Health

Your First Impressions of Most People Are Totally Wrong

An expert on human interaction debunks your gut instincts.

by Mike Zimmerman
Jun 9 2017, 5:00pm

Christopher Stevenson / Getty Images

"I knew he was bad news the moment I laid eyes on him." Surely you've heard that before, or said it yourself. And we hear a lot about the importance of making a good first impression, the crucial first seconds that can make or break a job interview, or a first date. It's what drives us to put our best photos forward on job boards, dating sites, and social media. What other people think when they first see your face can, quite literally, change your life.

Those moments are what drives the research of Alex Todorov, a professor of psychology at Princeton and author of the new book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions. He's been studying human interactions for years—first impressions, how we judge someone to be trustworthy, how we can change our initial thinking—and his research uncovers some startling impressions about first impressions: More often than not, they're wrong. And it's usually not even close. Why? We asked Todorov to explain.

It's good that we're doing this interview by phone, otherwise we'd have to deal with your face-to-face first impressions.

Todorov: [Laughs] It's true, I have no idea what you look like.


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And that's a good thing. But it's fascinating that you've found how wrong we can be when we first see someone's face.
It's obviously a complex story, but the reason we trust first impressions automatically is that they feel right. The reason we're often wrong is that these impressions are not accurate as inferences of character. There are situations where they could be accurate in the here and now. For example, from computer models we see that impressions come from emotional expressions. Faces that look happy, even if they are not grinning, we tend to perceive as trustworthy. Faces that look somewhat angry, we tend to perceive as untrustworthy. In one chapter in the book, I show pictures of people who have had a good night's sleep and some who are sleep deprived: Droopy eyes, skin pale, corners of the mouth turned downward. The people who see the sleep deprived people think, This guy's not very smart. But obviously that judgment would be a poor predictor of how a person is across time and situations.

We accept our snap judgments as fact, but what you're saying is that we're inadvertently screwing up our lives?
Possibly, yes. We never rigorously test our hunches. Walk into a party and if you decide the first person you see looks unfriendly, you won't want to talk to them. You'll never find out whether you're right or wrong. We never say to ourselves, "Hmmm, I should find out if my hunch is right or not." If anything, we look for confirming evidence to reinforce our preconceptions.

This is huge when you think about how we scroll through people on LinkedIn or dating sites.
Absolutely. We're now a digital culture saturated with images. People will draw inferences from your images. Ideally, you'd post different images on LinkedIn than you would on Facebook. I remember some study showing that employers will often check prospective employees' Facebook pages and this is deeply problematic. If you don't have the right privacy settings, the images you post for friends won't be different than the images that the employer will see. I write about this in the book. Different images of the same person can generate completely different impressions. The person can look attractive and competent in one image and silly and not very smart in another.

Which is why no one ever saw a mug shot in the news and said, "I want to meet that person."
Exactly! People do this all the time, but what if you see a normal photo of the same person? I talk about Jared Loughner, the guy who tried to murder the Arizona congresswoman [Gabrielle Giffords] and killed six people. His mug shot looked crazy. It was on the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post, everywhere. It was the face of evil. But The Guardian ran a completely different picture of him and I have both images in the book. In that second one he looks completely normal. But this normal image doesn't fit the story.

Would you say that our first impressions reveal more about us than they do the person being judged?
Yes, one of the points of the book is that these first impressions reflect our own biases. At the very least, you should be skeptical about your first impression. Generally, just take it with a grain of salt. And that's a hard thing because many people assume their first impressions are right, that they can judge the good from the bad, but the exact evidence suggests that's not the case. And there are lots of biases. There's evidence that we tend to like faces that are typical to us. But typical depends on where you're from. Masculinity and femininity also affect first impressions, so you have to be aware of gender stereotypes.

So we should check a person out anyway even if our first impression says, "Run fast, run far."
[Laughs] In most situations, I agree. If you're at a party and your instinct is to turn away, you might miss your life partner. You see a new neighbor and decide he's not a nice person, well, you're going to live with him for years. How you treat this person at first may be the source of conflict going forward instead of pleasant cohabitating. Same goes for employment, especially when you have good information about the person that helps predict future performance. A good real-life example is the Michael Lewis book Moneyball about Billy Beane (the Oakland A's general manager). The whole reason Billy Beane has been successful is that he exploits the prejudices of appearance. He recruits players who just don't look the part, so their real talents are undervalued.


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