First (Date) Impressions:  Why Physical Cues are Critical

Most of us understand the concept of making a “good first impression.” Whether it’s a first date or a job interview, people tend to make first impressions very quickly. In Psychology Today, Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. notes that recent research indicates the importance of first impressions. In fact, they may persist long after we learn more about a person, for better or worse.

First Impressions are Important

Anyone who ever had a bad first date knows how hard, even impossible, it can be to get a second date. We often evaluate other people quickly, based on the physical traits of others. For instance, we might equate someone handsome and well-dressed with success. Even when we receive new information that runs counter to our  first assessment (he dropped out of school or  claimed bankruptcy, for instance), we will often still stick with our initial impression.

The Halo Effect

One way to describe this phenomenon is called the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect comes from a study done in 1920 by Edward Thorndike. In the study, researchers found that when military officers evaluated their soldiers highly based on physical appearance,  voice, or physical carriage, they considered them to be better soldiers, with demonstrated leadership qualities.  

Soldiers who were rated low on these traits experienced the opposite effect. They were considered to be less competent soldiers and without leadership potential. The research showed that people do make significant judgements based on physical appearances. Those judgements clearly inform how people perceived another person’s other qualities and ability to contribute.

Physical Characteristics of First Impressions

A more recent study by researchers at the University of St. Andrews, found that people often gauge certain physical characteristics too, when making a first impression. These characteristics include:

  • Alertness:  If you look like you haven’t been getting enough sleep or are sluggish, you may unintentionally communicate a lack of intelligence.
  • The Eyes:  Another factor that tends to communicate intelligence is keeping your eyes open, which communicates alertness.
  • The Mouth:  A smile can go a long way to making a good first impression. But be careful, a very wide smile can make a person seem naïve. A more subtle smile, with a slight upward curve, makes you seem more friendly.
  • Static Facial Cues:  These are features of your face that you can’t change, such as the bone structure of your face or the shape of your nose.
  • Dynamic Facial Cues:  These are cues that you can control, like smiling vs. frowning.

These characteristics reinforce the earlier findings of the Halo Effect when making first impressions about people.

What Can We Do to Combat the Halo Effect?

To fight the Halo Effect, try to be mindfully be aware of what you communicate non-verbally to other people. For instance:

  • Use a mirror to practice different facial expressions.
  • Do a practice interview with a partner who can provide feedback.
  • Be mindful of specifics (smile, eye contact, well-rested, eyes open) during an interview or a first date.
  • Get plenty of sleep the night before an interview or big date.

We can’t change our static facial cues. However, we can be proactive and aware regarding our dynamic facial cues so that they better align with what we want to communicate.

This research reinforces what most of us already know from personal experience. People make snap decisions about others very quickly. Yet, these opinions can be difficult for someone to change.

By being more aware of what we communicate non-verbally, we can do our best to make sure we send the right impression at that job interview or increase our chances of having that desired second date.

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