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Michael Woodward Ph.D.
Michael Woodward Ph.D.
First Impressions

The Psychology of a First Impression

Three tips for making a good one

"Dr. Woody"
Source: "Dr. Woody"

Researchers have found that we make decisions about people within seconds to minutes of first seeing them. Making judgements about others based on our initial observations is certainly natural. In all likelihood our inclination to make these snap judgements is rooted in our early evolutionary need to determine whether or not a stranger poses a threat. The ability to quickly recognize the expression on a strangers’ face and the intent their posture is signaling could mean the difference between extending your hand or running for your life.

Our reliance on first impressions has certainly become more nuanced over time clouding the accuracy of these snap judgements. Today first impressions are typically formed during initial face-to-face meetings like a networking event or job interview. Essentially you eye the person from across the room, then hear them utter a greeting as you approach, and finally make contact by shaking hands. To better understand the mechanics of the first impression I took a look at what recent research suggests about how our behaviors act to influence first impressions and how to better manage these behaviors for a positive outcome.

What You See in the Blink of an Eye

Researchers out of Princeton University have found that people make judgments about such things as trustworthiness, competence, and likeability within a fraction of a second after seeing someone’s face. In their study Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found that out of all the traits examined the participants judged trustworthiness the quickest (within 100 milliseconds). Even when given more time their judgments about trustworthiness typically didn’t change, which means our initial split-second assessments pretty much stick.

In a News at Princeton interview Todorov explained, "We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way." However, Todorov cautions, "The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn't stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance." This is why it’s good to walk into any first meeting feeling confident and comfortable because it will likely show on your face.

It’s All in Your Pitch… Voice Pitch That Is

Research out of the University of Glasgow from McAleer, Todorov, and Belin (2014) suggests that we make judgments about people’s personality based on the pitch of their voice. The researchers found that men and women who spoke with higher pitched voices were rated as more trustworthy and likeable. Although these judgments may not necessarily be accurate they do appear to be consistent.

However, speaking with a higher pitch isn’t always an advantage. Researchers out of the University of Miami (Klofstad, Anderson, & Peters; 2012) found that both men and women tend to associate lower-pitched voices with leadership and select leaders accordingly. The researchers note, “Because women, on average, have higher-pitched voices than men, voice pitch could be a factor that contributes to fewer women holding leadership roles than men.”

McAleer and his colleagues advise that, “People and algorithms may be instructed on the necessary alterations to obtain a desired projection.” In other words, learning to control your pitch may be a powerful tool for making the right first impression.

Be Firm, Just Not too Firm

It’s long been said that a firm handshake is critical to making a good first impression. Researchers out of the University of Alabama found that a firm handshake was related to such traits as positivity, extraversion, and emotional expressiveness. The researchers also noted that women can benefit from a strong handshake as it’s a good way to project confidence and assertiveness that is simple and not overstated.

However, it’s important to note that other research has shown that demonstrating dominance through such things as a strong handshake can negatively impact your ability to establish trust when first meeting someone. Being too firm can overstate your need for dominance and potentially put the other party on the defensive. In other words, that good ‘ole firm handshake may at times be a bit too firm, so be mindful of the trade-off.

So, next time you walk into that sales meeting, job interview, or networking event, be mindful of that first glance, moderate your pitch, and give a nice firm quick handshake.

About the Author
Michael Woodward Ph.D.

Michael Woodward, Ph.D. is an organizational psychologist, executive coach, and faculty member with the Institute for Management Studies.

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