The Fatal Flaw of First Impressions

First impressions
I don’t care what people say. No matter how good your handshake is, if you remind somebody of their in-laws, they still will not like you. Photo Courtesy:

People are relentless when it comes to conveying the importance of the first impression. Whether it is a job interview, a date or a stranger passing on the street, the first impression given or received will affect how one person views another from then on. It may even affect how a person views other people that remind them of that individual. Think about it: how often can a person really change your mind about who they are?

In general, the seven second rule is cited as the golden window of first-impression making. Business schools everywhere love their first impression talks: elevator pitches, introductions and the seven things you should know before you walk into an interview. The problem is that in the seven seconds you spend shaking hands, smiling and making good eye contact, you may already be too late. Studies have shown that sometimes a person’s mind is already made up long before you can introduce yourself.

One set of experiments in particular, conducted by Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov, suggest that first impressions may be made within one tenth of a second and be based on nothing more than your face. Remember what I said earlier about people reminding people of another person? Yeah, that instinct kicks in before you can even open your mouth. While Willis and Torodov conducted a variety of studies on perceived competence, likability and other factors, the results generally suggested that the opinions formed were formed almost instantly and that time rarely did anything to change people’s minds.

Despite this, however, repeated exposure does have an effect on people’s “first impressions.” During the spring semester, I conducted some research on people’s perceptions of law enforcement officers based on first instincts and repeated exposures. Below is an excerpt of some of my research, boxed out so that you can tell why I clearly don’t sound like myself for the next two paragraphs.

Law enforcement officers are held to extremely high standards, especially when it comes to how they work and interact with the communities they serve. Given the power and authority they possess, however, it only seems fair that the people who are expected to respect them would also feel safe in their care.

Based on current research, it is clear that personal interactions with law enforcement officers are extremely important in the development of people’s perceptions of how efficient and useful law enforcement is in a community. This is very similar to Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis which says interpersonal contact is useful in reducing prejudices formed by first impressions. When people have a positive experience with law enforcement, their perception of them is generally positive and will remain that way. The same is true of the opposite situation. For example, Gau (2010) asserts that personal experience with law enforcement officers, whether in traffic stops or otherwise, were the most important factor in determining people’s attitudes toward police. “…Quality of contact stood out as a strong and significant predictor of performance assessments; in fact, it was the strongest variable in the model.” (Gau 2010, 245). Similarly, a 2013 study conducted by McKeganey and McGallagly determined that those drug users with some of the most negative attitudes toward police were also a part of a raid that had a negative impact on them. “It seemed as if the experience, when it happened, was utterly unexpected, stressful, and deeply shocking – particularly when there were other family members present.” (McKeganey and McGallagly, 2013, 333). Overall, considering the human aspect of policing appears to be vital to understanding how people form their own perceptions of law enforcement officers. While things such as race, gender, age and criminal record may be factors in determining how people view law enforcement, and in turn could affect how law enforcement treat people, the main factor in determining law enforcement perceptions in both studies was personal interactions.

So, if impressions are made instantaneously, but interpersonal interactions can have an effect on perceptions, where does that leave us? The fatal flaw of first impressions is that there really isn’t a such things as a first impression after a certain point in one’s life. Eventually, you have met people of all genders, races, occupations and any other demographic you can think of. Regardless of this, whatever your “first” first impression was will decide how you make the subsequent decisions. It’s an instinctual response. Think about primitive man: if the first time he and his brother saw a tiger, one of them ended up mauled by a tiger, the other one probably has some pretty strong feelings about tigers. While this is not a perfect example, it does get my point across: even first impressions are tainted by past experiences.

What can we do then? How can we cope with this flaw? As nice as it would be to believe that it is on other people to present themselves at their best all the time, the real problem lies within us. We have to begin to fight that instinct to form a snap judgment and consider fully what kind of person you are dealing with each time you are dealing with a person. It sounds obvious, but it is anything but simple. We’ve spent our entire lives using those first impression defaults to understand the world around us, but until we stop relying on them and actually perceive people for what they are, we will be trapped in making the same mistakes. Hopefully, I have impressed upon you the importance of letting go of first impressions and moving forward to true perceptions.


2 thoughts on “The Fatal Flaw of First Impressions

  1. So, might one construe from this that the burden of “First Impressions” needs to be shifted (not wholly, but partially) off of the interviewee and onto the interviewer?


    1. Joel, that is more or less my theory. You can coif your hair and touch up your makeup and be as pleasant as you feel is necessary. That won’t necessarily make a person like you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try at all because all efforts are futile, but I am saying that you can only do so much.


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