The once-over can you trust first impressions?

Carlin Flora

Bill and Hillary Clinton often tell the story of how they met: They locked eyes across Yale’s library, until Hillary broke the silent flirtation and marched straight over to Bill. “Look, if you’re going to keep staring at me, and I’m going to keep staring back, we might as well be introduced. I’m Hillary Rodham. What’s your name?” Bill has said he couldn’t remember his own name. It was quite a first impression, one so powerful that it sparked a few chapters of U.S. history.

Initial encounters are emotionally concentrated events that can overwhelm us–even convince us that the room is spinning. We walk away from them with a first impression that is like a Polaroid picture–a head-to-toe image that develops instantly and never entirely fades. Often, that snapshot captures important elements of the truth.

Consider one study in which untrained subjects were shown 20- to 32-second videotaped segments of job applicants greeting interviewers. The subjects then rated the applicants on attributes such as self-assurance and likability. Surprisingly, their assessments were very close to those of trained interviewers who spent at least 20 minutes with each applicant. What semblance of a person–one with a distinct appearance, history and complex personality–could have been captured in such a fleeting moment?

The answer lies in part in how the brain takes first-impression Polaroids–creating a composite of all the signals given off by a new experience. Psychologists agree that snap judgments are a holistic phenomenon in which clues (mellifluous voice, Rolex watch, soggy handshake, hunched shoulders) hit us all at once and form an impression larger than their sure.

We do search for one particular sign on a new face: a smile. “We can pick up a smile from 30 meters away,” says Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, and a pioneer of research on facial expressions. “A smile lets us know that we’re likely to get a positive reception, and it’s hard not to reciprocate.”

By the time we flash that return grin, out Polaroid shutter will have already closed. Just three seconds are sufficient to make a conclusion about fresh acquaintances. Nalini Ambady, professor of psychology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, studies first impressions carved from brief exposure to another persons behavior, what she calls “thin slices” of experience. She says humans have developed the ability to quickly decide whether a new person will hurt or enrich us–judgments that had lifesaving ramifications in an earlier era.

She believes that thin slices are generated in the most primitive area of the brain, where feelings are also processed, which accounts for the emotional punch of some first encounters. Immediate distrust of a certain car salesman or affinity for a prospective roommate originates in the deepest corners of the mind.

The ability to interpret thin slices evolved as a way for our ancestors to protect themselves in an eat-or-be-eaten world, whereas modern-day threats to survival often come in the form of paperwork (dwindling stock portfolios) or intricate social rituals (impending divorce). The degree to which thin slices of experience help us navigate modern encounters from–hitchhikers to blind dates–is up for debate.

Ekman says that people excel at reading facial expressions quickly, but only when a countenance is genuine. Most people cannot tell if someone is feigning an emotion, he says, “unless their eyes have been trained to spot very subtle expressions that leak through.” Consider anger: When we are boiling mad, out lips narrow–an expression we can’t make on demand when we’re pretending.

And the accuracy of a snap judgment always depends on what exactly we’re sizing up. Ekman doesn’t think we can use a thin slice of behavior to judge, say, if someone is smart enough to be out study partner or generous enough to lend us a bus token. “But we can pretty easily distinguish one emotion from another, particularly if it’s on the face for a second or more.” Spending more time with a genuine person, he says, won’t yield a more accurate sense of that person’s emotional state.

First impressions are not merely hardwired reactions–we are also taught how to judge others, holding our thin slices up to the light of social stereotypes. Brian Nosek, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, studies the implicit attitudes that enter into our calculations. Just because someone carries an ACLU membership card or makes a point to invite their senior-citizen friends to dance-club outings doesn’t mean they don’t have prejudices bubbling under the surface. Nosek and colleagues administer a quick online test that reveals the beliefs people either can’t or won’t report.

