such that at some point there is a diminishing independent effect for each additional piece of information.
Affect control theory (ACT) offers a mathematical formalization of the impression formation process that synthesizes elements of symbolic interactionism and role theory. According to ACT, individuals see themselves and the others around them as participating in situations by enacting social roles. Individuals form definitions of the situations by assigning identity labels to self and other(s) after comparing the readily observable characteristics that each possesses with internalized cultural expectations for what identities are appropriate given the setting they are in. Once they have defined the setting and the others(s) in it, cultural rules pertaining to these definitions provide the basis from which they can form expectations for the events (behaviors) that are likely to occur.
- Asch, S. E. (1946) Forming impressions of personality. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 41: 258-90.
- Berger, J., Norman, R. Z., Balkwell, J. W. & Smith, R. F. (1992) Status inconsistency in task situations: a test of four status processing principles. American Sociological Review 57: 843-55.