As humans, first impressions are very important. While we’ve heard that someone makes their first assumptions of you in the first 60 seconds of meeting, latest research by psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University have found it’s much much quicker than that. In fact it’s thought to happen within a tenth of a second.
In other words, it’s our facial appearance that will make or break a first impression with our brains instinctively looking for likeability, competence, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness.1
So can a negative first impression in that valuable blink of an eye be reversed?
We All Judge and Make Assumptions
We don’t make judgements out of spite. It’s the human instinct to survive that causes us to make a decision to judge in order to decide if a particular person is worth keeping around or not, as quickly as possible.
There are a couple of things going on in the brain here: our lack of relevant memories we hold with a new person causes the brain to compensate for the lack of information. It therefore tries to make connections through what we see and hear together with past experiences. This is the survival mode kicking in that helps us make that decision on whether it’s someone worth meeting again and weighs up the value of the person to us.
What Can Influence People’s Perception?
You may think what you see is a big factor in first impressions and, of course, it is. But have you ever formed an opinion of someone you’ve never met just by listening to someone else’s opinions of them? This is because the brain tends to make up stories or imagine information strongly based on our deep-rooted thoughts and beliefs.
As a result, when you do meet someone after hearing opinions about them, everything they do will tend to further reinforce that imagined impression. If they happen to act in a different way, the brain will assume it’s just an exception in the moment.
This is why, when you form an impression of someone you’re about to meet, it can be very difficult to change how you think about them. Most of the time we are unaware this first impression bias is going on. If you’ve heard Fred is a forward-thinking entrepreneur and you’re ideas of forward-thinking entrepreneurs tend to be aggressive, cut-throat, confident people, Fred will have a hard time convincing you differently even if he shows he’s none of those things. This isn’t because you’re a terrible person; it’s the first impression bias taking over.
Override The First Impression Bias
We all want to make a good first impression with anyone we meet and one of the most common ways to do this is to give a compliment. Compliments are little gifts you can give others especially when they’re meaningful and genuine. However, there is a danger to giving compliments to people you first meet. It’s nothing to do with you and everything to do with them; people tend to discount your efforts because they suspect you are intentionally trying to influence them through flattery even if this isn’t your intention. A way to get around this is to get someone else to pass on the compliment. This naturally reduces skepticism.
The third party route can work the other way; getting someone to say something good about you. This is because it psychologically shapes their idea of you in a positive light. This is a strategy that will instantly help you mingle with people who you haven’t met before as they’ll subconsciously like you from what they’ve heard. Of course, this can go against you if someone was to bad-mouth you (even unintentionally) and as a result people will naturally be more wary and closed off towards you.
There are some things to keep in mind when doing this:
- Never force anyone to speak about you. A compliment through a third party must always come from the heart. Asking a friend to do something they don’t want to do won’t come from a genuine energy. It could also backfire and cause that person to end up saying negative things about you. Just make sure you choose a person who knows you really well and would love to emphasise your positive attributes.
- Choose the type of compliment wisely. Make sure the compliment isn’t aimed at anything superficial like looks. Whether it’s a romantic opportunity or just friendship, it’s our personality that forms deep connections. So make it more about how kind, helpful or fun you are. This will cause less judgement in advance than your outward appearance.
- Don’t lie or exaggerate. It can be tempting to build yourself up to others in order to give a good impression but this only lasts in the short term. Getting someone to lie will never turn out well because people will always notice eventually if something doesn’t match up. Make sure the compliment is genuine and coming from a good place.
So, while a tenth of a second is all it takes to make a judgement (and something we can’t really control) the best way to counteract any possible negative conclusions someone makes of you, is to use the third party tactic. Sowing the seed first will allow someone to form a more positive opinion of you and will help give you a head start by eliminating the brain’s tendency to judge on a first meeting.