I vividly remember my first day at University when I was 18-years-old: not just the terror and the excitement but also the sheer, crushing weight of people I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me.
Of course everyone was in the same boat and it wasn’t long before I had made new friends. When I think back, one of my firmest friends was a guy I met at the introductory session of my course on the very first day.
I wonder if there is something special about the very first people we meet in new social surroundings? Perhaps we are so relieved to find someone to talk to – an island of acceptance in a sea of strangers – that we are more likely to form a lasting bond.
Or perhaps I’m making too much of it; after all, at a new job, club or society we’ll probably get to meet everyone eventually. Surely the person we just happen to meet first shouldn’t be more likely to become a firm friend in the long run?
Nerve-wracking first day
It’s this question that Dr. Mitja Back and colleagues from the University of Leipzig investigated in a new study to be published in Psychological Science (Back, Schmukle & Egloff, 2008). To find out they subjected brand new psychology students to a nerve-wracking first day.
At their introductory session each student was told to sit in a random seat. Then each trembling newbie had to come up to the front and briefly introduce themselves. Immediately afterwards everyone else rated that person on two scales: how much they liked them and whether they would like to get to know them more (sounds frightening for your first day!).
The results showed that people liked – and wanted to be friends with – the people who were initially sat next to them. This might not be that surprising: people have had slightly more exposure to those who they were sitting next to. Or people might have felt a certain affinity for those they were sat near…
One year later
Fast-forward one year. The students are well settled into the course, have probably mixed extensively and now know each other much better. Surely that day one year ago when the lecturer tortured them with random seat allocations, public introductions and instant judgements can’t still have an effect, can it?
It absolutely did. Even after one year students who sat on the same row as each other on that very first day liked each other better than people who sat nowhere near each other. For those who sat right next to each other the level of liking was even higher.
This study suggests that in a new social situation it really does matter who you happen to meet first. So, when meeting a new bunch of people, be careful who you approach first, or who you are approached by: you could be stuck with them for a long time!
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.