Are First Impressions Reliable?

First ImpressionsWe just can’t avoid first impressions – we do it automatically when we meet someone new, and they do it to us. In fact, within the first minute of meeting someone, we have already drawn several conclusions about them and whether we like them. Are first impressions reliable? Where do they come from? What factors play into the conclusions we draw? Can we use first impressions to find love? Pamela Weintraub explores many of these questions in her interesting article “The 10 Second Take” in the December 2015 Psychology Today journal.

Although our first impressions tend to be broad, they can be surprisingly reliable for determining the “Big Five” personality traits of conscientiousness (organized, dependable), agreeableness (warm, kind), neuroticism (anxious, moody), openness (curious, creative) and extraversion (outgoing, social). According to researcher Randall Colvin, conclusions we draw about these Big Five traits within the first minute of meeting someone are as accurate as assessments made years into a relationship. Beyond these Big Five traits, Colvin also claims that our overall first impressions are correct 30% of the time.

Do we use anything other than our mind’s interpretation of physical appearance and personality to determine our first impression? According to new research, our first impressions are also influenced by external factors such as holding hot or cold drinks, sitting at a wobbly or stable table, or the dirtiness or cleanliness of our surroundings. They suggest that meeting someone while holding a warm coffee conveys warmth and comfort due to deep attachment associations we have between physical warmth and comforting relationships. Also, to meet someone while experiencing an unstable “base” such as a wobbly table, boat ride, or subway train prompts ideas of instability for the relationship, while meeting in dirty environments cause associations with immorality. Our minds therefore also draw on details from our surroundings and physical touch in forming our first impressions.

But that’s not all! We can also unknowingly use interpretations of someone’s facial features to form our first impressions. We determine things like whether a person is trustworthy, aggressive, dominant, attractive or likable by a quick assessment of facial features. Lips, eyes, wrinkles, prominent features and face shape all play into our first impression. And we tend to identify most quickly with faces that are similar to our own.

So should we use these first impressions to guide our selection of a mate? Not really. Although the tendency at first is to select a potential partner based on shared external characteristics, these outer appearances seem to matter less as two people get to know each other. Some new research has found that first impressions and initial attraction start to fade with time, as they are replaced by deeper knowledge of an individual and a greater appreciation for their unique traits. Their advice, then, is to get to know someone first – beyond the first impression – before becoming romantically involved.

The next time you meet someone for the first time, think about how you are forming your first impression of them. Is it based on their appearance, words, or facial features? How might your surroundings be influencing your impressions? And, even more of a challenge, what impression are you making? You have one minute to make a first impression – maybe a smile, solid table and cup of coffee can go a long way!


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