An impression is our image of another person, consisting of the beliefs that we have of that person’s characteristics. These characteristics include descriptors for the person’s personality (warm, curious), roles (mother, lawyer), physical attributes (red-headed, tall), and normal behaviors (smiles a lot, talks loudly). Impression formation is the psychological process by which impressions are developed. Despite its psychological nature, communication scholars are interested in the impression formation process because it occurs through communication.

This entry focuses on the psychological approach to this topic. Readers should also consider entries that describe impression formation as a strictly communicative process (e.g., uncertainty reduction theory), that concentrate on communicative skill differences (e.g., constructivism), and that consider intentional impression management strategies (e.g., facework) for a full understanding of this topic.

The study of impression formation was inspired by the work of the German Gestalt psychology movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Gestalt psychologists believed that people actively strive to understand the world around them, in contrast with the mostly American learning theorists of that time who conceived of people as responding passively to their environment. The Gestaltists also differed from learning theorists in their interest  in human cognitive processes, which probably led impression-formation theorists to ignore emotional factors in favor of the cognitive. One consequence of the Gestaltist legacy is the metaphor of the observer forming an impression as a naive scientist. This metaphor implies that, just like scientists, we form an impression of a person because we are trying to understand that person, and the formed impression functions as a scientific theory does for a scientist. Scientific theory attempts to describe, explain, and allow for predicting and controlling real-world events. Analogously, an impression provides both a description of a person’s behaviors and appearance and an explanation for behaviors and appearance in terms of the person’s personality and roles, and it enables one both to predict the behaviors and appearance of the other person in future circumstances and to try to control when and how to interact with that person. The work of two Gestaltists who moved to the United States to escape the Nazi government, Solomon Asch and Fritz Heider, was reflective of the naive-scientist metaphor and helped define the issues with which impression formation theories have grappled.

Littlejohn, Stephen W and Karen A.Floss. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory.USA:SAGE.654

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Gayes Mahestu
Edwina Ayu Kustiawan