Think Fast! Your Instincts Are Only as Good as Your Experience

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By: Helene Cavalli, guest blogger

It’s reported that a first impression is made within the first 20 seconds of meeting someone new. Within that first 20 seconds, we will draw conclusions and make value judgments – consciously or unconsciously – about things like a person’s ability, social standing and intellect.

Snap, and often, important, decisions are made every day based on first impressions, from hiring to buying to how we choose our friends and partners. We call it following our instincts.

Psychologists report we seldom change our minds after forming a snap judgment. How much trouble does this get us into?

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“Don’t believe everything you think.”

I moved to Fishtown – attracted by the aura of hip industrial-style lofts and upscale condos, art galleries and trendy restaurants. When I had walked into the converted loft, I fell in love within five seconds. The space was right out of Architectural Digest. I never saw anything so beautiful. Two stories high, 1,500 square feet of open space, 17 windows on three sides, skylights, all brick interior, wood plank floors, huge deck.

My instincts told me this was the place I had to be.

The first night in the apartment there was a drug bust and stabbing on the street below my window. Cops, ambulances, screaming. I knew it was a crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhood when I moved in, but hey, I was tough. And Fishtown was “gentrified”. It was actually a little exciting on the nights low-flying police helicopters would be running down escaped criminals – watching those bright, shining search lights crisscrossing the night sky.

I wasn’t changing my mind.

Still new to the neighborhood, I met a man one evening while walking my dog. We chatted for a few minute and he told me he was an artist. Fishtown is known as a “blue collar neighborhood with young gritty artists.” His long hair and rugged good looks made him the picture of “young gritty artist.” And the bright, shiny motorcycle added to the allure. I asked for the name of his website; he asked me for my phone number.

My instincts told me he was a nice, normal guy.

I checked out the website and his work was impressive. When he called me the next day, I was enthusiastic about the idea of having dinner with him.

We’d just finished ordering dinner and he said to me, “My friend asked me, ‘If you could kill your mother, how would you do it?’” He was so excited he could barely contain his glee and continued, “Wait till you hear what I said!”

Careful not to show any disgust and revulsion, I asked, “Why would anyone even consider this question?”

“Wait, wait! You have to hear what I said!” “I said, ‘I’d freeze dry her and put her in the closet and then when I needed something I’d just add water to reanimate her.’

My instincts had been wrong.

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I moved back to Center City one month later. I had years of experience with the neighborhoods and the people of downtown Philadelphia. I’d had no experience with Fishtown. My instincts had been based on a first impression based on a pretty picture.

I changed my mind.

I did what is reportedly seldom done. I admitted I was wrong and had made some poor decisions. Then I set about fixing my mistakes.

“Instinct is the gift of experience.
The first question you have to ask yourself is, ‘
On what basis am I making a judgment?’
…If you have no experience, then your instincts aren’t any good.”

Malcolm Gladwell

We tell ourselves that our first impressions are based on instinct – something inherent that is mysterious and unknowable. We’re told that we should trust our instincts. But that’s not true. Our instincts are based on our experiences. Trust your first impressions if you have experience to back it up. If not, it’s worth considering a second impression – and a background check.


Helene Cavalli is a marketing professional for a management consulting firm. She studied Liberal Arts and wanted to be a sociologist. Helene loves foreign films, living in Philadelphia and taking her dog to the park. Follow Helene on Twitter and connect with her on LinkedIn .

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