Called the Implicit Association Test, it asks participants to pair concepts, such as “young” with “good,” or “elderly” with “good.” If, in some part of his mind, “old” is more closely related to “bad” than to “good,” the test taker will respond more quickly to the first pairing of words than to the second. In versions of these tests, small differences in response rimes are used to determine if someone is biased toward youth over the elderly, African-Americans over Caucasians or for President Bush over President Kennedy. “When I took file test,” says Nosek, “I showed a bias toward whites. I was shocked. We call it unconsciousness-raising, in contrast to the consciousness-raising of the 1960s.”

As subtle as implicit attitudes are, they can cause serious real-world damage. If an angry person stumbles upon someone of a different race or religion, he is likely to perceive that person negatively, according to recent research. Anger incites instinctive prejudiced responses toward “outsiders,” a finding that has important implications for people in law enforcement and security.

Certain physical features consistently prompt our brains to take first-impression Polaroids with a distorting filter. People who have a “baby face,” characterized by a round shape, large eyes and small nose and chin, give off the impression of trustworthiness and naivete–on average, a false assumption. A pretty face also leads us astray: Our tendency is to perceive beautiful people as healthier and just plain better than others.

Leslie Zebrowitz, professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, argues that we overgeneralize in the presence of baby mugs and homely visages. Humans are hard wired to recognize a baby as an innocent, weak creature who requires protection. By the same token, mating with someone who is severely deformed, and thereby unattractive, may keep your DNA from spreading far and wide. But we overgeneralize these potentially helpful built-in responses, coddling adults with babyish miens who in fact don’t need our care and shunning unattractive people who may hot meet our standards of beauty but certainly don’t pose an imminent threat to our gene pool.

Zebrowitz has round that many baby-faced grown-ups, particularly young men, overcompensate for misperceptions by cultivating tougher-than-average personalities in an attempt to ward off cheek-pinching aunts. Think of the sweet-faced rapper Eminem, who never cracks a smile, or the supermodel-juggling, hard-partying actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Not every observer is equally likely to draw unwarranted conclusions about a smooth-cheeked man or a woman with stunning, symmetrical features. People who spend rime cultivating relationships are more likely to make accurate snap judgments.

“A good judge of personality isn’t just someone who is smarter–it’s someone who gets out and spends time with people,” says David Funder, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside, who believes in the overall accuracy of snap judgments. Funder has found that two observers often reach a consensus about a third person, and the assessments are accurate in that they match the third person’s assessment of himself. “We’re often fooled, of course, but we’re more often right.”

On the other side of the equation, some people are simpler to capture at first glance than others. “The people who are easiest to judge are the most mentally healthy,” says Randy Colvin, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston. “With mentally healthy individuals,” Colvin theorizes, “exterior behavior mimics their internal views of themselves. What you see is what you get.”


From store manager to police officer, certain professions rely on making the right snap judgment

Jeff Ayers, novelty-store manager

To spot a thief, check for eye contact, says New York-based Ayers. Persistent looking around or eyes chat dart from left to right should raise suspicion. Ayers also watches people with “forced body language.” They pace purposefully up and down aisles. “Sometimes the best-dressed [are the culprits], they’re on a shopping spree with someone else’s credit card. The ones I can’t [pick out] are those I’ve been friendly with. One guy would jibber-jabber, then bend down to tie his shoes and stick $300 worth of stuff in his bag.”


Gerald Scott, police officer

Scott has been a New York City police officer for 10 years. He says he can easily spot bad apples on the street because they “tend to stay in a certain space for long periods of time. They’re not really doing anything, they’re just watching everybody. They’re never reading the paper or anything. They’re worried about everything going on around them. Just look at their eyes. There’s a lot of nervousness. You can tell they’re trying to figure out if you’re a cop or not.”


Eric McMullen, cardsharp

It the gritty gambling locales of Harlem, McMullen is better known as “DOC,” or the Dealer of Cards. “If I don’t cheat, I don’t eat,” says the amateur magician turned master cardsharp. “Amateurs have shifty eyes. They look around the table and try to talk to everyone. Let’s say the sharp wants to switch the whole deck. He’ll get a little fidgety–chat’s a telltale sign for cheating.” Subtlety is the secret behind flawless moves. “Always make gestures and jokes, look people in the eye and don’t look at the deck.”


