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Know the Science of First Impressions to Increase Popularity

What can you do to make yourself more likable?

Key points

  • Research suggests that “agentic” and “communal” behaviors are important for impression formation.
  • Being kind, emotionally expressive, and receptive to the other person leads to more likability.
  • Positive body language makes people want to get to know you better.

Most of us are driven by a desire to be liked. We meet someone new and hope we made a good impression. A great deal of research in social psychology has focused on the psychology of first impressions. So, what makes a person more likable in initial encounters?

A recent study (Dufner & Krause, 2023) had young adults meet in small groups and interact with each group member one-on-one, video recording those dyadic interactions. After each paired interaction, they rated the likability of the person they met. Trained observers then coded the displayed behaviors for “agentic” and “communal” behaviors. Agentic behaviors are those that suggest that the person is confident. It may involve cues of dominance and perhaps slight boasting. Communal behaviors are more oriented toward the other person–coming across as warm, friendly, kind, and polite.

Strangers who displayed high levels of both agentic and communal behaviors were better liked. However, participants preferred those who engaged in more communal behavior when it came to whether the person was interested in making a deeper connection with each stranger. [Of course, there are always individual differences, as some prefer the more “agentic types.”]

This all makes sense. In an initial encounter, we may be impressed with people who appear confident, in charge, and a bit prideful. For more long-term and deeper connections, however, most prefer those who display communal behaviors.

Our own research on first impressions found some similar results and expanded on this a bit. We found that in initial encounters, people were drawn to emotionally expressive strangers in their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language (Riggio & Friedman, 1986). We also found a sex difference whereby men were more drawn to women with expressive faces, while women were drawn to men with expressive body movements. In studies looking at potential dating partners in a video matchmaking organization and in a laboratory, emotionally expressive people–those who seemed emotionally “vibrant”–were more attractive to others (Riggio et al., 1988; Riggio & Woll, 1984).

How to Make a Better First Impression

Based on all this research, what behaviors increase one’s likability/popularity in initial encounters?

  • Bring some positive, emotionally-expressive energy to the encounter. This demonstrates that you are “full of life” and glad to be there. Smile. Be positive in what you do and say.
  • Show interest in the other person. The communal behaviors discussed earlier. Be an attentive listener. Focus on the other person, and be polite.
  • Maintain a slight air of confidence. Not overly prideful, but enough to show that you have self-respect.

The key to a good first impression is to leave them wanting more (of you).


Dufner, M., & Krause, S. (2023). On How to Be Liked in First Encounters: The Effects of Agentic and Communal Behaviors on Popularity and Unique Liking. Psychological Science, 09567976221147258.

Friedman, H. S., Riggio, R. E., & Casella, D. F. (1988). Nonverbal skill, personal charisma, and initial attraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14(1), 203-211.

Riggio, R. E., & Friedman, H. S. (1986). Impression formation: The role of expressive behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 50(2), 421.

Riggio, R. E., & Woll, S. B. (1984). The role of nonverbal cues and physical attractiveness in the selection of dating partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1(3), 347-357.

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