Are First Impressions Accurate?

Image: Pinterest

Have you ever met people for the first time and within less than a minute decided what kind of person they were or whether you liked them or not? Did you first impression turn out to be accurate, or did you change your perception later? Most people have had this first impression experience. Research in recent years has examined why this occurs and first impression accuracy.

First impressions are important, and surprisingly accurate, and yet at the same time they can also contain a healthy dose both of bias and misperception.

Some History

First impressions have been part of human behavior throughout the history of our species. It has been explained at various times as an attractiveness stereotype, self-fulfilling prophecies, or “good genes”, but there have been mixed findings regarding the accuracy of these explanations.

People make subjective judgments about others on a regular basis, consciously and subconsciously. But how much information can actually be gleaned from a glance at a face? The idea that internal traits can be displayed externally dates back at least to Aristotle, who states in Anaytics, “It is possible to infer character from features”.

In the late 1700’s, Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss pastor, published a series of essays which described what was known as physiognomy — which gained a great following into the 19thcentury. Physiognomy described the shape of the nose, the set of the jaw, the width of the forehead which were said to be how to understand whether a person would be well-suited to a particular occupation because those physical traits were directly linked to intelligence, or kindness, or perseverance. Such judgments are based on stable traits and facial characteristics, not on fleeting expressions, emotions, or interactions and a person would use those characteristics to determine a first impression.

Physiognomy fell out of favor in the late 19thCentury due to its association with Phrenology — the notion that one’s personality could be found by reading the bumps on his or her skull, which represented certain areas of the brain being larger or smaller. Upon opening the skull, scientists discovered that the inside of the skull is smooth — so bumps could not possibly represent areas of the brain — and thus phrenology was discredited, and it’s cousin physiognomy along with it.


What the Research Says

So what does more recent research say that could help us assess whether

First impressions are valid and reliable?

Writing in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Gordon B. Moskowitz and Irmak O. Okten have shown that the goals, values, and beliefs of others also have been shown to influence first impressions.

According to a study led by Jeremy Biesanz of the University of British Columbia, in Social Psychological and Personality Science there are two ways to be right about people’s personality. He argues that “we can know how people are different from each other, but a good judge of persons knows that people are mostly alike — for example, almost everyone would prefer being friendly to being quarrelsome. The more people rated their partner’s personality in a way typical of most everyone, the more accurate they felt their perception was.”

James S. Uleman, Steven L. Blader and Alexander Todorov, writing a chapter in The New Unconscious: Oxford Series in Social Cognition and Social Neuroscience, argue that social cognition literature conceptualizes impressions via a number of constructs. The most studied form of impression in social cognition is traits; people tend to form split-second impressions with regard to others’ presumably stable characteristics, such as trustworthiness and competence. They do this from others’ facial appearances and simple behaviors — for example, having observed a person taking an elevator up one flight, people may infer that she is lazy.

A study from researchers at the University of York reveals just how quickly we form these first impressions. “Facial impressions are relevant given that these occur very briefly (in as little as 33 milliseconds) and they are consequential, for instance, predicting government election results and influencing romantic preferences,” explained study author Jennifer K. South Palomares. The researchers showed that a single glance of a person’s face for just 33 to 100 milliseconds was sufficient to form a first impression. The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The findings are particularly relevant today, thanks to dating apps like Tinder that rely on first impressions. “We examined people’s first impressions of faces on three traits fundamental in the partner preference literature: trustworthiness, status, and attractiveness,” Palomares said. “An essential next step involves asking participants to evaluate faces based on their romantic partner preferences, so we can see which are the traits that are prioritized in participants’ facial romantic preferences.”

Princeton University researchers Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov published a study in Psychological Science that found by giving one group of university students 100 milliseconds to rate the attractiveness, competence, likeability, aggressiveness, and trustworthiness of actors’ faces. Members of another group were able to take as long as they wanted. Their judgments were the same for most of the traits as the folks who had only a tenth of a second.

