Everyone likes to say that first impressions are extremely important; on some level, it’s intuitive. But what does the science really have to say about first impressions? Do first impressions really matter that much? And if so, what steps can you take to make a better first impression on people?
The trouble with studying first impressions
There are several significant problems with attempting empirical study of first impressions.
- What is ‘first’? For starters, it’s hard to determine what really counts as a “first” impression. For example, let’s say you see someone walking into a coffee shop and the first thing you notice is their leather bag, which you notice is well-made and unique, so you assume they make significant money. But when they go to pay for their drink, their credit card is declined, so you assume they have financial trouble. Which of these ‘impressions’ occurs first? And which one is more likely to stick?
- What counts as an impression? It’s also hard to determine what counts as an impression. If you have a subtle nagging feeling that there’s something ‘off’ about the person you’re interacting with, does that count as an impression? Or do you need coherent thoughts in order to form an impression? Our first impressions explicit or implicit? Are you conscious of them or are they beneath your notice?
- How powerful are impressions? How much do first impressions really matter, in the sense that they impact how we interact with other people? Does a first impression alone have the power to jeopardize your success in a job interview? Could it ruin a first date? Would it make someone less likely to help you if you were in an emergency situation? These are incredibly difficult questions to objectively answer.
- How long do they last? After interacting with a person for only a few seconds, first impressions are really all you have. But just how long do these first impressions last? Are they informing your interactions with this person for years to come? At what point do they dissolve into irrelevance, and how could you possibly measure that?
What we know about first impressions
Despite these difficulties, there are some concrete things that we know about human first impressions.
First, impressions can form from many different perceptions and experiences. The most obvious type of perception here is usually behavioral; if you see someone shoving people out of their way on the sidewalk, you can reasonably conclude that that person is selfish or rude. But there are subtler, less noticeable ways that impressions conform; for example, we often form first impressions of a person’s personality simply by looking at the aesthetics of their face. More beautiful people are typically seen as more trustworthy and more caring.
Second, impressions often form without awareness or intention. Sometimes, we consciously form our first impressions and start making definitive conclusions about this person’s behavior gratitude. But more frequently, these creep into our minds without us realising.
Third, impressions are resistant to change. Once you form a first impression, it’s hard to change your mind. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it does take both time and effort. Once you decide that someone is not trustworthy, or that they’re negative and pessimistic, it takes a wealth of evidence to prove otherwise.
Fourth, impressions form quickly. People are known to assess another person’s personality and demeanor after looking at their face for just 1/10th of a second. You don’t have much time to make a good impression with the people around you.
How to make a better first impression
So what steps can you take to make a better first impression wherever you go?
- Know your audience. Different people form different types of first impressions. A person’s impressions of you will depend on their culture, their philosophies, their experiences, and their overall mood. The better you know your audience, the better you can sculpt yourself to give them the best possible first impression.
- Dress well. Remember, first impressions often form in less than a second, which means the way you dress has a bigger impact than you might imagine.
- Master your body language. Maintain a confident body posture, with your shoulders back and your chest out. It’s also important to make eye contact and smile whenever you can.
- Be positive. Most people are drawn to positive people. Try to be optimistic and cheery whenever you’re meeting someone new.
The science of first impressions is hardly settled. There are a lot of unanswered questions that we currently have, and our tools and methodologies aren’t robust enough to answer our most abstract and difficult thoughts on the matter. However, we do know a lot about how impressions form, and using this knowledge, we can make much better impressions on the new people we meet.
Adam Mulligan did his degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.