The 10-Second Take

When it comes to reading people, a glance can tell us some personality basics, but don’t count on it if you’re looking for love.

By Pamela Weintraub, published November 3, 2015 - last reviewed on June 10, 2016

Randall Colvin is a social psychologist at Northeastern University who has spent a good chunk of his career looking at the accuracy of the personality judgments we all make, often rapidly, of others. He might be his own best case study. 

In 2002, following a divorce, he was looking for a new life partner. A friend suggested he conduct his search online at Browsing through the profiles, one in particular turned him off: a woman so glamorous looking she seemed to have popped off the set of Sex in the City, a far cry from the more scholarly, down-to-earth women he preferred. 

“She looked superficial,” he recalls. About a month after he posted his profile, an email from the glamour girl arrived in his inbox. But instead of seeming narcissistic and full of herself, she was sweet and communicative, and when they met, she appeared attractive but hardly an aspiring diva. In a single, kind email, the woman counteracted an unfortunate first impression. She is now Colvin’s wife.

Photo by Peter Yang

Colvin’s experience attests to the dozens of nuanced judgments we make, usually without our awareness, when we glimpse or meet someone new—about their trustworthiness, intelligence, competence, beauty, and ability to get close, all in a minute or less. We typically use our inner radar to guide our decisions about whom to hire, whom to love, even whom to elect. Conventional thinking holds that such first impressions are highly accurate, distilling the wisdom of the unconscious honed over eons of human history. 

“We look at a person and immediately a certain impression of his character forms itself in us. A glance, a few spoken words are sufficient to tell us a story about a highly complex matter,” pioneering social psychologist Solomon Asch, the archaeologist of impression formation, explained in 1946. “Subsequent observations may enrich or upset our view, but we can no more prevent its rapid growth than we can avoid perceiving a given visual object or hearing a melody.” 

First impressions, Colvin says, are most reliable for the broadest outlines of personality, the Big Five traits of extraversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Colvin, in slicing impression formation chronologically and scrutinizing its sequences, has shown that judgments about the Big Five made after knowing someone for a minute are usually as accurate as those made after knowing the person for years. Typically, he videotapes meetings between test subjects, including “judges” and targets. 

In five seconds, judges can easily pick up on extraversion and conscientiousness as well as intelligence and any negative affect. It takes only several seconds longer for judges to accurately home in on openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism, as well as on positive affect. 

Conscientiousness leaps out, Colvin says, because one of its most significant features is obvious: “These are people who stay on task.” Neuroticism and openness take longer to discern, presumably because there are few or conflicting clues in behavior.

Not every part of the encounter is equally revealing. The middle of the conversation, Colvin says, is most diagnostic of what people are like, because people need time to rev up and then they tend to wind down. “If two people are talking on a couch at a party for 30 minutes,” Colvin adds, “the sweet spot of the discussion, the part where you really see who the people are, will be at the 15-minute point.” 

However correct the impressions may be, they are just skin deep. “We learn the person is an extrovert,” says Colvin, “but not how many parties she attends. We learn he is depressed, but not why—not what happened in his life to make him feel so bad.”

Overall, Colvin finds, first impressions are spot-on about 30 percent of the time. If you cross the street every time you see a person with a scary face, he says, seven out of 10 times you’re just sidestepping a good person having a bad day. But three times out of 10, you’re avoiding someone who really is dangerous. 

Reading people is, in the grand scheme of things, brand new to humanity, a skill acquired only in the last 13,000 years, explains Alexander Todorov, professor of psychology at Princeton University. Before the agricultural revolution, everyone was known to one another in the small bands of hunter-gatherers in which people lived. Reputation, not impression, was how we assessed others. As a new tool, says Todorov, impression formation is still pretty crude.

Photo by Peter Yang

Ongoing research by others suggests that where stakes are highest—our choice of mate—first impressions may have the least utility. They count less for love than is commonly thought, reports psychologist Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University. 

A series of studies he has conducted over the past few years challenges the deeply entrenched belief that individuals tend to pair themselves with people who are overwhelmingly similar to them on a host of physical and other characteristics, especially attractiveness, that, taken together, sum up their so-called “mate value.” 

Throw a bunch of people into a bar and everyone will pretty much agree immediately on who is most attractive; there’s evidence we’re hard-wired to notice. Similarly attractive people may indeed wind up together. But in a study published in Psychological Science, Eastwick found that the longer partners know each other before becoming romantically involved, the fewer external characteristics they share. 

The more opportunity you are afforded to get to know someone over time, the more you wind up appreciating his or her unique characteristics. “We meet people through work and friends, and most romantic relationships start that way,” Eastwick points out. “There will be many cases where an initial attraction is strong and it goes away—and many other instances where the qualities you really care about create an attraction over time.” 

