The Psychology of First Impressions

The Psychology of First Impressions

How to Better Manage First Impressions

We’ve all heard about the importance of first impressions and how hard it is to change them later. In fact, research tells us it only takes the duration of an eye blink to size up another person in terms of attractiveness and trustworthiness. Over the next three seconds, we form a more “complete” conclusion about a new acquaintance relating to their presumed personality and competence.

Obviously, in that short a period of time, we have not really gotten to know the other person. Rather, we have used our cognitive biases and filters to form a “snap judgment” about someone, just as they have about us. Those judgments may or may not be accurate, but they endure. And if the judgment made is a negative one, the difficulty in shifting someone’s opinion is extremely high.

In many ways, the snap judgment of first impressions is related to the halo effect – where the perception of positive qualities in one thing or part gives rise to the perception of similar qualities in related things or in the whole. Accordingly, it’s important to know how to better manage first impressions and increase the odds of making a positive one. The following will focus on how to do just that. However, let’s begin with a few things that affect first impressions.

General Factors Affecting First Impressions

The majority of communication happens on a nonverbal level. That means that sensory factors such as how we look, sound and smell drive much of the impressions conveyed when we meet someone new. Body language is many times more relevant than the words we utter.

People, whether consciously aware of it or not, generally prefer others who are similar to themselves in look, personality, attitude, belief and behavior. Deviations in our appearance, speech and behavior are likely to affect the initial impression someone has of us (and we of them). Fortunately, people also tend to think that others share their opinions and beliefs more than they actually do, so there’s a benefit of the doubt that one shouldn’t violate too soon by demonstrating our differences with someone we’re meeting for the first time.

One of the biggest cognitive biases people harbor is the fundamental attribution bias: We tend to ascribe behaviors of others to their inherent traits or (in)competence, but tend to associate our own behaviors more to external circumstances and environment. For example, if someone interviewing for a job stumbles a bit on walking into a room, the interviewer is more likely to view the interviewee as clumsy or impaired while the interviewee will likely blame the office floor and/or their shoes.

The psychological literature is filled with other cognitive biases and effects that can drive first impressions. We track more than 100 of them at Six Degrees to aid in our psycho-sensory brand-building efforts.

Specific Factors Affecting First Impressions

Here are just a few of the specific factors research has shown to affect the first impressions people form of new acquaintances. It’s important to remember that these are proclivities and tendencies and not inevitable conclusions any given person will draw. 

Observed Feature or Behavior Likely First Impression
Physical beauty Healthy, better than me
Dressing “smartly” Successful
Appearing smart and wealthy Influential/important
More eye contact Intelligent
Speaking faster More competent
Easy, effortless gait More adventurous, extroverted, trustworthy
“Baby face” (rounded, large eyes, small nose and chin) More trustworthy, naive
Straight posture More competent, focused
Multiple facial piercings More creative but less intelligent
Multiple tattoos More promiscuous, less reliable
More makeup More feminine, more attractive
Practical/affordable shoes More agreeable
Stylish shoes More wealthy
New/highly polished shoes More anxious/needing to belong


How to Create a Better First Impression

So, now that we know some of what drives first impressions and how important it is to make a positive one, here are a few suggestions for creating an effective first impression when meeting someone new:

  1. Dress slightly better than the occasion warrants.
  2. Make frequent eye contact, especially when speaking, but avoid dominating with your eyes.
  3. Smile (we search for smiles and notice them at great distances).
  4. Think of the most positive feature of the other person (that will put you in a pleasant frame of mind).
  5. Adjust your voice, gestures, posture and words to the other person (remember, we prefer people who are similar to us).
  6. Give people the benefit of the doubt (i.e., remember the fundamental attribution error).
  7. Be confident in yourself and don’t try to be someone you’re not.
  8. Express early those attributes you most want to convey.

First impressions are important, and as the saying goes, you only get one opportunity to make one. But that’s no reason to fear them. Knowing and acting on what is shown to work to create better first impressions will help you do just that.

So, go forth and meet confidently!

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Frank Schab
fschab@six-degrees.com

An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

3 Comments
  • Social Desirability: Making Yourself Presentable and Interesting – Research Methods
    Posted at 09:25h, 28 August

    […] While the human race has surpassed its need to be social for pure survivability purposes, such as establishing relationships in order to gain food and shelter, we still aim to retain the attention and interest of others. For example, imagine you are going on a first date with that attractive person from your cognitive science class. To prepare for the date you shower, fix your hair, and pick out your best outfit. While out, you make an effort to laugh and smile in order to impress your date. As things carry on and the two of you get to know each other, you realize that you are saying things that may not be necessarily true about yourself. Maybe you give a white lie here and there, like saying that you love baseball when you actually despise it, but for the sake of impressing your date you tell them anything. This is another example of social desirability; presenting yourself in a way that is attractive to your date while hiding qualities that seem unattr… […]

  • Amir Ayaz
    Posted at 23:59h, 23 February

    Nice Article.

  • John Patrick
    Posted at 18:30h, 20 March

    I felt good about the upcoming interview. I made sure I looked good, got plenty of sleep….on and on.
    You know the drill, we’ve all been there. Then Mr. Perfect enters the room, talks like a rapid fire machine gun, never smiles, no eye contact, and all my hopes and dreams about my big future with this huge Fortune 500 company came crashing down in smoke and flames. The guy up front, he was the company to me. And I didn’t like what I saw. This man told me the company culture was one I could never survive in. He was uneasy, like people when there high and anxious. When he finished, he just walked out of the room, never a smile or hand shake.
    I knew he was a real pro I could never learn from. So I got up from the desk, and walked out the front, never looking back.

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