Why You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

The 'triple bias' so many of us are guilty of.

Posted Jan 02, 2016

mimagephotography/Shutterstock
Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

When people see you for the first time, their impressions form instantly on the basis of the visual cues your face and body provide. Within seconds, an impression of you is registered by others on the basis of your gender and race. They then go on to guess your approximate age. The final cue to the impression you make on others is provided by your appearance and how attractive they judge you to be.

While all this processing going on at once, it’s difficult to separate what influences what in the impression you make on others. Does race come first, or age? What about gender? How quick are others ready to decide on your gender, and from there, what they think of you? It's quite likely that all of these cues interact rather than being judged separately. And the overlay of your attractiveness in the judging process almost certainly happens simultaneously as well. Your total impression is a combination of all of these factors.

But people also judge you on the basis of your body language. You appear nervous if you cross your arms in front of your body, relaxed if you don’t, and self-confident if you stand up straight. Eye contact also comes into play: If you look people straight in the eye, you’ll appear not only self-confident, but honest.

If you’re trying to form the best impression possible, you can control your body language. By becoming conscious of your movements and tendency to look directly at others, you can alter considerably the way others gauge your abilities and personality. However, when it comes to the fixed aspects of your appearance, there’s only so much you can do: You can take care of your grooming and choosing flattering clothes, but there are structural aspects of your appearance fixed by a combination of genetics, lifestyle, and of course, the passing of time.

The topics of sexism and racism make up a large share of the psychological research on stereotyping and discrimination. A recent count of references in the database of my university’s online library for the term “sexism” revealed more than 3,200 scholarly publications. Racism receives even more attention, with a count of more than 10,000 published articles. Ageism is far behind, with just shy of 1,200 articles in print. These disparate numbers suggest that ageism is just not that high on the radar of psychologists, and probably even less so among the general public.

Yet, in practical terms, we know that ageism exists.

There are laws banning discrimination on the basis of age in the U.S. and the U.K., for example, that apply particularly to the workplace. Employers are not supposed to ask you how old you are or to use your age in hiring decisions. However, these laws don’t mean that ageism doesn’t exist in more subtle ways—for example, not giving older employees the same opportunities to get job training as younger employees would get.

This is what you don't realize about the impression you make on others: You are judged by your age. This in turn leads to judgments about your appearance and acceptability, and for women, especially, places you at a distinct disadvantage.

It doesn't have to be this way. In the U.K., a landmark case brought attention to the ways that ageism and sexism combine in the media (Spedale, et al., 2014). The producers of a BBC One show, “CountryFiles,” were accused of discrimination against the over-40 female reporters who were let go when the show decided to move to prime time from daytime. Older men were retained in the move, but the women of the same age (and younger) were considered not ready for prime time, as it were. Spedale and her coauthors, analyzing this case, brought attention to the notion of lookism as adding to ageism and sexism.

Lookism, or stereotyping people on the basis of how attractive they are, is more likely to occur for women than men, Spedale and her colleagues argue. They cite a fascinating paper by Granleese and Sayer (2006) on the way that lookism in academic settings leads to prejudiced decisions against older women faculty members. You might not imagine that looks are as important in academia as they are on television, but according to Granleese and Sayer, such bias is rampant in university departments:

“… as women’s attractiveness and youthfulness are undeniably related in western culture, more so than applies for men, it is likely that this factor may be reasonably internalised within the concept of gendered ageism. Thus, a 'triple jeopardy' may exist for women of sexism, ageism and appearance, i.e. 'lookism.'" (p. 502)

As a result of this triple jeopardy, aging women in the workplace experience a dilemma: Do you work even harder than you did when you were young to uphold a feminine, youthful ideal? Or do you resist and refuse to be defined by your appearance? The more women buy into the need to look young and attractive, Spedale et al. argue, the more they become “active agents of further stereotyping” (p. 1597). Ironically, buying into the stereotyping doesn’t guarantee that women will be able to resist discrimination, either. In the academic world, another paradox appears: Women who dress fashionably and attempt to enhance their looks stand out from their male counterparts, yet women are judged by their appearance nonetheless.

You’ve got a choice, then, when it comes to handling lookism, ageism, and sexism: One is to give in to the stereotype and resist looking “old and unattractive” for as long as you can. This has the psychological cost, however, of causing you to distance yourself from your true identity. There’s no reason you should have to disguise the fact that you’ve lived on this planet longer than others. Your true self may be 40, 50, 60, or older, so why should you have to pretend you’re 30? On the other hand, by disguising your age, you won’t be as subject to lookism and you may be able to sail on in your current role.

It’s possible that awareness of these triple threats will lead to changes in the way older women will be perceived and treated. The same can apply to men, to the extent that they suffer from similar age and appearance biases. We might eventually be able to overcome the “tyranny of the visual,” as stated by Spedale et al. (p. 1599). Enforcing laws against discrimination in the workplace, as in the BBC case, can also help. By changing the behavior of employers, we can hope for ripple effects to spread elsewhere in society.

Consider, also, what happened when 59-year-old Carrie Fisher appeared as her real, aging, self in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. She took on the media in response to massive online body-shaming (and face-shaming). Showing that men may be relatively immune to ageism, consider that no one thought that 73-year-old Harrison Ford needed anything other than ordinary Hollywood makeup to disguise his mature appearance. Legal cases may prove valuable, but by bringing attention to the issue with her celebrity status, General Leia may pave the way for aging women to find fulfillment in accepting themselves, wrinkles and all.

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.

References

  • Granleese, J., & Sayer, G. (2006). Gendered ageism and "lookism": a triple jeopardy for female academics. Women in Management Review, 21, 500-517. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/09649420610683480
  • Spedale, S., Coupland, C., & Tempest, S. (2014). Gendered ageism and organizational routines at work: The case of day-parting in television broadcasting. Organization Studies, 35, 1585-1604. doi: 10.1177/0170840614550733

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016