Tales from the Practice of Medicine: First Impression

Ci Qing

PureInsight | December 29, 2003

[PureInsight.org] During graduate school I was in a class once where the professor arrived early one day and dawdled over the textbook. Then he looked at his watch and told us the class would begin in five minutes.

At this very moment a woman walked into our classroom, apparently looking for someone. She took a quick glance around the room, made a circle around the podium and left.

About two or three minutes after she left, the professor began the lecture with a question and a request. "I assume everyone has seen a woman walking into this room a few minutes ago? I want everyone in this room to describe your first impression of the woman, beginning with the student on the left in the first row."

Then everyone in class started to recall what they remembered the woman was like. It was true that everyone had noticed her presence. One student said, "She is a woman between the ages of 20 and 25, with short hair and wearing a navy blue skirt." Another said, "She is a middle-aged woman in her 40's. She has medium-length hair and wears black pants." Yet another said, "She struck me as a very angry and troubled person. I didn't notice the length of her hair or her outfit." It turned out that no two students in the entire class shared the same impression of the woman. It was as though more than 20 different women had entered the room and left, because there were more than 20 different impressions, ranging from a woman with short hair to someone with braided hair, from a young woman to an elderly woman. If we include everyone's impressions of the color of her clothes, it would make an even more diverse story because everyone insisted that he/she had remembered her outfit correctly.

Then the professor asked the woman who had caused a heated debate into the classroom again. As she entered the room, the entire class of students became speechless, their eyes almost popping out.

No one had a complete and accurate description of this woman, because no one had taken a close look at her. Everyone, though, described the woman's appearance based on his/her own memory, and everyone insisted that s/he was absolutely right about his/her own version of the impression. Evidently, the heated argument arose from a common desire to protect their respective, biased impressions.

This episode that then had lasted less than 10 minutes has been branded into my memory and had a profound impact on my life and work. I no longer think that when others disagree with me, they must be wrong and I must be right.

During my medical practice I keep reminding myself that I must not jump to a diagnosis based on first impressions, because oftentimes the root cause [of an illness] lies below the surface.

Translated from: http://www.zhengjian.org/zj/articles/2003/12/13/24904.html

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