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First Impressions

There May Be More to First Impressions Than You Realize

A new comprehensive look at first impressions shows why yours might be wrong.

Key points

  • There are four basic categories of judgments when people form first impressions: informational cues, motives, processes, and outcomes.
  • First impressions shape immediate judgments as well as lasting perceptions that can influence a person's trajectory.
  • First impressions often need to be revised based on new information at different intervals of the relationship.

There’s a certain mystique about first impressions that leads some people to believe that they’re good at judging others by a single glance. How true is this?

Consider the following examples. You might be in a position to decide whether to hire someone to do a job for you, such as pet-sitting your beloved cat while you take a short vacation. Perhaps, instead, you want to sell a household item via a local online service. Before making a final decision, you agree to meet face-to-face. You feel confident you can trust your gut, so when a little voice inside you says to go ahead or stay away, you make your choice almost instantly.

Conversely, you might be the person whose fate is in the hands of someone else whose decision it is to accept or reject your offer of services or purchase. Since you think you’re so good at judging others, you devise the situation so that you will seem as appealing as possible. You decide what to wear and whether to let your tattoos be in plain view or behind a long shirt sleeve. Should you wash out that temporary purple hair dye?

The process of forming first impressions may seem both simple and intuitive. However, according to a new comprehensive review paper by University of Florida’s Brian Swider and colleagues (2021), deciding on who to trust or not can be fraught with complexities and nuances. Examining the published literature within the framework of occupational psychology, Swider and his team lay out the many variations that can influence the quality of a first impression with results that might surprise you.

The 4 Fundamental Elements of a First Impression

It’s important to point out right away that the Swider et al. model was developed in job settings, and so is intended to apply to decisions made with respect to situations such as hiring and business negotiations. However, because people make similar decisions in the course of their daily lives outside of work such as the examples of the cat sitter or the home item purchaser, their framework can be viewed from this broader perspective.

To begin with, the research team observes that “first impressions at work not only impact immediate judgments and behavioral responses but can also have profound, long-term impacts on individuals and their careers.” This very statement should give you pause the next time you’re about to rush into a judgment. True, the cat sitter might only be coming to your house for a few days or that online purchaser might very well pick up the item, pay you, and leave without ever seeing you again. But it’s also possible for something to go very wrong in either situation, leaving you with longstanding problems in the worst case or at least a nuisance that can last for weeks.

Putting yourself in the position of the one to be hired or trusted, you also know that decisions involving your fate can have significant implications. In the case of seeking employment, if a job interview goes badly, you can suffer economic consequences that make your life difficult as you’re trying to make ends meet. On the other hand, if you’re chosen for a position, you’ll now be in a life trajectory that would be very different than if you weren’t. You might meet people on the job who become your friends for life or possibly a relationship partner who happens to work in a different worksite in your building.

As you now think about the potential impact of such snap decisions, consider next the Swider et al. framework’s 4 elements:

1. Informational cues: These are, in the words of the authors, “observable attributes or stimuli that are exchanged and perceived early in interactions to create inferences.” Examples of informational cues include facial characteristics, height, and weight, which are inherent in your appearance as well as intentional manipulations of your appearance such as facial piercing, tattoos, hairstyle, and choice of clothes. You also provide information by virtue of your communication style, including such nonverbal cues as your handshake.

Since first impressions can cut both ways, you also make your own judgments about people on the basis of this observable “data.” At the same time, decisions based on first impressions also can vary according to perceived similarities and differences between the two parties. People who adopt similar styles of dress and who seem to come from similar backgrounds might be more drawn to each other than those who are polar opposites.

2. Motives: The “goals one seeks to make progress toward or attain during the initial interaction” further drive the first impression process. The two basic first impression motives that people emit or respond to are those cluing competence and those cluing warmth. Depending on the situation, you might want to seem competent rather than warm, and vice versa. Similarly, the person you’re judging might put you off by seeming so determined to appear competent that they seem unfeeling. After all, you might want a cat sitter who knows how to open a can of food and be sure to lock up when they're done, but don’t you also want someone who will spend a few minutes soothing your lonely creature?

3. Processes: There’s an interactive effect of cues and motives that Swider et al. define as the “process” of first impressions. As the person giving off the first impression cues, you may try to determine which will have the greatest impact on the choice. You’ll do this in a way that you hope will fit with the expectations of the person making the decision and try the best you can to provide cues that you think will have the desired impact. As the perceiver, you’re rapidly encoding the information presented to you to see if there’s a match between what you need from this person and what you think they’ll provide.

4. Outcomes: What is the result of the previous three phases? If you’re the one doing the hiring, you have to determine whether to go with this person, and according to Swider and colleagues, you’ll base this on whether you think your goals can be achieved. If you’re the one in the hot seat, the person choosing you will go through a similar process. As time goes on, you’ll continue to be judged when it comes to decisions about future promotions, hiring/firing, or establishment of a solid, trusting relationship.

What Makes for a Valid First Impression?

With these elements in place, now consider whether the “right” or “wrong” choice will follow from the first impression. Indeed, the team notes, how can you even decide whether a decision is valid or biased? A valid decision would be one in which the perceptions match the “facts.” You’ve sold your precious bedroom dresser to someone who writes back with a warm thank-you and expresses pleasure at how well it fits into their apartment. Your cat seems healthy and happy on your return. That new person you meet in your building ends up becoming your long-term romantic partner. Clearly, these were good decisions.

A “wrong” decision, would be a hunch that turns out to cause you to experience a harmful outcome. However, given that so much of first impressions are based on subjective factors, a wrong decision could also be a biased one. What if you were rejected from a job that you were perfectly qualified for because you wore the wrong outfit to your interview or that tattoo started to peek out of your shirt sleeve? What if you were the one to make a biased decision and therefore missed out on a great opportunity due to some little cue from the person being misinterpreted?

If you think you’re a great judge of other people and you’ve committed an error in your decision, the next question becomes what you do next. Ideally, you can revise your tendency to rely on hunches to try to become more open to alternative interpretations. You’ll learn not to be so hasty and instead take in more facts before making a choice. You could ask for references for the next cat-sitter, or check the online ratings of that potential furniture buyer.

Taking time before rushing into judgments would seem to be the best bet for you to protect against mistaken decisions in the future. Swider et al. lay out a model based on length of first impression beginning with the shortest ranges of from zero seconds (checking into someone online) to as long as six months. In a job setting, these longer intervals can include judgments of performance (two days), personality (two weeks), match between job interview impression and behavior on the job (six weeks), justice/fairness (three months), and trust (up to six months). You may not want to take six months before deciding on that cat sitter, but you might ask for a second meeting before making a commitment.

The greatest caution, based on this examination of the literature, would seem to be that you avoid what’s called the “primacy effect,” in which you let your first impression dominate all your later perceptions of a person regardless of what happens as the situation unfolds. Rather than place too much confidence in your hunches, try to take a more measured and objective approach as you learn from the outcomes of the decisions you make about people.

To sum up, there’s no way to avoid making decisions about people, whether you’re the judger or the one being judged. Knowing the limitations of the judging process can help you turn your first impression into your best impression.

References

Swider, B. W., Harris, T. B., & Gong, Q. (2021). First impression effects in organizational psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000921

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