Leslie Zebrowitz published a study in Psychological Science which examined first impressions fromthe facial information we use to judge other people. She asked participants in the study to rate faces in photos on personality traits such as dominance and warmth. She found that most judged the persons in the pictures the same way — and these results hold across cultures, suggesting that the processes we use for creating first impressions are innate. She argues that there’s evidence that infants and young children judge faces similarly to adults. As Zebrowitz points out, “incorrect first impressions can have significant social consequences. People with the ‘right’ kind of face are judged as more likable, knowledgeable, and capable. However, those with the ‘wrong’ kind of face are deemed unapproachable, incompetent, and untrustworthy. So your face alone can have a big impact on your social life, your career success, and even legal decisions. “ In her research, Zebrowitz has identified four facial cues that people use to judge the characteristics of other people: The first facial cue is “babyfaceness” — that is, having a baby-like face. The second facial clue is familiarity; we tend to judge people based on their facial similarity to other people we know. The third facial clue is fitness. Healthy people look attractive. We also assume they’re likable, intelligent, and capable. We think they’re good people to have as friends. The final cue is emotional resemblance. We’re very good at reading the emotional expressions of other people. However, some people have facial features that resemble emotional expressions. For example, people with lower eyebrows may just look angry, even when they’re not. Likewise, those whose mouths are turned upward at the corners appear to be happy no matter how they feel.

Physical appearance gives us clear clues as to a person’s personality without him/her ever having to speak or move. Women tend to be better than men at judging nonverbal behavior according to a study published in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology by Elliot Aronson and colleagues.

A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science from researchers at the University of York reveals just how quickly we form these first impressions. “Facial impressions are relevant given that these occur very brie[y (in as little as 33 milliseconds) and they are consequential, for instance, predicting government election results and influencing romantic preferences,” explained study lead author Jennifer K. South Palomares. The researchers found evidence that a single glance of a person’s face for just 33 to 100 milliseconds was sufficient to form a first impression. The findings are particularly relevant today thanks to dating apps like Tinder that rely on first impressions. The researchers also found that impressions of the traits of approachability, youthfulness/attractiveness and dominance can be formed from measurable characteristics such as the shape of and the spacing around the eyes, nose and mouth. It was found that first impressions of social traits, such as trustworthiness or dominance, are reliably perceived in faces.

Non-verbal behaviors are particularly important to forming first impressions when meeting a business acquaintance, according to research published in The Silent Language of Leaders:: How Body Language Can Help — or Hurt — How You Lead by Carol Ginsey Goman Specifically, components of social expressivity, such as smiling, eyebrow position, emotional expression, and eye contact are emphasized. Straightening one’s posture, leaning in slightly, and giving a firm handshake promotes favorable impression formation in the American business context.

·While what we infer from faces has been well studied, new research from The University of Texas at Dallas suggests that people also form first impressions from body shapes.Ying Nina Hu, at the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is the lead author of the study, recently published in Psychological Science. “We found consistent, reliable trait inferences from body shapes,” Hu said. “A wide range of bodies and personality traits were included, so we’re not just saying that, for example, body weight predicts a perception of laziness. The effective body features go well beyond that, extending to more nuanced features, such as shoulder width,” says Hu. Participants consistently linked pear-shaped female models and broad-shouldered male models — which both fit the classical gender stereotypes — with extraversion and irritability, traits classified as active personalities. More rectangular male and female models were presumed to be more passive, being described as trustworthy, shy and warm.

Once formed, first impressions tend to be stable. A review of the literature published in Advances in Health Sciences Education by Timothy J. Wood, on the accuracy and impact of first impressions on rater-based assessments found that raters’ first impressions are highly correlated with later scores, but it is unclear exactly why. One study tested stability by asking participants to form impressions of people based purely on photographs. Participants’ opinions of the people in photographs did not significantly differ after interacting with that person a month later. One potential reason for this stability is that one’s first impressions could serve as a guide for his/her next steps, such as what questions are asked and how raters go about scoring. Wood suggests that first impressions are so powerful that they are more important than fact.

