With employee turnover rates remaining high, hiring managers are looking to fill roles. This decision is often based on a tiny sample of time, the interview, which begins with a first impression.
First impressions are the inferences we make about others when we first meet them. They’re done quickly, unconsciously, and are often based on little information. For instance, we form impressions of traits like trustworthiness, attractiveness, and competence in seconds from looking at photographs of strangers faces. Furthermore, these judgments are consistent over time, and people from different cultures judge the photos the same way, as do infants and young children.
This suggests that part of our human design is to automatically form an impression about another. From an evolutionary point of view, individuals skilled at first impressions would have had a survival advantage by being able to quickly identify others as friend or foe. Today, we know that judging a book by its cover goes against our moral code, but we can’t help it.
What’s more is that the impressions we form are long-lasting and consequential. Not only do they influence future interactions with the person, but first impressions have been found to play a direct role in hiring decisions, the outcome of political elections, legal decisions, and romantic choices.
Given the importance of first impressions, what cues do we use to form them? Our brains will use any available information, but we are visual creatures. This means that much of our impressions are based on things we have no control over, such as our faces and body language.
For instance, people with baby-like faces, who naturally have larger eyes, higher eyebrows, rounder faces, and a higher forehead, are more often judged as being warmer and more trustworthy, but also weaker and less capable, regardless of age, gender, or race. If a face resembles someone we already know and like, our brains assume that they’re also similar on the inside, and we’re more likely to judge them as trustworthy. If a face has symmetrical features that are properly proportioned, we’re more likely to find that face attractive. To us, it signals health in the form of good genes and a strong immune system, but we also assume that attractive people are more intelligent and capable than less attractive people.
Other than facial features, body language also affects our impressions. We judge others as more intelligent when they use more eye contact while speaking, and we see them as more competent if they speak faster using a lower-pitched voice. We’re more likely to assume someone is trustworthy if they smile and have an easy, effortless gait, and we believe they’re interested in what we’re saying if they maintain eye contact, lean forward, and cross their thighs toward us.
First impressions are also influenced by factors that are controllable, like clothing and grooming. Other than the obvious ‘neat and clean’, we infer how successful someone is by the quality of clothing that someone is wearing and how well it fits. We see more intelligence in someone who wears thick glasses and less intelligence in someone with multiple piercings. Stylish shoes signals wealth while practical shoes signify agreeableness.
And finally, we use what someone says to influence our first impressions. This is also controllable and includes communication habits like complaining and making excuses or bringing a positive attitude and outlook.
Given we all form first impressions, and they have potentially serious consequences, it is important to know that they’re not necessarily accurate. Studies that compared first impressions to later impressions or to objective personality test scores have mixed results.
We also know that our personal biases and experiences can influence the impressions we form of others. In other words, your impression of someone may have everything to do with you and nothing to do with them.
What can you do to ensure you form the most accurate impression of someone? Be aware of your innate tendency to judge others based on appearance and any biases you may have as you’re forming opinions. Make efforts to look for deeper sources of information about people, and don’t let initial impressions influence what you learn later.
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