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The Surprising Truth About First Impressions

First impressions can happen very quickly. Within seconds of meeting a person for the first time, you already have a pretty good idea how you feel about them.

Do they seem friendly? Threatening? Competent? Trustworthy? Attractive? It’s difficult not to make these “snap judgments.”

Can you trust your gut about first impressions?

People tend to follow their first impressions. If someone seems friendly, you will probably like them more. If someone seems competent, you might be more likely to hire them. And so on.

But recent research might make you want to think twice. The researchers asked people to make a series of quick first impressions.

At the same time, some basic aspects of the situation were being carefully controlled and manipulated—they could be viewed from a few different angles, while they were making some different facial expressions.

The results showed some effects that seem fairly obvious.

  • People seem more trustworthy when they’re looking directly at you.
  • People seem less trustworthy when they look angry or upset.
  • People seem more attractive when they’re happy.
  • People seem more attractive from some angles than they do from others.

But the most interesting part was when the researchers compared variation between people vs. within the same person.

Variation between people is how the first impressions of different people vary from one another. For example, some people just look much more trustworthy than other people.

Variation within a person is how much the first impressions of the same person can differ—there is a range of impressions that different people have of them, and those impressions also vary across different contexts. For example, two people might not agree about their impression of the same person; or the same person might look more trustworthy from one angle than they do from another.

The fascinating result: When it comes to quick first impressions, there is more variation within a person than between different people.

One person can make a wide range of different first impressions

This range can be so wide, it’s often a bigger difference than the differences in first impressions between that person and someone else entirely.

The small details in the moment—if a person seems in a good mood or a bad mood, where their attention is focused—have much bigger effects on first impressions than you probably think.

If you’re really trying to make smart hiring decisions, relying on “snap judgments” isn’t a great idea. Hiring decisions are supposed to be about comparing people (you want to hire the best candidates) but quick judgments can make the same person look very different, depending on the context.

Plus, when people go with their instincts, they tend to make hiring decisions before they’re really ready to make a decision.

And the decisions are often based on inconsistent or irrelevant information.

It’s never good to feel overly confident about a hunch that’s probably not even accurate.