Phil McAleer and colleagues in their study published in PLOS ONE concluded that people instantly judge others based on their voice. ”From the first word you hear a person speak, you start to form this impression of the person’s personality,” says McAleer. In his experiment, he recorded the voice of 64 men and women , reading a paragraph that included the word “hello.” He then had 320 participants to listen to the different voices and rate them on 10 different personality traits, such as trustworthiness, aggressiveness, confidence, dominance and warmth. What he found was that the participants largely agreed on which voice matched which personality trait. The pitch of the untrustworthy male voice was much lower than the male deemed most trustworthy. McAleer says this is probably because a higher pitched male voice is closer to the natural pitch of a female, making the men sound less aggressive and friendlier than the lower male voices. “What makes females sound more trustworthy is whether their voices rise or fall at the end of the word,” says McAleer. “Probably the trustworthy female, when she drops her voice at the end, is showing a degree of certainty and so can be trusted.”

Research from Italian psychologist Mariella Pazzaglia suggests in her article in Current Directions in Psychological Science our sense of smell helps us decide if someone is a friend or foe. According to the research, we determine if someone is in our family or social group by scent. If someone smells familiar, it’s a sign that they’re like us and could provide social support. But if they smell too different, we think they might not have our best interests in mind.

A study by Neil Howlett and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Marketing and Managementwhich had participants in their experiment examine the pictures of men dressed in various attire. They reported that men in tailored suits were rated as more successful. “On the evidence of this study it appears men may be advised to purchase clothing that is well‐tailored, as it can positively enhance the image they communicate to others,” the authors wrote.

In a study by John C. Thorensen and colleagues published in the journal Cognition students were shown video clips of 26 other students walking — some with looser gaits, some tighter. Students equated looser gaits with extroversion and adventurousness, while the more clipped walkers were seen as neurotic.

According to the research by Gul Gunaydin and colleagues published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, first impressions can last for months before they may be changed even though as Robert J. Rydell and Allen R. McConnell have published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology even in the presence of contradictory evidence about the individual being judged.

Contrary Views

“Research has found that first impressions are surprisingly valid,” says Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, Nobel laureate and author of Thinking, Fast And Slow. “You can predict very quickly whether you like a person and if others will.” However, first impressions are not perfect, and making a quick decision about someone can have consequences. “If your first impression is a mistake, it can take a while to realize this, as your expectations tend to be self-fulfilling,” says Kahneman. “When you expect a certain reaction you are likely to perceive it even if it isn’t there.”

In his book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Alexander Todorov pulls together all he’s learned about first impressions. His conclusion: “We find judging others based on a single glance irresistible, but the judgments we reach are usually wrong.”

Todorov reports that people can form a first impression from a person’s face in as little as 30 to 40 milliseconds. In his lab, Todorov generated faces on computers, which assemble them from features that have been shown to reliably produce specific impressions in viewers. And he and his colleagues found that 11-month-old babies are more likely to crawl to “trustworthy” faces than to “untrustworthy” faces.

Todorov explains, “We immediately form impressions from appearance, we agree on these impressions, and we act on them.”

That’s why CEOs who are deemed to look more competent get hired to lead more successful firms. And it’s why political candidates — in countries around the world — who look more competent win elections.

The problem is that even though competence is a look that many of us may recognize and agree upon, it only goes skin-deep. It turns out that the appearance of competence predicts higher CEO pay, not superior corporate performance. And I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about the actual competence of those competent-looking political candidates.

The problem of first impressions creating judgments that may be erroneous is amplified because of modern technology. Images on the screen can be altered and manipulated to create false impressions. Todorov has studied the effect that changing the shape of a mouth or the arch of an eyebrow or the height of a forehead has on first impressions. “We can do even better by building mathematical models of impressions,” he writes. “Using these models, we can increase or decrease at will the specific impression of a face, whether of trustworthiness or dominance or any other impression.”

“Across several domains — predicting sexual and political orientation, cheating, and aggressive behaviors — we find little evidence that our impressions are accurate,” reports Todorov.

