Why First Impressions Are Lasting Ones

You only have one chance to make a first impression. Just one look is all it takes. But at the same time, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Which one is it? How accurate are our immediate assumptions about people particularly those who do not look like, act like or talk like us?

We have known for some time that our initial encounters with people that are different from us are dependent on whether or not we experience warmth and competence with these strangers.

Once we answer the question of warmth, can this person be trusted, would I consider being their friend and are they sincere; we move on to an inquiry about their competence. Do they appear confident, do they look intelligent and do they seem capable of carrying on a mutually beneficial conversation?

In his new book,  “Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions,” Princeton University psychologist, Alexander Todorov, adds another dimension to this endless list of blind spots we have when dealing with our colleagues and customers. He claims we judge others based on a first glance of them and most of the times the conclusions we make from those observations are wrong.

His research showed making decisions about first impressions of someone’s face happens in 30 to 40 milliseconds. He claims we start developing this skill as infants. In fact, he and his colleagues found that infants will crawl toward trustworthy facial expressions and recoil from untrustworthy appearances.

First impressions may explain why:

  • I was surprised when I met my mechanic and discovered she was a woman.
  • I had low expectations of a colleague who was helping me when I found out their experience level.
  • My cubicle mate talks loudly to our Hispanic custodian who speaks perfect English.
  • I recoiled when a healthy, male job candidate greeted me with a soft handshake.
  •  I made an extra trip to the grocery store to buy chop sticks for my Asian dinner guests.
  • I assumed my neighbor was a member of the Tea Party when she indicated she was a Republican.

Think of the firsts in your life and career that determine your satisfaction and happiness-first job interview, first team tryout, first date and first conversation. Why do we rely so much on first impressions to influence our lives?

Blame it on laziness. Our brain tries to minimize the distractions we are inundated with in our information- obsessed worlds. As a result, it takes short cuts, often times relying on bias acquired from past experiences that inform us in the present. It leaves out certain data right in front of our eyes and over values situations from our murky pasts.

It pays to look both ways when crossing the street, right? The same advice should guide us when we meet people who are different from us for the first time.

Be careful of first impressions. They only go skin deep. The more important impression is what is inside.

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