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Science Reveals the Power of First Impressions

Whether you realize it or not, you form a first impression of every person you interact with – often within seconds. And what’s so unnerving about this fact is that you have very little control over these perceptions. The human brain is hardwired to respond to certain stimuli with very particular responses. Knowing how the brain works can help you improve the way others perceive you.

How First Impressions Work

Our culture teaches us it’s never good to judge a book by its cover. There are countless instances throughout history – and even just the last few years – that show us how foolish it is to make a quick judgment.  (The story of Ted Williams, a formerly homeless Ohio man who happened to have a golden voice, is the perfect example.)

Despite knowing that first impressions don’t always align with reality, we continue to make them. Why, you may ask? Well, our brains can’t help it. In a world where millions of signals and messages are being transmitted every single day, first impressions simplify and make sense of interactions that would otherwise require considerable cognitive processing and rational thought.

First impressions are like shortcuts. We take previous interactions and experiences into account, overlay them on the current interaction or experience, and make a judgment call based on probability and emotion.

Psychologists call this rapid cognition – or the ability to quickly analyze huge amounts of data – “thin-slicing.”

“Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it means to be human,” psychologist Malcolm Gladwell explains. “We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation. We thin-slice because we have to, and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.” 

While thin-slicing is used in many different areas of cognitive processing, it certainly comes into play when forming a first impression. And as someone who is frequently on the other side of first impressions, it’s helpful to know that it’s happening.

Perhaps it’s true that “what’s on the inside” counts, but “what’s on the outside” often dictates whether you’ll ever get the chance to show someone the real you. Right or wrong, that’s how the human brain – and ultimately the world – works.

Once someone has formed a first impression on you, it’s very difficult to change things. This is especially true if you’ve made a poor first impression. According to a research paper published by psychologists Nadav Klein and Ed O’Brien, there is an “asymmetric moral tipping point.”

“People apparently need to commit just a few bad actions to appear substantially changed for the worse, but need to commit many good actions to appear substantially changed for the better,” their paper explains.

Secrets to Making Better First Impressions

It doesn’t matter how frequently people are encouraged to withhold judgment until they really get to know someone – the brain is hardwired to form rapid first impressions. In a professional setting where you only have moments to establish a positive first impression with a colleague, employer, or client, knowing how to positively influence these initial perceptions will help you thrive.

Here are a few tricks of the trade:


  • Success is in the Details


The average person isn’t going to make some big mistake when meeting someone for the first time. Most interactions are fairly normal and uneventful. As such, it’s often the smallest details that set you apart from the next person. Paying attention to these finer nuances will help you stand out – from the watch you wear to your haircut.

Other important visual details include well-fitted clothing, properly trimmed facial hair, manicured nails, fresh breath, and relaxed facial expressions.


  • Prepare Talking Points


In a situation where you know you’ll be meeting with someone, one of the best things you can do is organize two or three talking points that you feel are important. Not only will this make you seem prepared, but it’ll also help keep the conversation flowing in the proper direction.

“Show that you understand the problem the other person is trying to solve and how your skills put you in a position to help,” author and business consultant Whitney Johnson suggests.

Being prepared can really move the needle on a first impression. Even if the other person doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with what you’re saying, the fact that you’ve come with ideas says something about you.


  • Watch Body Language


Words matter, but the reality is that the brain processes visual stimuli much faster and more efficiently than auditory stimuli. Even if you aren’t the one doing the talking, you can make a positive first impression by controlling your body language.

In a professional setting, you want your body language to exude confidence, strength, and (depending on the situation) approachability and warmth. Keep your shoulders back, deliver a firm handshake, smile when appropriate, and make eye contact. These are all simple things you can do, no matter the situation.

Never Underestimate a First Impression

While it’s technically possible to change a first impression down the road, you most likely won’t get the chance – especially if you start on the wrong foot. As hard as society tries to preach the dangers of forming rapid opinions, it’s simply the way our brains work.

As a professional, you can set yourself up for success by being aware of the power of first impressions and making strategic choices and conscious decisions that set you up for long-term success.

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