Time effectively dilutes the power of the first impression. In one set of studies, when Eastwick asked students in a small class to rate each other on mate value at the beginning of the semester, there was great consensus on who was “hot.” But when asked to rate their classmates again at the end of the semester, ratings were all over the map. 

“On the surface, this seems counterintuitive,” says Eastwick. “As people acquire more information about a person, it seems plausible that they would come closer to discovering the ‘truth’ and thus achieve more consensus.” When it comes to judging major personality traits, that may be the case. 

“But people’s romantic interpretations of a target’s behaviors are highly idiosyncratic—far more idiosyncratic than personality judgments,” he says. “So it makes sense that agreement about romantic partners should decrease as information accumulates over time. The longer people know each other at work or school, the less those first impressions count.” 

In addition, the researcher found, the longer couples know each other, the more their attraction grows—even when the relationship is just the product of a prearranged experiment in the lab.

Still other research shows that first impressions are surprisingly conditional on an array of contextual elements. For starters, like much of human cognition, our judgments of others are embodied; their formation is shaped—quite literally unwittingly—by aspects of our body beyond the brain. Hold a cup of hot tea or coffee in your hands and you’re likely to regard the next person you meet as unusually warm. Sit at a wobbly table, ride a shaky subway, or set sail on a choppy bay and you may judge your date unreliable.

Photo by Peter Yang

In one set of studies, University of Pittsburgh psychologists Amanda Forest and David Kille placed test subjects at wobbly work stations or on unstable seat cushions, or had them stand on one foot while considering possible new romantic partners. The qualities they desired in a mate varied with the stability of their perch. 

What’s more, the less stable their stance, the less confident they felt that a relationship would last. “If you meet someone on a roller coaster, you may literally perceive that person as lacking stable traits—even while craving stability more than ever,” Forest explains. 

The finding that subtle body experiences affect not only your perception of others but also your preferences in others is all the more significant, Kille says, because “mate selection is often viewed as a process that reflects long-term goals, not in-the-moment psychological needs.” 

Further, he finds, mate preferences can shift with transient states created by physical surroundings. For instance, meeting someone in a dirty environment can persuade you to see him or her as morally impure. 

Kille points to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in which participants judged the moral transgressions of others while siting in a clean room, a messy room, or a room “enhanced” by foul-smelling spray, or watched a video that involved a dirty toilet. The toilet viewers expressed greater moral condemnation than the others.

The presence or absence of physical warmth similarly sways first impressions. Psychologists Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale found that subjects holding a cup of hot coffee, as opposed to iced coffee, rated a target individual as especially warm and generous. 

The findings reinforce the enduring impact of early attachment experiences, the researchers believe. Attachment theory holds that warm physical contact between infants and caregivers is crucial to healthy development and lays the foundation for trusting relationships in adulthood. 

As Bargh and Williams pointed out in the journal Science, neuroscientists had already shown that the brain’s insula, a region deep in the cerebral cortex, processes both physical temperature and interpersonal warmth and trust. 

“The warm-cold assessment” is “the social perceiver’s immediate ‘first pass’” to evaluating whether the target individual could be “trusted as a friend or at least as a ‘non-foe.’” The embodied sense of temperature works at the very deepest level, activating memories of other feelings associated with warmth, like trust and comfort, “because of early experiences with caretakers who provide warmth, shelter, safety, and nourishment.”

First impressions are not only highly contingent on quirks of the environment and prior experiences, they are surprisingly shallow. Even as a graduate student at New York University, Alexander Todorov was fascinated by the social psychology of faces. Other researchers had shown that just a glimpse of a face would strike a strong impression, often based on no more than the shape of the person’s features. 

Thin lips and wrinkles at the eye corners elicited judgments of distinguished, intelligent, and determined. Persons who were baby-faced were perceived as physically weak, naïve, and submissive, although also honest, kind, and warm. 

The research showed that attractiveness was equated with perceptions of competence and intelligence—and masculinity with dominance. And the more a face resembled the viewer’s face, the more the viewer was predisposed to like it. 

After moving on to Princeton, Todorov, by then an expert in the psychology of public affairs, conducted one of his first major studies on the outcome of elections. Given the intensity of our media climate, he wondered, could images— prompting “quick, unreflective judgments based solely on facial appearance”—be more responsible for votes than what a candidate believes or says, despite the many millions of campaign dollars spent on disseminating such information?

Volunteers were asked to rate photos of previous congressional candidates for the trait of competence. Candidates perceived as more competent turned out to have won 71.6 percent of the Senate races and 66.8 percent of the House races—far more than chance alone would decree. Single-handedly, the trait of competence projected by an image had vastly more influence in determining the winner than all other traits combined.

Photo by Peter Yang

“There is no good evidence that trait inferences from facial appearance are accurate,” Todorov reported in Science. “As Darwin recollected in his autobiography, he was almost denied the chance to take the historic Beagle voyage—the one that enabled the main observations of his theory of evolution—on account of his nose. Apparently, the captain did not believe that a person with such a nose would possess sufficient energy and determination.”

