Consider the scenario. You’re sitting in the pub, waiting for a friend. They’ve texted you to ask if it’s ok if they bring someone else along and you’ve happily agreed. They arrive and your friend introduces you to their companion. As you shake their hand, you experience an instant, hot, totally irrational rush of dislike.
Scenario number two: you’re sat with a group of friends watching TV. During the advert break, a promo for Taylor Swift’s album comes on. ‘Can we change the channel?’, you ask, irritated. ‘I really hate Taylor Swift’. The rest of the group immediately agrees. One lone voice pipes up, ‘I quite like Bad Blood, though’, before quailing under your withering stare.
Scenario number three: it’s 8am and you’re struggling to breathe in a packed-out carriage on the Central Line. Your fellow passengers are quietly engrossed in copies of the Metro or staring at their phone screens, carefully avoiding eye contact. Just as the doors start to close, a man decides to squeeze himself into the non-existence space next to you, the sound of an overplayed chart hit bleeding out of his headphones. You have the sudden urge to stamp on his foot – and maybe you would have if the weight of your enormous bag wasn’t pinning you to the floor.
If you’re a human person who has lived in the world, these scenarios (or a variation on the theme) will be uncomfortably familiar.
First impressions are as dangerous as they are powerful. More often than we’d care to admit, our feelings about a person are formed within a few seconds of meeting them. These instinctive feelings can overwhelm our rational sense, clouding our impartial judgement as we move forward and preventing us from getting to know a person as they really are. This goes some way to explain why we so often stay in relationships with people who are completely unsuitable for us; the glow of a good first impression goes a long way to mask ill-treatment. Similarly, once we’ve decided that we dislike someone, every word out of their mouths can be construed as a confirmation of our original opinion. That smile they just gave you? Undoubtedly fake. When they complimented your outfit? A poorly disguised mockery of your taste. The offer to buy you a drink? Pure manipulation. When we’re determined to dislike someone, there’s very little they can do to convince us otherwise.
As much as we’d like to believe that our instinctive judgements of others come from an internal moral compass that steers us towards positive influences and away from forces of evil, we’re all aware that first impressions can’t always be trusted. So, what is the real root of our reactions?
In order to find out, we have to turn inwards. The majority of the time, our feelings about others are a reflection of our own insecurities, beliefs and past experiences.
Consider the first scenario outlined in this piece. Your reaction to this person is based on a myriad of subconscious associations that trigger particular emotions (a process which, in psychology, is known as transference). Maybe the shape of their face reminds you of an ex or their jacket resembles one worn by someone who bullied you at school. Everything from their speech patterns to their hair colour connects them to figures from your past. There’s a high chance that at least one of these connections will have a negative association.
What if you’ve racked your brains, mentally filtered through your past and can state with absolute certainty that the object of your dislike bears no resemblance whatsoever to anyone you’ve ever met before? Well, then, it could be an example of counter-transference (yep, there really is a term for everything). This means that the person you’ve met is experiencing transference in relation to you and is acting in a particular way towards you as a result. This type of experience can be somewhat self-fulfilling: when you cast yourself as the victim and someone else as the aggressor, you are likely to act in such a way as to trigger aggressive behaviour towards yourself. For example, when you take an instant dislike to someone, you are likely to act coldly towards them. This in turn can cause them to feel insecure and mirror your behaviour, seemingly confirming your assumptions about them being a horrible person.
Of course, this isn’t the only way in which a person can trigger feelings of like or dislike in us. Social factors play a large part in how we react to those around us. As humans we have a tendency to form opinions in packs. Society dictates who we look up to and down on; consider the power of the media in making or breaking a celebrity’s career with a single article. When the world around us seems to be of one mind, our survival instincts drive us to jump on bandwagons for fear of social ostracisation.
There’s another, somewhat uncomfortable, motivation behind first impressions: other people act as a mirror of our own fears and insecurities. If someone comes across as arrogant or self-important, we’re likely to react badly to them because they don’t appear to care what we think. Their self-importance triggers first our insecurity and then our dislike. Similarly, we may complain about a particularly efficient or organised friend because being with them makes us acutely aware of our own incompetence.
All these explanations point us towards an inconvenient truth; when we have strong, seemingly-irrational feelings about a stranger or a new acquaintance, it’s important to examine our own motivations. Our reactions to a person stem from our whole history – our upbringing, relationships, experiences and belief systems. These instinctive reactions can be incredibly revealing, exposing wounds that we thought were long-healed. Each of us is a walking, talking bundle of raw nerves, our emotions triggered by the lightest touch. Next time you meet someone, try and reserve judgement. Sure, they might be a jerk, but more often than not it’s not them – it’s you.
Header image: Fighting by Sanjay Sarfare