There are at least three reasons why firsts play such an important role for us both emotionally and behaviorally.
1) The first encounter with something sets our expectations for the future in ways that come to define the category for us in the future.
2) Firsts define what feels familiar to us, and what feels familiar is an important influence on what we like.
3) Many important “firsts” happen to us while we are in adolescence, which is a time of important emotional development. These firsts have a lot of emotional resonance with us throughout our lives.
Let me elaborate on each of these.
i) The first object, event, or person of a particular type that we have a real relationship with often has a huge impact on the way we think about (or represent) that thing in the future. One place to see this is actually on research in consumer behavior.
A key observation in consumer behavior is that the products that first become leaders in a market often remain the market leader for years to come. For example, Gillette razors and Gold Medal flour are examples of brands that dominated a market early and remain the market leader. Obviously, there are many business and economic factors that might help a brand that is successful early to remain a leader, but there are psychological factors as well.
Quite a bit of research (including work that I did with Shi Zhang) suggests that these early successful brands become the first brand that people experience of a particular type. These brands serve as the basis of what people believe to be true for that product. For a new brand to gain prominence, it has to contrast itself successfully from the leading brand, and that turns out to be difficult to do, because people’s concept of the product type is defined by that brand. So, whenever people think about that type of product, they also think about that leading brand.
The same thing can come to be true of other more personal firsts. Your first love may come to define what it means for you to be in love, and any subsequent relationships you have will be influenced by this first love, whether you realize it or not.
Research by Susan Andersen and her colleagues suggests how this might happen. She finds that significant people in your life influence how you think about and react to other significant people in your life. For example, if you meet someone who reminds you of your mother in some ways, you will assume that person has other important characteristics that your mother has. You may even start to treat that person and react to that person the way that you treat and react to your mother.
ii) We are wired to like familiar things more than unfamiliar things. This bias makes a lot of sense, because things that are familiar are probably safe. If they are familiar, it means that we encountered them in the past and survived. Things that are unfamiliar may have noxious qualities that we don’t know about.
Research by Bob Zajonc in the 1960s observed that people (and animals) show a marked preference for things they have encountered before over things they have never seen, even if they experienced them only once. That is why people like songs they have heard before better than those they have not heard before. He called this phenomenon the mere exposure effect.
Of course, if you have an experience with something and it is a bad experience, you will remember that you did not like that thing. So, you do not get mere exposure effects for familiar bad things.
By definition, your “first” is the only thing of a particular type that you have had, and so initially it will be preferred to anything else of that type. This “first” will always be something familiar, and so you will always have warm feelings toward it.
Mere exposure may also help to explain why people persist in some bad behaviors. The phrase “the devil known is better than the devil unknown” reflects that people may still elect to do things or spend time with people that have been associated with negative outcomes in the past. This preference may reflect that mere exposure can be powerful enough to overcome some negative memories.
iii) The last point to make about firsts is that many of them occur during adolescence, which is a key developmental period. In our teen years, our bodies and minds change substantially. Puberty comes along with high doses of sex hormones. These hormones have a big influence on emotions. That is why adolescents ride an emotional roller-coaster. At the same time, the frontal lobes of the brain have a lot of maturing to do. A significant influence of the frontal lobes is to inhibit behaviors and reactions to information in the environment. Teens and young adults do not have the same capacity to inhibit emotional reactions that adults have, and so they will have strong emotional memories associated with experiences from adolescence.
First loves, first musical tastes, first kisses (and other sexual experiences), first favorite bands, first athletic or artistic successes often occur in someone’s teen years. These firsts have powerful emotional memories attached to them, and those emotional memories can affect behavior even years later.
One way to see this influence is to look at the proliferation of radio stations that cater to demographic groups that want to listen to the music that was popular when that group was in its teens. Classic rock stations have listeners who were in junior high school and high school in the 1970s and ‘80s. A new generation of stations playing music from the 90s now aims at listeners in their 20s and 30s. The music has its resonance with people who experienced their formative emotional memories with that music as a soundtrack.
A couple of papers to look at for further reading.
Andersen, S. M., & Chen, S. (2002). The relational self: An interpersonal social-cognitive theory. Psychological Review, 109(4), 619-645.
Andersen, S. M., & Cole, S. W. (1990). "Do I know you?": The role of significant others in general social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(3), 384-399.
Kardes, F. R., & Kalyanaram, G. (1992). Order-of-entry effects on consumer memory and judgment: An information integration perspective. Journal of Marketing Research, 29, 343-357.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1-27.
Zhang, S., & Markman, A. B. (1998). Overcoming the early entrant advantage: The role of alignable and nonalignable differences. Journal of Marketing Research, 35, 413-426.