Should You Trust First Impressions?

A large body of research shows that when we meet someone for the first time, we make judgments about their trustworthiness and competence in a fraction of a second. We do this based on a variety of clues, including physical appearance, facial characteristics, posture, gestures, and so on.  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When you meet a stranger, you need to assess their intentions (trustworthiness) and their ability to carry out those intentions (competence, or strength).

Researchers also report that we are resistant to changing these first impressions, even when we see evidence to the contrary.

Are first impressions accurate? Yes and no

Surprisingly, these first impressions are often accurate—at least as they pertain to perceived trustworthiness and competence. Social scientists have compared people’s ratings of strangers for these factors to those individuals’ self-assessments and also the judgments of independent observers. Guess what? They match up pretty closely.

But—and this is a big but—there are two reasons why first impressions can be wrong. Dead wrong.

  • First, cultural differences of any sort (e.g., between people who are of a different nationality, race, ethnicity, etc.) can skew and invalidate first impressions.
  • Second, people’s perceptions of trustworthiness and competence can actually mask their ability to recognize other, deeper qualities and personality traits. Think about it—this is how “con men” are successful. They exhibit high levels of the warmth and interest in the other person that communicate trustworthiness—and also perhaps competence—which hide their dishonest intentions, lack of morality, and possibly intellectual shallowness.

Look at Jordan Belforte, who is the penny-stock swindler now portrayed by Leo DiCaprio in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. In real life, he had high levels of charisma—essentially an engaging, warm manner—and he also came across has highly knowledgeable about how to make money in the stock market (competence). But he was a narcissistic, amoral manipulator.

Which relationship mistake would you rather make?

When it comes to building your network and finding people with whom you may have a productive, long-term relationship, be very careful about first impressions. We can easily reject someone for the wrong reasons. Think about two types of mistakes you can make in forming new relationships:

  1. You invest in building a relationship with someone but it doesn’t work out.
  2. You reject someone with whom you could develop a terrific relationship, based on first impressions that were distorted by personal bias or other factors.

The second error is really the more serious and irreversible one. For example: If you’re young and single, you may reject a terrific potential partner because at first glance they don’t quite meet your narrow criteria for physical attractiveness. Or, you ignore them because you don’t think they’re rich enough.

On the other hand, if you are older and set in your ways, you may reject someone because they are not enough like you. The research that’s been done on teamwork and collaboration shows that we tend to pick people to be on our team who are just like us!

“I would never give anyone a blanket statement that they should trust their first impressions, or not,” says Tufts psychologist Nalini Ambady. “That’s too dependent on the person, the context of the first impression, everything.” In other words, be wary of first impressions. Get more information.

The power of differences

The most creative and productive relationships are often with people who are very different from us. Think about the nerdy engineer (Steve Wozniac) and the charismatic marketer (Steve Jobs) who together co-founded Apple. Your first impression of such a person may be negative, but if you try and find what you have in common—rather than focusing on what you don’t like about them—you may end up with a wonderful, lifelong relationship.

In my video, below, I talk about how misleading first impressions can be and I give some examples of how great relationships can emerge from differences.  I use the love story in one of Humphrey Bogart’s most famous films as an example.

Have you ever found that your first impression of someone led you astray? Leave a comment in the space below.

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