As public relations coordinator and fan club liaison for Graceland Enterprises, Patsy Andersen meets a lot of people. Many of them often get the wrong impression about her.
"I've had lots of people, usually the really devoted Elvis fans, come in yelling and screaming about things . . . they feel we're doing wrong."These individuals often think that she's there to either "boss" them around, pacify them or ignore their complaints.
"But after they blow off a little steam and sit down and talk with me, they find out that I'm not like they thought and we end up being friends."
Like Andersen, most of us can recall a time when we didn't make a good first impression. What's so painful about these gaffes is that the instant they occur we often feel the moment has been lost and that there is little we can do to repair the damage.
"Usually the first five minutes of any first-time meeting, whether it's with a potential employer, a subordinate or a stranger, are very crucial - and opinions are usually formed that are often irreversible," says author Norman King in his book, "The First Five Minutes."
First impressions are difficult to mend because they're usually based on mental stereotypes everyone has. "And we tend to hold onto these stereotypes, not bothering to seek other information that could change them," said Eddie Clark, an assistant professor with the Center of Applied Psychology at Memphis State University.
Clark said there have been numerous studies done to learn more about what he calls social cognition - the formation of mental codes of experience. What is known is that the human brain processes information in an orderly manner so it can respond to complex situations or stimuli.
"In a sense, impressions are like mental shortcuts or notes that we use to make sense of others and the complex world around us," he said. "The human brain is always bombarded with lots of tiny bits of information at one time, and in order to process all this information quickly we use these schemas to zero in on that information we feel is important to us."
These mental shortcuts may help us cut through the stimuli, but their downside is that what they tell us often may be inaccurate, he said.
Psychologists are not sure in what order the brain processes the information it receives when social cognition takes place. But an individual's physical appearance, attractiveness, ethnic identity and gender figure prominently on this mental checklist, Clark said.
Dr. Neil Aronov, a clinical psychologist, believes there also is a difference in the way the sexes process social cognition information, although there is no "concrete evidence" to support this.
"Women seem to be more in tune to picking up on subtle things, like body language and a person's attitude, while men tend to notice specific things, like the tone of voice or the actual words being said."
Physical attractiveness, or the lack of it, is another trait that influences first impressions, Clark said.
"Generally, attractive people are most often going to be liked more over someone who is not so attractive," he said. "Also people tend to think that if someone is very attractive, then they must also be nice and have other positive qualities."
Darryl Tukufu, an assistant professor of sociology at MSU, said he pays attention to specific actions such as eye contact.
But, he adds, such non-verbal actions can be misleading.
"Just because a person may not look you in the eye when they speak with you might not mean that they're not telling the truth. It could mean several other things, including shyness.
"We have to learn to go beyond first impressions and take the time to get to really know people. And when you do, you'll often find out that a bad first impression may not always be an accurate one."