The Science of First Impressions

It’s been said that you have only seven seconds to make a first impression, and that number is admittedly generous. Scientists and psychologists routinely study the social implications of these critical first encounters, and their findings consistently confirm their importance in how we’re perceived as well as the lasting impact these impressions have on both our work relations and social connections. Mastering the art of a good first impression is also extremely beneficial in sales settings, where selling a purpose or benefit is prioritized first over explaining a basic service description.

science of first impressions

Facial Features

Perhaps no other physical feature carries more importance than the face, and people are biologically geared to study and define personality cues from the facial features of new acquaintances. In one study that linked facial features to social traits, participants viewed cartoon images that demonstrated various looks, from smiling features and youthful skin to furrowed brows and frowns. Participants were asked to judge these facial images based on traits such as approach-ability, trustworthiness, youthfulness, attractiveness and dominance. The participants were practically uniform in how they associated personality traits with facial features. Smiling faces were deemed more approachable and friendly, while youthful features were deemed more attractive.

via PNAS

via PNAS

As psychologist Vivian Diller explains, what we do with our facial features is also a major factor in how we’re initially perceived. Shifting our eyes can indicate dishonesty or a lack of confidence, while smiles are often viewed as invitations for further interactions. Healthy skin and shiny hair are both indicative of youth, which is considered more attractive to strangers in general. Even facial hair can project information about people during introductions, such as untamed brows or beards indicating a more relaxed, laid back personality.

Vocal Cues

sound of people judging

Psychologist Phil McAleer, who works at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, conducted an experiment in which he recorded the voices of 64 men and women who all read the same paragraph that contained the word “hello.” McAleer then extracted that single word and asked 320 participants to rate each individual “hello” based on 10 specific personality traits, including confidence, aggression, warmth and trustworthiness.

His study showed that voice judgments are made within mere milliseconds. In addition, participants consistently ranked voices similarly among the given personality traits, with aggression linked to deeper voices and insecurity linked to questioning tones or a rising inflection at the end of the word.

Body Language and Clothing Style

Body language is constantly discussed and researched among psychologists, and its overall effect on first impressions is a heavy one. Factors like posture, crossed arms, clothing style and general appearance can lead others to make numerous conclusions about who you are as a person.

Numerous studies have concluded that handshakes matter when two people are introduced and that a limp handshake leads others to view you as passive or weak. Women are more likely to feel threatened by a red dress womanwoman dressed in red, as she is likely viewed as more sexual and potentially more likely to steal another woman’s mate.

The Lasting Impact of First Encounters

One of the most surprising and powerful lessons learned from research into first impressions is the weight they carry in terms of building future relationships. When it comes to how first impressions affect potential friendships, studies consistently show that the effects are critical to building social foundations.

In one fascinating study, college students met one another for varied increments of time, ranging from three to 10 minutes. They were asked to rate their encounters based on their perception of whether or not they could possibly be friends with that person in the future. Over the course of nine weeks, participants who had rated one another positively confirmed their predictions by establishing friendships accordingly, while poor first impressions led to limited continued social interaction among participants.

Researchers were surprised to find that it didn’t matter if the students spent three minutes, six minutes or a full 10 minutes together; if they didn’t have a strong first impression, they didn’t have favorable continued encounters, either.

Improving Initial Impressions

Utilizing the scientific findings pertaining to first impressions, it’s clear that practicing some basic tips can drastically improve the way others initially view you.

  1. Practice eye contact: The eyes are known as the windows to our souls, so keep their importance in mind when meeting others for the first time. All too often, people’s eyes are glued on their phones or tablets rather than the people in front of them. Make sure you’re present in the conversation at hand, and greet people with your eyes. Studies show that the ideal range of time to maintain eye contact without overdoing it is roughly 60-70 percent of the conversation’s length.
  2. Speak clearly: Speaking slowly and clearly is associated with confidence, so this is a crucial factor when making presentations. Proper projection and enunciation help to support your stance as an expert in your field, leading your audience to trust you more willingly.
  3. Listen: People psychologically relate talking about themselves to a positive overall conversation, so the more you allow others to talk – and the more you listen – the better your interaction will be perceived.
  4. Monitor body language: From a firm handshake to leaning in, the way our bodies respond to others’ greatly influences the impressions we leave upon them, so pay attention to the signals you’re sending, and adjust them accordingly. Mirror the other person’s mannerisms to be perceived as more relatable, and keep an open body posture so as to appear welcoming. These little details go a long way in making a better impression off the bat.
  5. Smile: Smiling is a great way to appear approachable and friendly, and it’s almost universally viewed in a favorable light.

By practicing these basic tips for making a better first impression, you can gain more control over how others ultimately view you. While it’s short-sighted to judge a book based on its cover, its only realistic to look at what science tells us about human biological reactions to these superficial (yet often accurate) implications.

Bonus tip – if you’re on the receiving end of an intimidating gaze, try looking at their eyebrows. This is an easy way to ‘look over’ the attempts to instill fear while maintaining eye-contact…sort of. It’s been found this only works when you are at least six feet away from them – if you’re closer it will be easier for them to notice you’re targeting their brows.

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Jesse Aaron

I'm a blogger, homebrewer, and community manager. Aside from writing, I have a passion for music and design.

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