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Psychology

How Much Do First Impressions Really Count?

October 14, 2012 by Libby Laubscher in Psychology with 0 Comments

Do first impressions really count? Absolutely. And they count a lot.

The information that we glean from an instant of contact is immense. That instant conveys meaning that can be critical to our survival. It’s Darwinian, and it’s not exclusive to our species.

Why else would mimicry occur throughout the animal kingdom?

It is the first impression that tells the predator, “If you eat me, you will suffer.” It’s the reason tusks, teeth, and horns are featured. It’s the reason that in mammals, signs of fertility are prominently displayed for the opposite sex to analyze. First impressions count.

When a salesperson is making contact with a potential customer via a phone call, they are taught that it is important to smile. Even better, if you can generate a genuine smile, it will be received more warmly than a forced smile.

Research conducted by Dr. Amy Drahota shows that people can differentiate between four different types of smiles from the phrase “I do in the summer” without visual cues. The tone of the voice and quality of the intonation is enough to know what type of smile the person has and therefore, glean the emotional state they are in.

The first impression that is presented on paper must jive with the first impression when the candidate walks through the door.

Again, survival cues at their finest.

Consider resumes as an example of first impressions. An entire industry is based upon the quick glance that gets that informational packet moved into the “look more closely” pile rather than the trash. Resumes are the first impression, put on paper, that determines whether a person will have the opportunity to get a foot in the door in the pursuit of a job or a university appointment.

Dog-eared, coffee-stained, flimsy paper won’t suffice. There are critical components to this first impression including weight and color shades of the paper, font sizes, and layout of the information. And there’s a catch.

The first impression that is presented on paper must jive with the first impression when the candidate walks through the door.

There is a cohesiveness between the expectation and reality that employers are looking for. The first impression given with a successful resume can become an interviewer’s prediction about the person. And we, as humans, love a verified prediction.

Even in the face of bad news, a verified prediction makes us feel intuitive and smart.

So, if someone graduates at the top of their law school class and passes their law review with flying colors, he or she will shine in terms of qualifications on paper.

The image of conservative intellectual will be the impression that is expected by an interviewing firm. Should the candidate show up to the interview in cutoff shorts and with purple hair, the impression will be confounding and anxiety provoking.

Regardless of the brilliance of the candidate, the recruiters are more likely to hire someone less qualified who confirms their expectations and makes them say, “I knew instantly that he or she would be a great fit” (because I am so smart and intuitive.)

Yes, Beautiful Women Get More Help

A London based study compared the plight of two women struggling with luggage in a subway terminal. Both women had multiple pieces of baggage that they were trying to take up a large flight of stairs.

One of the women was a tall dark haired average woman wearing glasses and somewhat baggy clothes. Her confederate counterpart was a petite blond in a short skirt and bright blue, fitted sweater.

The average time it took for passersby to assist the women with their luggage was strikingly different.

beautiful woman 2

For the first woman, more than a minute elapsed on average for anyone to offer assistance, even when they were headed in the same direction. For the petite blond, an average of 20 seconds elapsed before a “gentleman” would grab up her bags to act as the knight in armour.

In fact, many of these men went so far as to pull out their wallets and empty their pockets of change when the more striking beauty asked these strangers for money.

It is not fair to assume that the difference in the times is based on men’s reluctance to help a less than stunning woman. While it may not be the first conclusion drawn, the reason the blond in the bright blue sweater was helped faster could merely be the result of a show of plumage.

The color worn by the petite blond may have been just enough of a sensory contrast to the surroundings to register in the brains of otherwise busy people. Plain Jane’s drab garb, unfortunately, may simply have not left any impression at all on the people around her.

So if we theorize that first impressions are a sensory experience, what can be said of auditory impressions?

Vocal First Impression

As previously mentioned, vocal tones of those smiling on the phone can be readily distinguished. Do other acoustical first impressions count? Much to the surprise of world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell, without the right set of expectations for an audience, not much.

Mr. Bell agreed to participate in a small social psychology experiment in the Washington D.C. L’Enfant Plaza metro station while in town to play at the Library of Congress. Armed with his world-renowned Stradivarius at both performances, the expectation was that a small crowd would quickly recognize the world’s top violinist, even when he was playing in the subway.

Unfortunately, even with the Strad as a cue to the musical accomplishments of the musician, passersby did just that.

They passed by.

A few threw change into the Strad.’s case or gave a brief compliment to Mr. Bell in transit. One man took a few minutes to stand against a wall to enjoy the talent, and one child had to be drug from the subway by a mother who needed to get to a job. But other than a few singular instances, the shaggy-haired, baseball cap wearing talent went virtually unnoticed.

He was just another street performer in that brief impression. Even with the added benefit that sound travels, so the impression was longer than a singular glance, Mr. Bell suffered the same fate as other street performers. He made enough money, less than $33, to afford a day’s worth of food from street vendors.

Those with significant artistic talent are often lucky because many societies forgive the quirky styles that come with overwhelming talent.

But, as Mr. Bell discovered, validation for his talent when in front of an audience that has sold out is after the fact. He knows before he takes the stage that each ticket holder has paid a high price for a brief exposure to his art.

Stick him on the subway with his violin, and like anyone else, he is just part of the rat race, fighting for attention and scrambling to make the impression that will earn him a dollar.

Perhaps the next time he gets involved in an experiment, he’ll break the tux out of the back of a closet. It might just be the value of a tux for the first impression that will allow the greatest violinist on earth to eat at a sit down restaurant after the performance.

Images by Mike Monaghan and Bhumika B

About Libby Laubscher

Libby Laubscher is an avid learner with interests in psychology, neurology, and individual evolution. She enjoys writing and finds her musings often to be filled with paradox. She loves puzzles and considers the mind to be the greatest puzzle of all.

View all posts by Libby Laubscher →

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