John Breen, retired detective

“I’m not claiming to be Sherlock Holmes, but there are a number of behavioral interviewing techniques taught in the police academy chat tan help tell you when someone is lying,” says Breen, a former police lieutenant in Arizona. “A suspect might put her hand up to her mouth or she may cross her arms over her chest. Whereas someone who is more receptive, open and forthcoming won’t cross her arms. But you can’t take that as gospel. You have to [measure up] the individual and determine what her normal reactions might be.”


Sudha Chinniah, high-end salesperson

“You can never tell who’s going to spend on clothing,” says Chinniah. who works at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York. But “how you look is an extension of [how you feel]. The wealthiest guy may be dressed casually, but he carries himself with confidence. A customer’s wallet, watch and shoes approximate her financial background. Right now there’s a trend toward slim shoes with elongated toes, which defines a customer who’s absolutely current.”

David Boyle, county prosecutor

Every nuance counts for a trial lawyer, who must quickly convince a group of strangers chat his version of the facts is the truth. “Everything you do is being judged–the way you dress, the way you talk,” says Boyle, a prosecutor in Walton County, Georgia. If he wants jurors to listen to a friendly witness, Boyle positions himself at the far end of of the jury box, forcing the witness to look straight at the jury and speak loud enough for everyone to hear. During harmful testimony, he’ll study his files or consult with his partner to indicate complete disinterest.




He’s talking about his new Subaru, which reminds you of the battle you waged–and won–with that smarmy Hertz-rental-car dealer in Miami last month. This “faux segue” is a big no-no, says psychologist and business consultant Valerie White. “We are tempted to share impressive things about ourselves, but the one idea you should keep in mind is ‘How am I making the other person feel?'” Actively encourage others to talk about themselves, and respond genuinely–without bringing it back to you.


“If you’re not quick-witted or well-versed in certain subjects, you can still make a great impression,” White says. Just focus on the other person. This in turn will take the pressure off you. However, avoid interrogating a new acquaintance. If you’re jittery, control movements such as leg twitching. And remember to speak slowly–nervousness makes us talk too fast.


“Be yourself” is solid first-impression advice from cognitive scientists and self-help gurus alike. But it’s worth suppressing a bad mood when you meet someone new. While you know you are just experiencing a momentary state, a new acquaintance will take you for a full-time complainer.”There is a contagion effect,” says White.” A bad mood will bring the other person down, too. Try to start off well, and then share what’s bothering you.”


If you want to get to know a stranger, break with body language conventions by catching her eye for more than a second. When you first meet someone, anchor and lecturer Nicholas Boothman says, focus on your eye contact, your smile and your posture. “If you notice somebody’s eye color, and you say ‘great’ to yourself, you will actually be smiling, and you will give off a super mood.”


Adjusting your posture, voice, words and gestures to match those of a new acquaintance is critical, says Boothman, because we are attracted to others who are just like us. “People respond when you speak at their pace,” agrees White. To establish an instant rapport, mirror your new friend’s head nods and tilts.


“People like to be flattered” says White. “Even if they suspect you are brownnosing, they still like it.” But use flattery judiciously–focus on the other person’s accomplishments or achievements. This works best when a person believes you don’t say ingratiating things to just anyone.


You arrive at a party fuming over a parking ticket. A cheery guest introduces herself, but you brush her off and head for the bar. You’ve made a bad impression, but you tan recover if you demonstrate self-awareness, says White. Pull her aside and say, “I wasn’t myself earlier.” Show your sense of humor: “I see you met my evil twin.” And remember to cut others slack if they, make a bad impression on you.–C.F.


First Impressions Valerie White and Ann Demarais (Bantam, 2004)

Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life Paul Ekman (Times Books, 2003)

How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less Nicholas Boothman (Workman, 2000)

Implicit Association Test (

“Street-Corner Psychologists” by Jeff Grossman, Neil Parmar, Jammie Salagubang and Susan A. Smith.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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