First Impressions and the Placebo Effect

It turns out that first impressions may be the ONLY impressions that matter – which is why when one of my high school chums wrote on my wall at Facebook “I visited your website and I was impressed” it made my day.

YEAH!  Mission accomplished!  I can now attend my high school reunion even though I’m a LOT older and fatter than I was in high school!

Seriously – I’m very grateful for that input because it lets me know that my little corner of the web here is making a good first impression.  Of course we all know that we should try to make a good first impression because we all know that presentation has a HUGE impact upon the first impression people form of us personally and professionally.  However – if you’re like me – you want to believe in your heart of hearts that if you DO screw up and make a bad first impression that time and experience will help the other person overcome a poor first impression.

First impressions are probably the ONLY impression you’ll get to make

Don’t you hate reading that?  I do but it’s true.   First impressions are the ONLY impressions that count – and the study that illustrates this was done BEFORE the days of Twitter and the myriad of other ways you can screw up the first impression you make online!

If you’re like me, you desperately WANT to believe that if you screw up and make a bad first impression that you’ll get a second chance.  It’s nice to think that once someone “gets to know you” that their perceptions will change.  However,  Harvard psychologist Nalini Ambady did a study which seems to show that the first impressions make an indelible effect on people’s perception – and perception is EVERYTHING!  Ambady asserts that your first impression will be your only impression, regardless of the “accuracy” of your first assessment.

To measure the effect of first impressions, researchers divided a group of  students into two separate groups.  One group watched video clips depicting the professor as a warm, caring and knowledgeable educator. The second group watched video clips which depicted the professor as cold, uncaring and incompetent.  After watching the clips, the students were asked to record their first impressions.

Here’s the kicker – the students then took a class with the professor.   They spent three or more hours each week being exposed to the “real” professor.  At the end of the course, the students were asked to fill out another evaluation.

What we all want to believe is the first impression of the students would change once they actually experienced the professor’s teaching style.  By experiencing the professor in person over an entire semester, we want to believe that experience would change their evaluations.

I know that I personally desperately wanted to believe that despite being fed a “wrong” first impression, people would  use their own personal experience to overcome a negative first impression.  I wanted reality to overcome perceptions.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happened in the study.

It turned out that more information didn’t change the student’s perceptions of the professor.  Despite the passage of time and the opportunity of the students to gather and experience  better and more accurate information, the student’s impressions of the professor as they completed the course was almost identical to their first impression.

First impressions are embraced more fiercely than anyone ever suspected and it appears that first impressions actually become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Which brings us to the role first impressions play when it comes to your business.  You can see why first impressions play a powerful role in the success of your online marketing strategy.

However, there’s another psychological factor at work when it comes to first impressions, marketing and your business – the placebo effect.

When you combine the law of first impressions with the placebo effect, and you’ll see how first impressions not only will determine whether or not someone chooses to do business with you – but you’ll also see how those first impressions form the literal foundation for your relationship with your clients/customers!

The placebo effect is a well documented phenomenon where expectation shapes our experience.  Give people a pill and tell them it will make them feel better and even though there’s no medicine involved, in the majority of cases people do feel better.  The placebo effect is so powerful, cancer can even be cured when a placebo drug is combined with the right first impression!

The placebo effect extends well beyond the realm of medicine. In the case of your business, the first impression your business makes upon a customer will literally create the expectation of the level of service your potential clients/customers come to expect.  First impressions help to create an expectation of the quality of the products/services you provide.

Again there are studies to support this claim.  Science news reports on one in the price tag can change your perception of a wine’s quality.

According to researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the California Institute of Technology, if a person is told he or she is tasting two different wines—and that one costs $5 and the other $45 when they are, in fact, the same wine—the part of the brain that experiences pleasure will become more active when the drinker thinks he or she is enjoying the more expensive vintage.

The placebo effect extends well beyond wine and into every facet of your marketing because that is where your customer’s perceptions are established.

There is no such thing as “reality” – there is only perception of reality.

You never have a second chance to create a great first impression.  You must pay close attention to every contact point your business has with the general public.  From business cards to stationary to your web site, there’s no getting over a poorly made first impression.


  1. Hi Kathy – LOL on attending your class reunion with head held high, AS IF you wouldn’t anyway. Reading your post I got to wondering – what is it when people’s self-radar is askew? Like the poor American Idol contestants who are so incredibly bad and shocked that they aren’t selected? Honestly, they have to know they’re bad, don’t they? Does stuff like this come from parents telling kids they’re fabulous all the time when they’re..uh..not?

    I think better first impressions are made when you are focused on the other person and not yourself. Then there is a chance that they will find you fascinating because you are so interested in them! Seriously, though, the most sought-after people seem to have the ability to make you feel like you are exactly who they’ve been waiting all their lives to talk to. This post is a good reminder of a constant priority.

    Betsy Wuebkers last blog post..FINDING VALUE IN UNCERTAINTY

  2. Betsy – You have no IDEA the lift I get from knowing that I made YOU smile!!! (Your “finding value in uncertainty” post is not one to be tackled while doped up on cold medicine!)

    You sound like a Dale Carnegie graduate – and I mean that as the HIGHEST possible compliment. “Get what you want by helping other people get what THEY want,” is a tried and true formula for making a GREAT first impression.

    Oh – and when it comes to American Idol contestants – talk about the pain of perception meeting reality – OUCH!

