The psychology behind first impressions

The four ways in which we first judge

Image supplied by: Photo illustration by Josh Granovsky

Think back to a time when you first met someone you now know well. Was your first impression accurate? 

Even though our first impressions can prove incorrect a lot of the time, we still can’t help ourselves from making them, nor can we avoid being judged in the same way by others.

So, what is it we look at when judging someone for the first time? And how can we make a good first impression ourselves?

When looking at the available scientific research behind first impressions, psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz said when we compare people’s snap judgments to personality tests, we find the accuracy of their first impression is often better than chance. Additionally outlined in Zebrowitz’s study is evidence children and babies make first impressions in almost the same way that adults do, judging specific facial features. 

In her specific research, Leslie Zebrowtiz has identified four main facial features and cues most of us use to make first impressions. 

The first cue is the presence of “babyfaceness.” Humans have an innate attraction to babies. We’re likely to find them appealing and tend to overgeneralize this special attraction to adults. Those who have bigger eyes, larger foreheads, short chins and rounded heads are more likely to be treated kindly and with the assumption they need special care. 

The second cue identified by Zebrowitz is “familiarity.” We tend to judge people based on who they look like. If you meet someone and they look like your grumpy grandma, you’ll probably assume they’re grumpy too. 

The next cue that registers for people when making first impressions is the “fitness” levels of a person. According to Zebrowitz’s research, specifically healthy people are thought to be more attractive and intelligent; we’re more likely to want to be friends with healthy people. Further, we determine this level of “fitness” based on facial symmetry and proportionality. 

Finally, Zebrowitz’s research outlines the “emotional resemblance” of a person affects someone’s first impression of them. Her research states most people are quite good at reading facial expressions, but others have natural facial features that seem to resemble certain expressions. For example, if someone has lower eyebrows, it’s often assumed they`re an inherently angry person.

Understanding Zebrowitz’s research concerning the nature of making a first impression, you might be doubting the success of your own first impression. Since the four major cues outlined deal heavily with physical features, it’s seemingly unable to be manipulated. However, there are certainly ways to use this knowledge to your advantage. If you’re going to interview for a job or network at a party, being aware of your own facial expressions can go a long way. 

At the end of the day, we can’t stop exactly what people are going to think of us and pre-conceived bias can always play a role in determining the success of our encounters. Still, being aware of how first impressions are interpreted by different people can only help us when meeting new people.




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