In subsequent studies Todorov has parsed the first impression by having his computer generate faces that vary randomly in their parts. Working with hundreds of images of faces and altering them incrementally in length, width, and other dimensions, he can create differing impressions of trustworthiness, aggressiveness, dominance, attractiveness, and likeability.

Impressions of a single individual, Todorov finds, also vary by context. As he recently reported in Psychological Science, judgments of competence and even attractiveness varied more among very similar but not identical headshots of one individual than between different individuals. Change the camera angle, the mood of the person, or whether he or she slept the night before, and you change the impression. 

Most of the psychology world treats face images as truthful representations of individuals, Todorov observes, but “what we have shown is something that people in the business of image manipulation have known for a long time.”

First impressions are most unreliable when there’s a narcissist in the room. Narcissists are just plain hard to read. They make incredibly good first impressions. The glow, however, doesn’t last, says psychologist Delroy Paulhus of the University of British Columbia.    

In a much-cited study, Paulhus had groups of four to six students meet seven times for 20 minutes each. In the first session, the psychologists determined which of the participants were self-aggrandizing, a sure sign of narcissism, while group members rated each other. During the first six sessions, narcissists did well; they were judged agreeable, well adjusted, and competent. 

By session seven, the tide had turned. Almost everyone had come to see the narcissists for what they were—self-boosters who openly overestimated their abilities and skills.

Yet even in the face of the evaporating good impression, narcissism is a double-edged sword: While narcissists find it hard to hold the approval of their peers, they never waver in their own—overblown—opinion of themselves. That capacity carries with it a certain energy and persistence in the face of daunting odds. 

And with each new encounter, the narcissist gets the opportunity to wow people all over again. Narcissism may not be the best trait for sustaining a long-term relationship or a team, but narcissists do incredibly well in the short-term game—in seducing new lovers or in jobs like sales, where a quick hit can count. 

“The first fundamental impression is broad and superficial—good/bad, approach/avoid,” concludes David Funder, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside and a grandmaster in the psychology of sizing up. “It isn’t useless, and most of us are pretty good at it. “

In fact, he notes, “those who can’t do it we often label autistic. It could save our lives. It’s far better to base a decision on a first impression than the flip of a coin. But it’s rough.” 

It may not be a matter of life or death, but you can also spare yourself some trouble if you don’t go to job interviews on wobbly stiletto heels, don’t bring ice coffee to your business negotiations, and don’t stroll down a bumpy sidewalk on your first date. 

The Rules of Reversal

Even if they don’t seal your romantic fate, first impressions can affect other elements of your life course—how you fare in job interviews, whether you gain friends at social gatherings. In a well-known series of studies conducted a decade ago, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji showed that instant judgments can tug at us even after we think we have abandoned them. 

Still, however quickly and unintentionally implicit preferences can assert themselves, we’re not mindless robots. People have some flexibility, says psychologist Melissa Ferguson, who heads the Automaticity Lab at Cornell University. She is especially interested in how people form, and change, their impressions of others. She has a guy named Bob to thank for her findings.

For her studies, Ferguson introduces test subjects to a fictional character named Bob. Sometimes Bob is portrayed as good, with a list of a hundred nice behaviors: He helps a woman carry groceries. He donates time to a soup kitchen. He gives a ride to a friend. Universally, the first impression of Bob is good. When subjects find out he is convicted of a heinous act involving a child, Ferguson says, the good impression of Bob completely flips.

Other times, Bob does a hundred things that make study subjects see him as a moderately nasty guy: He hunts deer out of season, yells at his girlfriend in public, refuses to help a child fix a bike. Then it is revealed that Bob donated a kidney to a stranger. 

Here too, Ferguson’s subjects adjusted their opinion; they thought better of him, but they still did not think well of him. “They did not flip,” she says. “A single piece of extremely negative information undoes a positive first impression, but it doesn’t work the same way in the opposite direction. It takes a lot more to overcome a negative first impression.”

There is one way to overturn a negative first impression: discovering that we were actually mistaken in what we earlier perceived. Ferguson’s point man for this finding is a fictive Frances West. He is walking toward his neighbor’s house, trudging through mud. He opens a door, knocks over furniture and then takes precious items from the house. West, it is assumed, is robbing his neighbor and impressions of him are terrible. But if subjects learn that the house is on fire and the precious items are the children—if West turns out to be a hero saving children’s lives—then the bad opinion can be overcome. In that case, the bad acts were mistaken interpretations and never occurred; new evidence changes the story completely. 

“It isn’t the amount of information,” says Ferguson, “but the strength and diagnostic quality of the information that counts. Yelling at your girlfriend in the street is not as diagnostic, for instance, as mutilating a small animal.” If you inflict injury on an animal, there might be nothing you can do to earn your way back.

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