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Should You Trust Your First Impressions?

Should You Trust Your First Impressions?

Should You Trust Your First Impressions?

WHILE sitting comfortably in his living room, a doctor was watching a television talk show that was hosting an Irish government minister. After carefully observing the minister’s face, the doctor noticed something that he thought gave indication of a tumor. He advised the minister to have it checked immediately.

The diagnosis turned out to be exactly right. That doctor had what is sometimes called a clinical eye, that is, the ability to make a good diagnosis by simply looking at a patient. Some, however, feel that they have a “clinical eye” when it comes to judging people’s character, personality, and trustworthiness.

Over the centuries, researchers have tried to come up with a scientific approach to the possibility of discovering a person’s character by his physical appearance. They call it physiognomy, which Encyclopædia Britannica defines as “a pseudoscience dealing with personality traits supposedly revealed by facial features or by body structure and form.” In the 19th century, anthropologists, such as Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, and criminologists, such as Cesare Lombroso of Italy, proposed similar theories and techniques that have since been mostly forgotten.

Still, many people believe that it is possible to come to a reliable judgment about an individual simply by observing his outward appearance. Are such first impressions to be trusted?

Judging by Appearance

A typical example of judging​—or misjudging—​by first impressions is found in the Bible book of First Samuel. Jehovah God directed the prophet Samuel to anoint a member of Jesse’s household as the future king of Israel. We read: “It came about that, as [the sons of Jesse] came in and he caught sight of Eliab, he at once said: ‘Surely his anointed one is before Jehovah.’ But Jehovah said to Samuel: ‘Do not look at his appearance and at the height of his stature, for I have rejected him. For not the way man sees is the way God sees, because mere man sees what appears to the eyes; but as for Jehovah, he sees what the heart is.’” The same thing was repeated with six more of Jesse’s sons. Finally, contrary to what the prophet and Jesse thought, God chose as future king the eighth son​—David—​a young lad whom no one had even thought of calling.​—1 Samuel 16:6-12.

Things are not very different today. A few years ago, in Germany, a professor of criminology conducted an experiment that involved 500 law students. There were 12 unknown “guests.” These included the local police commander and the local prosecutor, the university treasurer and the public relations officer, some lawyers and court officials, and three convicted criminals. The students were to determine the profession of each of the guests, as well as which of the guests had to serve a prison sentence and for what crime. All of this was to be based only on their appearance and on the hobbies they said they had.

The results? About 75 percent of the students succeeded in picking out the three real criminals. But an average of 60 percent of the students also identified as lawbreakers the nine other guests, who had a clean record. The local prosecutor was thought to be a potential drug pusher by 1 out of 7 of the students, and the police commander was thought to be a thief by 1 out of 3 of them! Assessments based on impressions can be far off the mark. Why?

Appearances Can Be Deceptive

When we meet someone for the first time, we tend to formulate opinions about the person in light of our past experience. We are prone to generalize and to judge him on the basis of stereotypes. In addition to physical appearance, we may evaluate or judge the person because of his nationality, ethnicity, social standing, or religion.

If the opinion we formed of that person turns out to be correct, we congratulate ourselves on our good judgment, and our belief that we can trust our first impressions is reinforced. However, when we realize that we had come to a completely wrong conclusion, how do we react? If we are honest, we should let go of our preconceived opinion and look for the facts. Otherwise, we might be doing others a great disservice or even serious wrong, all because of our pride in exercising what we consider to be our superior sense of judgment.

Judging by appearance can be harmful not only for the victim but also for the one doing the judging. For example, in the first century, many Jews refused to consider the possibility that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Why? Basing their opinions on outward appearances, all they saw was the son of a country carpenter. Although they were impressed by Jesus’ wise words and powerful works, they refused to believe that he could be anything more than what they had already decided, based on their preconceived ideas. Their attitude caused Jesus to turn his attention elsewhere, saying: “A prophet is not unhonored except in his home territory and in his own house.”​—Matthew 13:54-58.

Those Jews were members of a nation that had been awaiting the Messiah for centuries. To allow their first impressions to prevent them from recognizing the Messiah when he finally arrived led to a grave loss spiritually. (Matthew 23:37-39) Similar prejudices were directed at Jesus’ followers. Many people simply could not believe that a small group of lowly fishermen, despised by the educated class and the leaders of the dominant religion, could have anything important to say. Those who continued to trust in their first impressions lost out on the splendid opportunity of becoming followers of God’s Son.​—John 1:10-12.

Some Changed Their Mind

There were some contemporaries of Jesus who were humble enough to change their mind when faced with the evidence. (John 7:45-52) Included among these were several of Jesus’ family members, who at first had not taken seriously the possibility that one of their relatives could be the Messiah. (John 7:5) Commendably, in time they changed their mind and put faith in him. (Acts 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19) Similarly, years later in Rome, some representatives of the Jewish community were willing to listen to the apostle Paul in person rather than trust rumors spread by enemies of Christianity. After having listened, some of them became believers.​—Acts 28:22-24.

Today, many have a negative opinion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why? In most cases, it is not because they have examined the facts or have proved that the beliefs and practices of the Witnesses are unscriptural. Rather, they simply cannot believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses could have the truth in the religious field. This, as you will recall, is exactly the same view that many in the first century had of the early Christians.

It is not surprising that unfavorable or disparaging remarks are made against those who endeavor to follow Jesus’ example. Why not? Because Jesus warned his true followers: “You will be objects of hatred by all people on account of my name.” But he encouraged them with the words: “He that has endured to the end is the one that will be saved.”​—Matthew 10:22.

In obedience to Jesus’ command, Jehovah’s Witnesses today work hard to bring the good news of God’s Kingdom to people worldwide. (Matthew 28:19, 20) Those who flatly refuse to listen risk losing out on the opportunity of getting on the road to everlasting life. (John 17:3) What about you? Will you be guided simply by first impressions and preconceived ideas, or will you be willing to examine the facts with an open mind? Remember: Appearances can be deceptive, and impressions can be wrong; but an objective examination of the facts can result in pleasant surprises.​—Acts 17:10-12.

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Their first impressions led many Jews to reject Jesus as the Messiah

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Is your opinion of Jehovah’s Witnesses based on impressions or on facts?