Thursday, May 3, 2012

First Impressions

  The scientist Lichtenberg, on the other hand, knew that the intensity of a personal intuition is no measure of its correctness.  He had experimented with physiognomic impressions and found them wanting.  He had tried, for instance, to picture to himself the face of the night watchman from the way he heard him call the hours during his nightly round, and then he sought him out to sketch his portrait.   There was no similarity.

  Popular wisdom has always, of course, warned us against relying on "first impressions."  Why, then, are we so rarely aware of the extent of their fallibility?  All cognitive processes, I believe, demand above all a flexibility and elasticity of mind.  There is no advantage in our remembering the early stages of our probings that have been superseded by a better fit.  Until we fix them deliberately, as Lichtenberg did, they are conveniently discarded and forgotten.  It is a worthwhile and humbling exercise to follow his example and (in the absence of night watchmen) to listen to a conversation behind you on a bus, trying to figure out the appearance and social status of the speakers before turning around and checking your intuitions, or consciously to anticipate the voice of a person who is just being introduced to you.  Only by such introspective experiments can we learn how we actually build up the image of the person in real life.  We always try to make as much sense as we can on the basis of such clues as are given us.  But we are flexible enough to amend this guess as other clues become available.

  The person with a gloomy face will alert us to the possibility of other gloomy symptoms; but as soon as his voice or smile refutes this expectation we forget to ignore our first impression and adjust the category in which we place him.  We may see his handwriting, and if we are responsive to those signs, we may enter its surprising boldness on our image of the man.  Should we then hear of other traits, his heroic war record or his fondness for Verdi, we always add the information to rectify our former image (which we quickly forget).  Each time we instinctively conceive it as our task to fit the mosaic stones into one unified impression, a picture of the man as we form it through our efforts to "make sense" of all his traits.  It would need a very severe jolt for us to abandon this basic physiognomic hypothesis of a unified character behind all the manifestations we register.  The "split personality" is something we may be able to grasp intellectually, but hardly emotionally.

From E.H. Gombrich, "On Physiognomic Perception",  Meditations on a Hobby Horse, London, Phaidon, 1963.

Note:  These paintings by Matthew Cook are portraits created after the black and white police "mug shots" seen in third position above.   Cook found these pictures online, included with the following background information about the subject:

"Dorothy Mort, criminal record number 518LB, 18 April 1921. State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay, NSW

Convicted of murder. Mrs Dorothy Mort was having an affair with dashing young doctor Claude Tozer. On 21 December 1920 Tozer visited her home with the intention of breaking off the relationship. Mort shot him dead before attempting to commit suicide. Aged 32. Part of an archive of forensic photography created by the NSW Police between 1912 and 1964."

More of Matthew Cook's work can be seen at his website:

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