The science of a good first impression

by Pop on December 17, 2010

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You have one-tenth of a second to make a good impression.

You’ve heard that old yarn about only having one chance to make a good impression. You might have even heard that first impressions happen fast. Maybe you didn’t know they happened this fast.

Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov had test subjects look at photos of various people and rate them on attributes like trustworthiness, likability, and competence. Some participants got a second to see the photo—others only got half a second or a tenth of a second. In a separate test, they didn’t give the participants any time limit at all.

Well it turns out, most people decided what their feelings were about a person (based on looks alone) in that first tenth of a second. The results for how “trustworthy” someone was, for example, didn’t differ much between the people who only saw him for 1/10th of a second and the people who had as much time as they wanted.

When you read books about first impressions at job interviews, they probably tell you something about eye contact and firm handshakes. Sure, that stuff’s important. There’s actually been a study that showed a measurable impact on someone’s impression of another’s personality based on the handshake alone.

But putting aside the old interview tricks, you might be surprised at how out of your control the first impression really is. Some interview mantras just don’t bear out in reality, or at least, they don’t have the impact we might hope they would.

So when someone gives you the old, “You have only one chance to make a first impression line,” you can throw back “Yeah, they only have 100 milliseconds.”

Your next job interview: It’s all decided before you finish your introduction.

“But,” you say, “that’s only on looks! I surely will have a chance to state my case when I go in for a job interview!”

Well, kind of. Take the case of Tricia Prickett, an enterprising psychology student who taped job interviews to see if she could guess outcomes just by watching the first 15 seconds.

She showed 15-second clips of the interviews to 30 “naive observers” and asked them to rate the job candidates on intelligence, competence, politeness, etc. Their ratings, based on those 15 seconds, ended up being about the same as the ratings given by the interviewers themselves, except the interviewers, of course, spoke to the people for 20 minutes or so.

Other experiments went further. What if you trained people to give a handshake with just the right grip? Or what if you told people to match their interviewer’s tone and posture? Some interview experts have said matching body language is one way to establish a rapport.

No dice. In the body language mimicking experiment, it mostly had no effect. One interviewer actually picked up on it happening, and it made him angry. As far as the handshakes go, firm handshakes are good, but they’re hard to fake. A firm handshake coming from someone who’s shy just ends up looking trained and out of place, according to psychologists.

Unfortunately, it seems that you can’t train for some aspects of a good first impression.

Oh yeah, and to finish building this post to the height of pessimism…it helps if you’re cute too. Psychologists even have names for it—”What is beautiful is good” or the “halo effect”. People assume that if someone is good-looking, it must mean they have good personalities and are smart, also.

Things you can control.

It’s hard to undo those first 15 seconds (or 1/10th of a second) if they don’t go well. After first impressions, we tend to look for evidence to support our initial assumptions. The handsome fool sounds smarter because we want to validate our initial impression that he was smart.

But you can. I mean, you can’t really. But you can push that first impression back a little.

How? First, it’s better to be animated than to have a poker face. I have this problem personally. I show a notorious lack of affect at work, and at times, that’s come off as condescending. It’s something I try to fix by smiling a lot and being more open, even though personally I’d rather keep my emotions on the inside.

Psychologists have found that being expressive makes people trust us more, even when the emotions we’re expressing are negative. Our counterparts would rather know that we’re unhappy than have to guess at things.

Next, find what you have in common. Hometowns, names, birthdays, favorite books….anything really. As I’ve written before, even having superficial things in common like, say, being assigned to the blue team instead of the red team, can make your counterpart think you’re smarter, stronger, and friendlier than he thought before.

Yeah, I know, it’s not much in the face of all that you-haven’t-even-finished-your-name-and-you’re-already-screwed stuff. But hopefully knowing that so much is out of your hands will help you let go of some of those “interview tricks” you’ve been taught and just be yourself.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Janette December 18, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Believing you are good looking and holding yourself that way is as important as BEING good looking. I know more than a few “homely” people who feel good about themselves- walk, talk and sparkle (for lack of a better word), who have done very well in life. Sales in particular.
Walk the walk and talk the talk. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

retirebyforty December 18, 2010 at 9:22 pm

No wonder I never have any problem with interviews. I look damn good! :)
In a geeky nerdy way that the interviewer is looking for of course.

Sheryll December 28, 2010 at 4:33 am

I don’t agree with the comment, “People assume that if someone is good-looking, it must mean they have good personalities and are smart, also.” As a female, I find that male interviewers who think you are attractive typically expect you to be stupid. I spend a lot of time at work trying to disprove people’s first impression that I’m a “bimbo” by having to contantly speak up intelligently and publically in order for them to realize that I am not trying to get by on my looks and do not appreciate being judged that way. I am much more proud of my education than my bra size because I actually worked hard to achieve the first attribute. The second one, although helpful in some settings, is usually a distration that prevents people from concentrating on what I have to say so they therefore do not take me seriously. And, they are the ones who are too stupid to realize that they were the ones uttering incoherent, irrelevant statements while I was the only one in the room who knew what they were talking about!

Steve January 4, 2011 at 11:15 am

Sheryll… Dispite that remarkable rack of yours, do you have any investing advice for me? (I’m kidding, really) Yes Sheryll… If you have a nice rack, im sure its very hard to get an intelligent conversation out of a guy. I would like to say that maybe you should just milk it (no pun intended), for what its worth. Many “good looking” guys end up in managerial positions based on this same sort of “looks” theory. I have met many who cannot think very well and often short serve the companies they work for. As they are the boss, it usually ends up with me being “insubordinate” . I like to feel that the company has lost something, when I leave. However, I no longer even try to “bring something” with me, when I join a new company, now. Banged my head against a brick wall, too long.

Recently I left a company after taking enough crap. These people were building a power station. With all the smart electricians and engineers etc, and the code stating what is correct or not… none of them could fix a small code infraction. They couldnt coordinate amongst themselves to make some small changes for safety and code compliance. I spelled it out for them, and it was all indicated on the blue prints, correctly. However they are sooooooo much smarter than me, so of course they didnt listen. I quit my job when it became my place to wire it incorrectly. I feel these brainiacs can wire the places themselves. My house is wired fine, and I can allways do a different job.

So I do understand this first impression thing as correct. Its hardly a wonder, seeing as we all have multiple psychological problems.

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