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First Impressions

From Online Dating to Job Interviews: Controlling your Image

First impressions are lasting impressions, so make them your best

Online dating, online job applications, job interviews, and meetings with important people put pressure on us to look as favorable as possible so that we can get the desired outcome. Impression management is a two-way street. We both judge and are judged by others. Often, these judgements occur in a fraction of a second. To achieve our desired goals, we need to learn the best ways to make those judgements work in our favor.

Consider the situation when you meet someone for the first time. Instantly you've registered important facts about that person. Taking into account the visibly apparent features of the person such as apparent age, gender, and race or ethnicity, you also try to judge the person's social class, intelligence, friendliness, and perhaps political persuasion, religion, or similarity to you.

In some cases, it's vitally important that you make that snap decision as quickly as possible. Let's say you're in a crowded place, carrying a heavy package which is about to slide out of your hands. Who will provide you with a friendly assist or instead, grab the package and run with it? How does your brain translate the complex sensory information you receive about people (height, weight, age, gender, facial expression) into a decision to ask person A vs. person B?

Most interactions involving strangers don't have this life-or-death set of demands, yet we seem programmed to make snap decisions anyhow. Research on impression management shows that even in casual social settings, the early conclusions we reach about other people tend to be the most persistent. Social psychologists have identified a set of influences on first impressions.

The first of the first impressions is known as the "halo effect." The first thing you learn about someone influences everything else you learn about that person. You can be given an identical list of adjectives describing someone if one list starts with "charming" and the other with "moody," everything else that follows will be colored by that first word. Your friend sends you an email about her cousin who is moving to your city. She describes the cousin as "Charming, witty, smart, artistic, moody and a bit flamboyant but also moody." Hmm, sounds like someone you'd like to meet because she could be a lot of fun. Let's say the email describes the cousin in exactly the same way, except the first adjective on the list is "Moody," and the last phrase is "but also cheerful." If she's moody, then her wit, intelligence, artistic flair, and flamboyance may mean that she's unstable. You could be in for a miserable evening if you decide to meet up with her.

First impressions can also be influenced by the second phenomenon, known as "assumed similarity bias." The term is pretty self-explanatory. You meet someone for the first time and make the assumption, correct or incorrect, that the person shares some of your characteristics, qualities, or beliefs. You and another person are waiting for an elevator. You're impatient and annoyed that it's taking so long. Turning to this other person, you express your annoyance: "These elevators are ridiculous; how long do they expect us to wait, anyhow?" For all you know, however, this individual isn't bothered at all and may even like having a few minutes to stand and reflect peacefully about life's meaning. Just because you're both in the same situation doesn't mean that you share personality quirks.

First impressions, then, can lead others to conclude that we're great (as in the positive halo effect) or boorish (as in the assumed similarity bias). How can we use this knowledge to create a more favorable impact on the people we meet? Specifically, people we care about-such as potential employers and romantic partners?

An entire literature on "impression management" is built on the premise that it is in our power to control the way others perceive us in these crunch situations. I've summarized some of this advice in an earlier blog posting on "Selling It" in the job or school interview. Much of this involves managing your nonverbal behavior including eye contact, hand gestures, and body language. Of course, managing what you say plays a crucial role as well. However, you also need to know how to work against the halo effect and assumed similarity bias to ensure that you present yourself in the best light possible.

You can make the halo effect work to your advantage by using the tactic known by bridge players as "playing from strength." If you're filling out an online dating questionnaire, take care to list your personal qualities in the order you want to emphasize from strongest to weakest. It's not a good idea to save the best for last, because due to the halo effect, the person reading your description may never get to the last. Similarly, in completing a job application, if you have a choice, present what you're proudest of first. In an interview or first meeting, the same rule applies.

Working against the assumed similarity means that you have to keep uppermost in mind that the person you're dealing with (potential employer, date) isn't necessarily coming from the same perspective that you are. You may live in a "red state," but for all you know, the person you're meeting with is as blue as they come. You don't have to be deceitful about your political preferences, but there's no need to jump to conclusions on the basis of an incorrect notion about someone else's beliefs.

The term "impression management" has a deceitful ring about it. Why can't you just be yourself- why do you have to manipulate your image just to get a desired outcome? Shouldn't people take you as you are? In fact, there are a variety of forms of impression management and some of them do have these connotations. In "assertive" impression management, people use tactics such as ingratiation and self-promotion to make sure that others like them. In "defensive" impression management, people account for past mistakes with excuses and justifications, or they may even lie.

The manipulative nature of impression management can put you in a quandary. If you present yourself in an overly favorable light, you might get in trouble later (when it turns out you're not quite as bright as you made yourself out to be). You might also feel that you're selling out because you haven't painted an authentic picture of yourself.

Surprisingly, there isn't a great deal of literature on the topic of impression management in online dating services. In 2006, a team of researchers headed by Nicole Ellison of Michigan State University interviewed a sample of individuals using an online dating service to learn more about impression management strategies. Many participants admitted that they felt torn between a desire to be totally authentic with the desire to present themselves as favorably as they could. How did they resolve this conflict? In some cases, they presented an aspirational or ideal self-their dreams instead of the reality of who they are. Another solution was to use the "foggy mirror," They look in the mirror and see not themselves as they truly are, but as the self they think they are.

It's a natural temptation for most people to want to be seen in as desirable a light as possible, although some people seem to be more prone to impression management than others. At times, making a positive impression can mean the difference between having a job or being unemployed, or having an active social life or being left to fend for yourself. The trick is to find the balance that works for you between playing up your best features while maintaining your own sense of integrity.

Here are five practical tips to follow in making your best impressions while remaining true to your own identity:

1. Play from your strengths. Being honest doesn't mean you have to put your weaknesses first. We know from research on the halo effect that the first words you use to describe yourself will have the greatest impact.

2. Avoid awkward moments of assumed similarity. You might or might not be like the person you're meeting for the first time, but don't assume that you are.

3. Make an honest assessment of the image you want to present. The dangers of presenting your ideal self or the foggy mirror are always lurking in the background. Be realistic, though not unduly harsh, in the way you describe yourself to others you meet online or in person for the first time.

4. Take advantage of positive impression management strategies. In an earlier blog posting, I discussed ways to "sell yourself" in an interview situation. You can still be honest while presenting yourself in the best light possible.

5. Remember that others are playing impression management games as well. In situations where you are doing the judging, learn to spot cues that will help you detect the deceitful impression manager. You'll avoid disappointment with those people later on.

Take advantage of the positive aspects of impression formation and be aware of the dangers of presenting yourself inaccurately, and you'll maximize your chances of fulfilling your potential in the online and virtual worlds.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Ellison, N., Heino, R., & Gibbs, J. (2006). Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Processes in the Online Dating Environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11, 415-441. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00020.x

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