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First Impressions

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Human beings are built to size each other up quickly. These first impressions are influenced by a number of factors, such as facial shape, vocal inflection, attractiveness, and general emotional state. People tend to get attached to their initial impressions of others and find it very difficult to change their opinion, even when presented with lots of evidence to the contrary.

As a result, it’s important to be aware of how one comes across to others during a first meeting. Then one can employ impression management skills—modulating any irritating traits and accentuating one's strengths—to ensure that people have a more favorable opinion of one. Everything from clothing style and posture to conversational topics can be adjusted to form a better first impression.

How to Make a Good First Impression

It takes a mere seven seconds to make a first impression. People thin-slice others based on how a person looks and sounds, more so than their explicit verbal statements. Often, someone's first impression is influenced by implicit attitudes of which they are unaware, which explains impulsive actions like giving special preference to those with physical beauty or more easily trusting a person who has a babyface. The observational powers (biases) of the observer are just as important as the qualities projected by the target, or person being judged, making these judgments a constant dance between objective information and selective signal-reading.

How important is a first impression?

People will quickly judge others’ trustworthiness, physical strength, and intentions to do harm based on subtle facial and vocal cues. These traits may differ slightly across cultures; for example, some studies have found that Chinese societies form first impressions based on competence (i.e., perceptions of intelligence and social status) rather than on physical strength.

What kind of first impression do you make?

People tend to be self-critical after an initial conversation and wrongly assume they’ve made a bad first impression; experts call this tendency to underestimate one’s likeability the “liking gap.” People may also be fooled by the “spotlight effect,” which leads them to believe that others are hyper-focused on them, judging them for every imperfection, awkward question, or bad joke.

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Understanding How Others See You

The term metaperception refers to how an individual interprets other people’s perceptions of them. Thinking highly of oneself is beneficial; those who believe they are viewed positively by others tend to have higher self-esteem. Most people's metaperceptions tend to be fairly accurate since individuals generally have a stable self-concept that governs how they act around others. For example, if we believe that we’re friendly and likable, we will be more likely to act, or continue to act, in a friendly manner toward strangers.

How can you avoid making a bad first impression?

It can be off-putting when someone comes on too strong at first. Common mistakes include trying to reveal too much about yourself too soon, dominating the conversation, or placing unreasonable demands on other people you don’t know well. When it comes to first impressions, it’s best when the way you believe you are presenting yourself matches how others perceive you.

How do narcissists come across at first meeting?

Metaperception has been widely studied within the realm of narcissism. Narcissists tend to view themselves as confident, agreeable, and friendly. Their high self-esteem may make them seem charming and attractive initially, although this first impression quickly sours. In time, people typically see through to how self-involved and smug narcissists truly are.

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