Are First Impressions Accurate? This Is What Science Says…

Are First Impressions Accurate? This Is What Science Says

Have you ever met people for the first time and within less than a minute decided what kind of person they were or whether you liked them or not? Did you first impression turn out to be accurate, or did you change your perception later? Most people have had this first impression experience. Research in recent years has examined why this occurs and first impression accuracy. First impressions are important, and surprisingly accurate, and yet at the same time they can also contain a healthy dose both of bias and misperception.

SEE ALSO: Why Is Happiness Always Followed By Sorrow?

Some history

First impressions have been part of human behavior throughout the history of our species. It has been explained at various times as an attractiveness stereotype, self-fulfilling prophecies, or “good genes”, but there have been mixed findings regarding the accuracy of these explanations. People make subjective judgments about others on a regular basis, consciously and subconsciously. But how much information can actually be gleaned from a glance at a face? The idea that internal traits can be displayed externally dates back at least to Aristotle, who states in Anaytics, “It is possible to infer character from features.”

What the research says

So what does more recent research say that could help us assess whether first impressions are valid and reliable?

  • The goals, values, and beliefs of others also have been shown to influence first impressions.
  • People tend to form split-second impressions with regard to others’ presumably stable characteristics, such as trustworthiness and competence. They do this from others’ facial appearances and simple behaviors — for example, having observed a person taking an elevator up one flight, people may infer that she is lazy.
  • A single glance of a person’s face for just 33 to 100 milliseconds was sufficient to form a first impression.
  • People with the “right” kind of face are judged as more likable, knowledgeable, and capable. However, those with the ‘wrong’ kind of face are deemed unapproachable, incompetent, and untrustworthy and dominance, are reliably perceived in faces.
  • Non-verbal behaviors are particularly important to forming first impressions when meeting a business acquaintance.
  • People also form first impressions from body shapes.
  • Once formed, first impressions tend to be stable. first impressions can last for months before they may be changed even in the presence of contradictory evidence about the individual being judged.
  • People instantly judge others based on their voice. The pitch of the untrustworthy male voice was much lower than the male deemed most trustworthy.
  • Our sense of smell helps us decide if someone is a friend or foe. According to the research, we determine if someone is in our family or social group by scent. If someone smells familiar, it’s a sign that they’re like us and could provide social support. But if they smell too different, we think they might not have our best interests in mind.

Contrary views

“Research has found that first impressions are surprisingly valid,” says Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, Nobel laureate and author of Thinking, Fast And Slow. “You can predict very quickly whether you like a person and if others will.” However, first impressions are not perfect, and making a quick decision about someone can have consequences. “If your first impression is a mistake, it can take a while to realize this, as your expectations tend to be self-fulfilling,” says Kahneman. “When you expect a certain reaction you are likely to perceive it even if it isn’t there.”

In his book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Alexander Todorov pulls together all he’s learned about first impressions. His conclusion: “We find judging others based on a single glance irresistible, but the judgments we reach are usually wrong.”

The problem of first impressions creating judgments that may be erroneous is amplified because of modern technology. Images on the screen can be altered and manipulated to create false impressions. Todorov has studied the effect that changing the shape of a mouth or the arch of an eyebrow or the height of a forehead has on first impressions. “We can do even better by building mathematical models of impressions,” he writes. “Using these models, we can increase or decrease at will the specific impression of a face, whether of trustworthiness or dominance or any other impression.”

Research by Murray R. Barrick and colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that first impressions significantly predict employers’ behavioral tendencies during job interviews as well as their ultimate recruitment decisions .

Specifically, employers tend to ask questions that confirm their first impressions about the candidates and treat them in ways that are consistent with such impressions. If their initial impressions of the candidates are positive, employers show a higher tendency to “sell” the job by providing information to the candidates about the job rather than gathering information from them. In turn, employers’ warmer behaviors typically elicit warmer behaviors from the candidates, and thus the employers’ initial positive impressions about the candidates are validated.

Importantly, however, even in cases when a job candidate performs in ways that disconfirm employers’ first impressions, employers may fail to assess the candidate’s performance accurately, preventing them from changing their first impressions accordingly. Therefore, reducing cognitive demands in an interview context by using scripted questions or having third-party observers evaluate the interview process might be effective in fostering accurate impressions and judgments of a job candidate.

Why it’s so hard to shake a bad first impression

A study by Nadav Klein and Ed O’Brien published by The National Academy of Sciences. demonstrates that shaking a negative first impression is often diabolically difficult, providing just one more reason to make sure that you show up on time for your next job interview.

“People apparently need to commit just a few bad actions to appear substantively changed for the worse, but need to commit many good actions to appear substantively changed for the better,” Klein and O’Brien report.


So there is compelling research evidence to show that most people automatically judge people by first impressions, which may be hard-wired into our brains as a way of determining if the person is a threat. Second, most research experiments point to the relative accuracy of those instant judgments, although not 100%, and they are subject to cognitive biases. Also, the accuracy is affected by how much time we have to confirm our first quick judgment. Certainly, it is prudent for us to validate our first impressions by looking for more information that can confirm our initial judgment.


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Ray Williams


Ray Williams an Author and Executive Coach. He has written four books and published more than 300 articles on leadership…

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