Impression Formation: Perceptual Accentuation, Primacy-Recency & Consistency

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  • 0:01 Impression Formation
  • 1:12 Perceptual Accentuation
  • 2:24 Primacy-Recency
  • 4:05 Consistency
  • 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do we form impressions? It's an important question that gets to the root of how we perceive the world around us. Explore three factors in impression formation, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Impression Formation

'You can't judge a book by its cover.' We hear this adage all the time. The only problem is that we do - we do judge books by their covers. But who cares about books? What really matters is that we judge people by their covers...metaphorically. People don't really have covers. But we do subconsciously form opinions about people that we meet, a process called impression formation.

Our minds do this so that we can begin to understand how to interact with new people. Impressions help us contextualize information about the world around us and give us the tools to start interacting. From there we can develop opinions that are more long lasting and less superficial.

But the truth is that we all do this. You do it to other people, other people do it about you; it's a subconscious reflex. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be aware of it. By understanding how you are forming impressions of others, and understanding how they are forming impressions about you, you can always keep yourself covered.

Perceptual Accentuation

Okay, let's start with one of the basic ideas about how we form impressions. Sometimes, we have a tendency to see what we want to see in other people. This basic idea is called perceptual accentuation. Think of it this way. If you need to go to the bathroom, what are the first things that your mind notices when you walk into a room? Doors that could be restrooms, faucets, glasses of water, anything that your mind can associate with this basic need. Subconsciously, your perception is magnifying things that satisfy your needs and desires.

We do this when we meet people, too. Say you are subconsciously craving a friend. Well, you are more likely to notice the friendly aspects of other people. These aspects will create a stronger impression. Or, say that you are in a part of town you're not used to and you are afraid of being mugged. Your perception will accentuate possibly dangerous aspects of others. While this helps you in some senses, it is also misleading and can cause you to make hasty or inaccurate impressions.


Your needs and expectations can influence perception, but the order in which you receive information can, as well. When you encounter a new situation or person, your mind immediately starts trying to form an impression, and it does so by adding clues together. Your mind finds a clue to start with, then adds a second clue on top, then a third, then a fourth, building up a complete impression. Now, eventually you will commit this entire impression to memory, but researchers have found that two parts of this process create stronger impressions than others and are the easiest things to remember about a person.

First is, well, the first. The first clue is the strongest, because it is what the impression is built on. We call this primacy. The other part of an impression that is easiest to remember about someone is the last clue because it is the most recent. We call this recency.

What the primacy-recency phenomenon illustrates is that the beginning and ending of an impression will have the strongest impact. You meet someone, form an impression, and then the next time you think of them the first things you tend to remember are the beginning and end of that impression. Again, this can cause people to form inaccurate impressions because they may overlook important clues that came in the middle. It's also important to remember if you are trying to make a good impression on someone else. Try to make the first and last parts of your conversation the things that you want them to remember about you the most, which gives you a better chance of making a stronger impression.

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