  3. Human beings are so weird 😉 It is just strange how we behave sometime. I guess how much you enjoy something comes down to psychology. As you said if someone told you that the cake you are eating cost $300 than you will probably think that it tastes a lot better than it normally would.

    anyway cool article Kathy. It somehow reminds me of a lot of books I’ve read.

    Julius Kuhn-Regniers last blog post..How to Speed Up WordPress

  4. One of my favorite sayings is, “Perception is reality.”

    When I said that to a relatively new instructor a couple of weeks ago, he started disagreeing with me. “Jimmy,” I said, “Listen to what I’m saying. My perception of you is my reality of who you are. It may not be who you really are, but it is how I see you, and it holds true for other people’s perceptions as well.”

    The discussion had gone down this path when I told him that the thing at work that I valued most before I retired was the operators’ perception of me as an instructor.

    Perception is reality.

    Mike Goads last blog post..Applying for Unemployment

  5. I have so many thoughts about this – Perception, judgment and who makes the rules about first impressions. And if we are being ourselves won’t we attract like minded people? Certainly we can’t please everyone. This is a topic I think about often (I’m always looking for logic!). What really hit me was your statement:

    There is no such thing as “reality” – there is only perception of reality.

    I felt myself grow sad for some reason when I read that. Got to sit with that for a bit.

    Stacey Shipmans last blog post..True Stories – When Meditation Helps find Clarity

  6. Hi Kathy – I was just rereading that line – “you never have a second chance to make a first impression. Is that ever true.

    I love what Betsy wrote. She’s a wise woman, isn’t she.

    And the American Idol contestants – surely some aren’t for real.

    Barbara Swaffords last blog post..Celebrating NBOTW One Year Annivarsary With A Free E-Book

  7. Julius – Your comment makes me smile! Yes – humans are “uniquely crafted”. 🙂

    Mike – You are correct! Perception IS reality. It really is a watershed concept.

    Stacey – I know – I know!!! Me too!

    Barbara – Betsy is wise beyond her years – as are you! Your Blogging Without a Blog is a great example of a blog that makes a GREAT first impression!

  8. Hi, Kathy. Checking out your blog here today, and liking your content and your voice. Thanks for your contribution; I subscribed via reader 🙂 Are you on Twitter? I’d enjoy to follow you.

    Thanks for the visits and comments to my blog, as well. Like you, I appreciate feedback and look forward to the added dimension the voices of others bring to each post topic.

    Your topic here about first impressions is especially relevant to me right now; you’re not really talking about the stereotype superficial stuff, but rather the elements of emerging relationships that can really matter to consumers; where those first tenuous bonds can form. Repeated experiences can solidify those bonds, and even withstand the inevitable “uh oh, we made a mistake” moments that companies make.

    Wish you continued success…Heather

    Heather Rasts last blog post..Ignore Your Customers. Other Companies Are Happy To Help Them.

  9. Heather –

    Welcome! I added a visible way to connect with me on Twitter because of your comment.

    I found out in the process that one of the “standard” twitter plugins don’t play nicely with the ones I have installed – and broke my blog for a bit. Sent a few more hairs “over the edge” from blond to gray with that one!

  10. Hi Kathy. “First impressions actually become self-fulfilling prophecies.” What a brilliant statement! This is a great post!

    And that Betsy (Dr. Wuebker)!… she’s a tough act to follow 🙂

    American Idol — I wonder how much is staged. Some of those singers are embarrassingly horrible. They HAVE to know this.

    Davinas last blog post..Shopping for Effective Attitudes

  11. Interesting real world story. I love real world stories.
    It only proves once more “We don’t see the things the way they are. We see things the way WE are.”
    Here is the flip side, the “good” side of this story. I like reflecting stories like yours to blogging. If the guy has a pro-looking blog, chances the reader will read the content and chances are the other blogger will make a connection. On other hand the guy with deeper insight but with childish looking blog will miss his opportunity to hook the reader and his message won’t be heard. What do you think?

  12. Alik –

    “We don’t see the things the way they are. We see things the way WE are.” -BRILLIANT!!!

    You’re so “right on target” regarding the whole “blogging success” being tied to first impressions. Your impression of a blog or any other kind of website begins to be formed as the page loads. Brilliant content can be EASILY overlooked because it’s not “packaged” correctly. You know what they say about books and their covers – well, the same applies to your blog.

    Great observation! Welcome!

  13. Hi Kathy,
    First impressions really are important! While I wonder if we can’t make movement toward changing these impressions – if we can – I do believe it is to take a lot of effort. (and maybe that initial impression will always last…). The fact is – they are so important. I think of a local restaurant we had a very bad first impression of. And haven’t been back. Despite hearing of others that have been there. That first impression looms large.

    In business…in life…first impressions count…

    Lances last blog post..Sunday Thought For The Day

  14. Well put! This is such a powerful reminder and makes expressed authenticity even more important. If we are going to make an impression with every little contact, then by golly, it’s paramount to be who you are while impressing. At least if the impression is sincere and genuine the right folks will connect.

    Tom Volkar / Delightful Works last blog post..Personal Relationships and Business Support

  15. It’s been my experience that First Impressions certainly do matter so I go out of my way to make a good first impression. When do you ever really get a second chance? Hardly ever. So knock it outta the park the first time is what I say.

    Ricardo Buenos last blog post..Answer the Phone!


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