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A Glimpse at First Impressions

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

As the pace of work continues to accelerate, we often find ourselves in situations where we’re expected to make important decisions based on very limited information. Exposure to this information can be very brief, thereby calling into effect our capacity to make inferences and assumptions about a person, group, object or situation in order to ‘fill in the gaps’. It’s this process of filling in the gaps that’s made first impressions such a fascinating area of study.

We’re very good at making wider assumptions from a flash of information; we’re wired this way, after all. The evolutionary reasoning for this suggests if we heard some rustling in the bushes or a threatening growl nearby while we were meandering around in more primitive times, we didn’t linger very long to gather more information. Instead, we made assumptions and a snappy decision on very little information to flee (or fight) as a means of securing our own survival. The same goes nowadays with first impressions. In an experiment where brain activity was monitored and recorded, researchers found that a single glance at another person’s face led to first impressions being formed somewhere between just 33 and 100 milliseconds.

On meeting someone new, it takes great restraint to avoid forming judgements about their personality traits, goals, intentions or even habits from limited information. These first impressions are surprisingly durable too, potentially lasting months or years – and they’re difficult to overwrite. Think, for example, about a latecomer to a meeting; we might make assumptions about their disorganisation, carelessness, or even disloyalty. Even if this individual appears at every subsequent meeting 15 minutes early from then onwards, many people will still remember the very first occurrence and stick to that original assumption.

So, what do we know about first impressions? Well, if we’re a ‘displayer’ keeping tabs on our impression management, some findings may be worth considering. In interviews and negotiations, the window for first impressions generally lie within the first five minutes. For new people in leadership roles, first impressions of their capabilities might span across the first two weeks. Further to this, some other findings have been deduced from experimental research:

  • Well-fitting clothes indicate success

  • Maintaining eye contact when in a conversation has led to perceptions of intelligence and charisma

  • A calm and confident facial expression, smiling, straight posture, leaning slightly forward when in a conversation and mimicking your conversation partner’s body language convey greater trustworthiness

  • Lower voice pitch and stable rate of speech has been found to indicate greater leadership qualities

  • A looser gait while walking is associated with higher extraversion and adventurousness

If we’re a ‘perceiver’ on the other hand, the advice is to evaluate with caution. There exists a vast array of unevidenced tips and hints online with regards to body language cues: crossed arms indicating coldness or eye movement indicating the presence of truth or lies while an individual speaks. The concern is when these are presented as ‘facts’, when of course the context should be considered and assumptions about one’s behaviour, attitude or personality should be made carefully.

We also know that first impressions can be powerful and very much prone to bias. There is often a difference in how perceivers respond to the same cues, for example. This, therefore, raises those questions about the accuracy of first impressions. In fact, there have been calls from numerous professionals and researchers for the scrapping of job interviews since they are found to be so prone to inaccurate assumptions, while several alternative data-driven and objective procedures that could be more effectively used instead. In any case, consideration is always important before elaborating on first impressions.

First impressions are powerful and difficult to change. They are also subjective and prone to inaccuracies. While it’s difficult to avoid, especially in a fast-paced working environment, perhaps the most important things we can do is be wary, considerate and be forgiving. A first impression is prone to error and it shouldn’t always be the one that lasts.


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