How Impressions Shape the World You Live In

The universe is infinite, but the human brain is not. We have no choice but to weed out irrelevant information. There’s no way this can be done without skewing reality. Our impressions of the universe around us form the world we live in, but they aren’t reality.

How do we form our impressions? Not by adding up all the information presented to us. Instead, we mash information together, average it, categorize it, and attach emotional hues to it. We fuse together other people’s impressions, and we incorporate subconscious ques that may not be related at all.

Your World is Average

Kim Weaver

Kim Weaver wanted to know whether evaluators and presenters thought about things differently, so she and Stephen Garcia designed an experiment. Advances in Consumer Research published the results in 2005.

Roughly a hundred participants were divided into two groups, presenters and evaluators. The presenters were asked to design a portfolio from a series of three publications. Over two-thirds of them included all three in their presentation. Less than a fifth submitted only the two best publications.

Only a tenth of them chose to submit the best publication by itself.

The presenters thought they would get the best results by giving them everything they had.

They were wrong.

Evaluators gave the highest ratings to those who included only the best article. They gave lower ratings to those who included the two best articles, and the worst ratings to those who included all three.

One of the most robust conclusions about our impressions is that they are averages, not summations. But most of us are completely unaware of this when we prepare something for somebody else.

The world you live in is an average of what you are exposed to.

Or is it?

Impressions and Context

While we average things together, we also categorize them. This is part of the reason why context matters, and it matters a great deal.

Bertram Gawronski

Bertram Gawronski was interested in determining what context has to do with our impressions. The results of 4 experiments he helped devise were published in 2010 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

In one of the experiments, the participants absorbed information about an individual named Bob in various contexts. The context was varied at random by a computer. They received two blocks of information about Bob, one positive and one negative.

Those who received the positive information first were more likely to think of Bob as positive in new contexts. The opposite was true if they received the negative information first.

One of the most interesting aspects of the experiment was how context affected impressions. When exposed to information about Bob in a new context, it would alter their impression of Bob. But those impressions would only hold true in that context. Once exposed to a new context, they reverted to the first impression.

On top of that, the importance of the first impression depended on how much the initial context stood out. If their first impression of Bob occurred in an “average” context, the impressions were stronger than if they occurred in a unique context.

Meet somebody on the street, and your first impression has a lot of staying power. Make a different impression in a bar, and the second impression will only matter the next time you meet them in a bar. But your first impression will still matter everywhere else.

Your Mood Transforms How You See

Linda M Isbell

It should probably come as no surprise that your mood has an effect on your impression of the world around you. What Linda M. Isbell discovered about how context plays into this may be more surprising.

She and her colleagues designed three studies to investigate how your mood effects impressions. Under some circumstances, our impressions are usually formed by categorizing information. In other circumstances, our impressions are normally based on behavioral information.

The studies found that if you are in a negative mood, you see the world through the opposite lens. In situations where you would normally categorize information, you analyze it behaviorally. In other situations, where you would normally take in behavioral information, you absorb the categorical information.

In other words, the exact same mood triggers a completely different way of looking at the world, depending on the situation.

Stepping Outside Yourself

Dr. Sonja Utz

Do we form our impressions of others based on what we think of them, or based on what we think other people think of them? Dr. Sonja Utz looked to an interesting place to find the answer: social networks.

Once again, context mattered. When asked about somebody’s popularity, subjects were happy to use their own judgement. But when asked whether the target was more selfish or selfless, the subject used a mixture of their own impressions and information from others.

Perhaps most surprisingly, when asked about the target’s social attractiveness, the subjects relied almost entirely on information from others.

Hidden Influences

In 1982, John Bargh and Paula Pietromonaco designed an experiment to find out if subconscious information could affect your conscious impressions of somebody.

Roughly a hundred males were divided into three groups and unknowingly exposed to a list of words. The list contained either 0, 20, or 80% hostile words.

After being exposed to the words, they were asked to read a description of a person and to form an impression of them. Those who were exposed to the hostile words were more likely to give the individual negative personality traits.

Later controls demonstrated that the students were unaware of the words they had been exposed to.

Ever met somebody you didn’t like, and couldn’t put your finger on why? It might not have been their fault.


We all live in the same universe, but we live in different realities. Our impressions of the world around us are distortions. It couldn’t be any other way. The brain is limited in capacity.

Limits are a part of what defines us. They constrain our behavior and define who we are. They force us to invent ideas like love and hate in order to make sense of the world, instead of seeing a swirling mess of atoms.

The universe isn’t constrained by these limitations. The universe isn’t alive.

Alex Bellos – When Math Takes Us By Surprise