First Impressions: Not Even Fact Can Change a First Impression

The good news is you’re in control of your first impression!

“We judge books by their covers, and we can’t help but do it,” says Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto.

A new study found that even when told whether a person was gay or straight, participants generally identified the person’s sexual orientation based on how they looked – even if it contradicted the facts presented to them. This new research suggests that first impressions are so powerful they can override what we are told about people. 

It works that way online too: researchers say that while we may be able to size up someone’s personality from a Facebook photo, it will often be more negative impression than one formed face-to-face. “If you want to make a good impression, it is critical that it is done in person,” says Jeremy Biesanz of the University of British Columbia. He says that is the bottom line of his new research looking at the difference in how we form impressions in person or online.

Appearance shapes everything from whether we ultimately end up liking someone to our assessment of their sexual orientation or trustworthiness. “As soon as one sees another person, an impression is formed,” Rule says. “This happens so quickly – just a small fraction of a second – that what we see can sometimes dominate what we know.” The less time we have to make our judgments, the more likely we are to go with our gut, even over fact, he says.

How we create first impressions is also important in the context of finding a romantic partner. The research suggests that in live face-to-face settings, people rely more on their gut-level evaluations of another person. “They focus on how that person makes them feel,” says Paul Eastwick of the University of Texas, Austin. “It is very hard to get a sense of this information when simply viewing a profile. This disconnect can cause confusion and distress in the online dating realm, as potential partners that seem terrific ‘on paper’ prove to be disappointing after a face-to-face interaction.”

But initial impressions based on viewing a single photograph still accurately predict how a person will feel about the other person in a live interaction that takes place more than 1 month later. Vivian Zayas of Cornell University says her new research shows that “initial liking judgments based on a photograph remained unchanged even after obtaining more information about a person via an actual live interaction.”

Rule says, “Not only should people not assume that others will be able to overcome aspects of their appearance when evaluating them, but also those of us on the other end should be actively working to consider that our impressions of others are biased.”

Category: Style


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