The science behind first impressions, why we’re quick to judge and how appearance is key in developing trust.
First impressions are so key to success in any relationship, whether you’re closing deals or looking for someone to spend your life with. There’s a commonly quoted statistic that we make our mind up in the first seven seconds of an interaction.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink outlines how often our snap decisions and judgements are often correct – it’s our rationalising and prevaricating that steers us wrong. We rely deeply on our first impressions and, once formed, we find it difficult to change them.
Some research suggests a tenth of a second is all it takes to start determining traits like trustworthiness. As we’ll see, we have strong evolutionary reasons for needing to make snap decisions that we can trust.
Why Do We Trust Our First Impressions?
There are very good reasons for trusting our first impressions and for those impressions to err on the side of caution.
Back in the day, when life was more precarious and resources were scarce, we often risked our lives just going out to find food, hunting among wild animals and potentially meeting hostile others competing for the same things. In these early situations, the risks were life and death. In this interaction, it makes complete sense to err on the side of caution. You only need to be wrong once to die. If you choose a cautious path, it could be the wrong one, but you’ll be able to try again the next day.
It’s safer to be wrong the one way than wrong the other.
Consider the turkey problem, regularly referenced by Nassim Taleb:
“A turkey is fed for a thousand days by a butcher; every day confirms to its staff of analysts that butchers love turkeys “with increased statistical confidence.” The butcher will keep feeding the turkey until a few days before Thanksgiving… [The] turkey will have a revision of belief— right when its confidence in the statement that the butcher loves turkeys is maximal and ‘it is very quiet’ and soothingly predictable in the life of the turkey.”
Risk doesn’t live in the past; it lives in the future. Just because something didn’t happen the day before, or the day before that, or the 364 days before that, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen today.
The same applies to trading money. The point is to be around to trade the next day. Once you lose everything, you can no longer play, like Russian Roulette. This used to manifest out in the wild and is the reason for our reliance on first impressions – they were once a matter of life or death.
If there was a risky scenario as a hunter gatherer, the prudent thing to do is to leave at the slightest sign of risk and be alive to hunt the next time. You only needed to be wrong once to lose your life. As the majority of our time as a species on this planet has been spent in this manner, we are hardwired to make quick judgements that save our skins! Now though, the stakes are different and our first impressions need to be more nuanced.
The Science of Developing Trust
When we meet someone for the first time, we are met with so many possibilities; do we judge by their appearance? By their handshake? By their looks? By their voice or by their clothing? There are a lot of variables.
So what do we need to decide in that interaction?
Studies of first impressions from Amy Cuddy, a psychologist at the Harvard Business School, found that our first impressions of other people provide the answers to two main questions:
- Can I trust this person?
- Can I respect this person’s capabilities?
Cuddy concluded that 80-90% of a first impression is based on these two traits. Two people who meet are questioning, “Can I trust that this person has good intentions toward me?” and “Is this person capable?” These are the main questions we ask when looking at developing trust and maintaining it.
Interestingly, we want to see the possibility of developing and maintaining trust more than we want to see competence – the content of their character is more important than their ability. If there’s no trust, people actually perceive competence as a negative. We become deeply distrustful and even find a person more threatening if we perceive them to be competent when trust doesn’t exist. Cuddy states,
“A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve achieved trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”
Establishing trust is so important as we also find it difficult to alter our first impressions, with good evolutionary reason! We’re going to see, though, that these impressions can, of course, be incorrect.
Why Are First Impressions Sometimes Wrong?
The two main ways we can get them wrong:
- Through misinterpreting cultural differences of any sort (different nationalities, races, ethnicities). We don’t have the familiarity with other cultural norms and so misunderstandings are easy to come by.
- Through creating trust too quickly. Perceptions of trustworthiness and competence can actually prevent us from recognising other qualities and personality traits. Con men (think Catch Me If You Can or The Wolf Of Wall Street – why is Leonardo DiCaprio such a good conman?!) are a good example of using first impressions as a mask for nefarious purposes. They exude warmth, trustworthiness and competence, cloaking their true intentions, their amorality and their disinterest in other people.
Essentially, you need to be aware of cultural differences before meeting someone for the first time and be on the lookout for any disingenuousness or over familiarity from the other party.
How to Create a Great First Impression
Beyond the usual tips, (smiling genuinely, a firm but not too firm handshake, being well-groomed and well-dressed) there is probably one key way that we can present in real life and online that will help us to come across at our best.
Use positive body language.
Use your ‘first seven seconds’ to let the other party in to what you’re about. The way to do this is mirroring.
Mirroring body language is a non-verbal way of saying ‘we have something in common.’ We are a mimetic species – we copy each other in order to fit in. We do this in interpersonal situations by mirroring speech, gesture or even posture. One way we can tailor how we present ourselves is to understand who we are meeting or marketing to and present what our commonality is in the most genuine way possible.
In the end, we need to establish trust and empathising with someone from the moment we meet them, establishing what you have in common immediately with everything you can is the best way to do so.