Armed with this knowledge, what should you do? Be aware of your innate habit of forming snap judgments based on appearance, says Todorov, and look for other sources of knowledge about people. Take a cue from Billy Beane of the movie Moneyball fame, for example, and focus on performance statistics. Or institute blind auditions — a technique that led to the sudden influx of talented female musicians into the male-dominated world of philharmonic orchestras.

“The real map of the face is dynamic and constantly shifting, its interpretation rapidly changing in different situations” concludes Todorov. “As long as we remember that, we are less likely to fall into the physiognomists’ trap of seeing the face as a source of information about character.” He says: “Our results show that the mere statistical position of faces imbues them with social meaning — faces are evaluated more negatively the more they deviate from a learned central tendency, or what each person considers a typical face.”

He added our misguided first impressions are becoming more important in the digital world, where employers choose candidates based on their LinkedIn profiles and singles pick potential dates by swiping through photos on Tinder. “Ideally, you’d post different images on LinkedIn than you would on Facebook,’ he says. “Different images of the same person can generate completely different impressions. The person can look attractive and competent in one image and silly and not very smart in another.”

Research by Murray R. Barrick and colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that first impressions significantly predict employers’ behavioral tendencies during job interviews as well as their ultimate recruitment decisions . Specifically, employers tend to ask questions that confirm their first impressions about the candidates and treat them in ways that are consistent with such impressions. If their initial impressions of the candidates are positive, employers show a higher tendency to “sell” the job by providing information to the candidates about the job rather than gathering information from them. In turn, employers’ warmer behaviors typically elicit warmer behaviors from the candidates, and thus the employers’ initial positive impressions about the candidates are validated. Importantly, however, even in cases when a job candidate performs in ways that disconfirm employers’ first impressions, employers may fail to assess the candidate’s performance accurately, preventing them from changing their first impressions accordingly. Therefore, reducing cognitive demands in an interview context by using scripted questions or having third-party observers evaluate the interview process might be effective in fostering accurate impressions and judgments of a job candidate.

Why It’s So Hard to Shake a Bad First Impression

A study by Nadav Klein and Ed O’Brien published by The National Academy of Sciences. demonstrates that shaking a negative first impression is often diabolically difficult, providing just one more reason to make sure that you show up on time for your next job interview.

“Moral and immoral behaviors often come in small doses. A person might donate just a few dollars to charity or cheat on just one exam question,” the researchers explain. But how many positive or negative acts must a person undertake before we change our minds about someone?

Across five experiments, Klein and O’Brien found that this moral tipping point is asymmetric — a moral improvement takes a lot more work for us to notice compared to a moral decline, even if the evidence is we observe is the same in each case. In other words, “it is apparently easier to become a sinner than a saint, despite exhibiting equivalent evidence for change.”

“Put another way, these results suggest an asymmetry in the moral tipping point that truly depends on valence: it takes relatively few bad actions to be seen as changed for the worse, but relatively many good actions to be seen as changed for the better,” the researchers explain.

“People apparently need to commit just a few bad actions to appear substantively changed for the worse, but need to commit many good actions to appear substantively changed for the better,” Klein and O’Brien report.


So there is compelling research evidence to show that most people automatically judge people by first impressions, which may be hard-wired into our brains as a way of determining if the person is a threat. Second, most research experiments point to the relative accuracy of those instant judgments, although not 100%, and they are subject to cognitive biases. Also, the accuracy is affected by how much time we have to confirm our first quick judgment. Certainly, it is prudent for us to validate our first impressions by looking for more information that can confirm our initial judgment.

Follow me on Twitter: @raybwilliams




Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Scent Brand — Smells bring back memories

4 health benefits of psilocybin or “magic mushrooms”


Old Soul, Young Body, Open Mind

Pnl: Calibration and Supersense to become a mind detective.

Master any skill by sucking at this one

Why we forget most of what we read?

Economics of Dignity

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

More from Medium

How and why do we grow old?

An Intergenerational Exploration of Time

Affect: From Information to Interaction

Why I Pursued an MBA