May 01

First Impressions

Welcome to Random Assignment! This is my first post on the blog and what better way to get things rolling than a post on first impressions?

Yesterday, @farnamstreet highlighted a pair of articles about how hotels try to make positive first impressions:

A recent article in the WSJ, “Hidden Ways Hotels Court Guests Faster”, focused on how hotels are trying to dazzle guests with first impressions.

Jeremy McCarthy, a hotel executive, argues this is why “upon arriving to a luxury hotel, you are often greeted in the lobby by a friendly face, an offer to assist with your luggage, and sometimes a welcome beverage or a refreshing chilled towel to help wipe away the stress of travel.”

Research, however, seems to show that, while we remember people by first impressions, we don’t really remember experiences the same way. With experiences, we seem to remember the peak moments and how they end.

While I agree that the  research is applicable, I would argue that McCarthy is applying it without enough context. There’s a big difference between colonoscopies and hotels (surprise!). Most notably, in my view, there are no good colonoscopies, so when you go in for one, you know what you’re getting. With a hotel visit, there’s a lot more variability and, as a result, it allows first impressions to define the experience you’re having. Is this visit going to be about being well taken care of by an attentive hotel, or is it going to be a long string of hassles that you massively overpaid for?

To take an extreme example, imagine that you walk into the lobby of a hotel and the first thing you see is a cockroach scurrying across the floor. That first impression will likely define your opinion of the hotel and color every subsequent experience you have until you check out. Instead of enjoying your room service dinner, you’re wondering how many cockroaches got to it first. Even if we limit ourselves to hotels with good pest control, first impressions can still help define the experience. If you start with a chilled towel or a refreshing glass of cucumber water, then a quiet employee may be interpreted as polite and fancy rather than cold and unfriendly.

In 1946, one of the fathers of social psychology, Solomon Asch (you may know him from his famous conformity experiments), ran a very clever study. He showed that first impressions can change not only the “judgment of the object” but also the “object of judgment.” In other words, it’s not just that we evaluate a thing differently based on first impressions, but that the very thing we’re evaluating changes in our eyes. He asked participants to form impressions of others based on a list of seven adjectives such as intelligent, industrious, determined, and practical. All participants saw the same list with one small exception: for half of participants, the list included the word “warm” and for the other half it was replaced with the word “cold”. Based on this small change, people’s impressions shifted dramatically. They shifted, Asch argues, because warm and cold changes the way we think of the other adjectives. Someone who is warm and determined brings to mind a very different person than one who is cold and determined.

So, although peak-end effects are clearly important (and relevant), I don’t think we should be too quick to dismiss first impressions – even for experiences. More broadly, I think we need to be careful not to fixate on one idea to the exclusion of others, and jump to conclusions prematurely (Sam McNerney has a very interesting guest post at the Scientific American blogs this week addressing this very issue). Hotels would certainly be well advised to focus on the high point and end point of their guests’ stay, but paying attention to their first impressions can still make a big difference.


Photo credits: hotel, Asch

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  1. Eric Horowitz

    A fitting inaugural post. One thing that’s interesting is that the hotel’s strategy doesn’t completely contradict the research — the peak “hotel” experience is often seeing the place for the first time. When you first arrive you see where you’ll be all week and find out if you made the right decision. It’s an intense moment. If the hotel is good (i.e. no disasters), it won’t be directly responsible for many other moments of intense emotion.

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      Thanks for the comment Eric! I think you’re right, people’s first impression can certainly also be the peak of their experience — in fact, that might be the best opportunity the hotel has to create a memorable peak experience. Maybe surprising you with free pizza and pay-per-view would be even better, but probably less cost effective.

  2. Nick Davidenko

    Very well said, Dave.

    Free pizza would indeed seal the deal.

  3. Mike

    I wonder if academics, who spend hours scrutinising arguments, differ in their dispositions to develop first impressions. Nevertheless, a very good read.

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      That’s a great question — as an academic I’d certainly like to think so, but unfortunately the answer is probably not, at least not most of the time.

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