The Science of Making a Better First Impression

... and why it matters so much.

Posted May 11, 2016

First impressions matter. Experts say we size up new people in somewhere between 30 seconds and two minutes. — Elliot Abrams

From the moment people first lay eyes on you, the process of "sizing you up" begins.   Whether you're being considered for a new job or as a romantic partner, even subtle facial cues can help form snap impressions about your personality, your intelligence, how attractive you are, etc. And these impressions often persist even long after other people get to know you better. Overcoming a bad first impression can be overwhelming—and many people may not give you a chance to try.

Just what is it that goes on during those first critical minutes?

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Life isn't always fair, unfortunately: Physical attractiveness is often the first things people consider when meeting for the first time, and intelligence is a close second.   Psychologist Edward Thorndike first identified what he referred to as a halo effect that can shape how we view others. In a classic 1920 study, he found that commanding officers asked to evaluate soldiers on a number of different traits often produced extremely uniform ratings. In other words, those soldiers who were rated as superior in terms of physique, bearing, or voice, also tended to be rated as superior in qualities such as leadership and loyalty. This worked in the opposite direction as well, with soldiers being seen as below average on one quality were often rated as below quality on all the others. 

Later researchers looking at physical attractiveness found that people seen as physically attractive are often judged positively on a wide range of socially desirable traits. Attractive people are seen as being more successful in life and as better spouses. They also tend to be regarded as more intelligent, although this may be truer for men than women given common gender stereotypes.  

For the most part, judgments about attractiveness and intelligence are often based on relatively stable characteristics, such as facial features or whether a person is wearing glasses. But what about more changeable physical characteristics, such as your facial expressions? Can these factors influence our judgment of how attractive or intelligent we find someone we just met? 

A new research article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests that they can. The article describes a series of studies conducted by a team led by Sean Talamus of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. These studies were designed to test how facial cues relating to changes in mood or mental alertness can shape impressions of intelligence and attractiveness.

In particular, the researchers focused on:

  • Tiredness. Research has already shown that facial cues reflecting loss of sleep or exhaustion can make men and women appear less attractive. Seeing people with droopy eyelids often projects the impression that they are less intelligent since people who are tired are often less mentally agile. They also appear sadder with the corners of their mouths facing downward and eyelids half-shut. While the reality may be very different, we often overgeneralize about the link between loss of sleep and intelligence from our own experience.
  • Eye size. Physical attractiveness is often linked to "baby-face" features that make people appear more youthful. According to research by Michael R. Cunningham, features such as large eyes, a small nose, high eyebrows, large pupils, and a large smile make men and women appear more attractive and contribute to a halo effect concerning qualities such as personality traits and altruism. Eyelid-openness can also make people appear more mentally alert and contribute to a higher estimation of their intelligence. 
  • Mouth curvature. A nice smile certainly enhances personal attractiveness.  People who smile are often seen as trustworthy, approachable, and willing to engage in friendly conversation. But different ways of smiling can convey different messages: A large grin can make someone seem naive, while a subtle smile with just a slight upturn in the curvature of the mouth can make people appear more intelligent as well as friendly. 
  • Static vs. dynamic facial cues. Along with dynamic facial cues that can be changed as needed, our static facial cues also shape how people see us. Static cues are based on more permanent facial features such as bone structure, facial symmetry, or perceived masculinity or femininity. These cues can affect judgments relating to physical attractiveness or intelligence as well.  

For the first three studies conducted by Talamus and his team, the researchers used a series of pictures of adults and children taken from a commercial reference agency. Though the original pictures all had neutral expressions, they were digitally manipulated to change mouth curvature and eyelid openness. For the fourth experiment, to test the validity of the digital manipulation, they used actual photographs of 25 subjects which were taken under normal conditions—after they had been deprived of sleep. Participants in all four studies were then asked to rate the photographs they were shown in terms of physical attractiveness and perceived intelligence. 

Across all four experiments, eyelid-openness and upturned mouth curvature boosted ratings of perceived intelligence for adults (Study 1) and children (Study 2), as well as in the third and fourth studies when participants were shown photographs of the same person under different conditions. These ratings of perceived intelligence appeared to be independent of whether or not the people in the photographs were regarded as attractive. Mouth curvature seemed more important in attractiveness ratings for children than adults but influenced ratings of intelligence for both children and adults.   Participants were also able to detect very subtle smiles which boosted their estimates of perceived intelligence.  

As predicted by previous research, while eye size boosted ratings of physical attractiveness, eyelid-openness was more important in ratings of intelligence. Perceived loss of sleep also reduced intelligence ratings overall. There were also important gender differences—females were judged as looking more intelligent than males though this didn't necessarily affect attractiveness ratings. This finding conflicts with previous research that tended to find the opposite—men being rated as more intelligent than women. While gender stereotypes are definitely changing, more research is needed to see if this can be replicated in other studies.

What do these study results actually suggest about first impressions? Although a wide range of facial cues influence how people see us, mouth curvature and eyelid-openness seem particularly important in first impressions of intelligence and physical attractiveness. Considering how important these judgments can be in scenarios like a job interview or first date, we often tend to forget how something as basic as a facial impression can undermine the impression you are trying to make. For children, loss of sleep or a poor mood caused by a bad home environment can lead to teachers seeing individual students as being less intelligent than they really are and are often treated as such.

So spare a thought about the first impression you make when meeting someone new. A subtle smile and a wide-eyed expression can be more important than you might think.

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