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Why First Impressions Count

Research shows how first impressions can color later interactions.

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Creatas Images/Thinkstock

We want to be liked for who we are, not simply how we look, but first impressions really do matter. Other people judge us instantly by things like our smile—or lack thereof—and according to a new study, these initial assessments are hard to shake off.   

Psychologists at Cornell University found that people are influenced by their first impression, months later, even after meeting them face-to-face. The researchers had 55 participants look at photos of four women, who were smiling in one photo and had a neutral expression on their face in another. The study participants were asked to judge if they might form a friendship with this woman, based on guessing traits like if they thought she would be extroverted, agreeable, stable, conscientious and open to new experiences.

Then, anywhere from one month to six months later, the study participants got to meet the woman in the photo, but in a way where they were unaware they had rated her photo previously. They played a game for 10 minutes and were asked to also get to know each other for 10 minutes after that. After this 20 minutes of interaction, study participants were again asked to rate the woman’s levels of likeability.

The Cornell scientists found that there was a strong connection to how people initially reacted to the photos and their later interactions with the real woman. If they judged the woman in the photo to be likeable, they would feel the same cozy, positive vibes after a real-life meeting. If they viewed her as unlikeable—emotionally unstable, close-minded or disagreeable—all based solely on a picture, remember, they were likely to feel that way after the game playing, as well.  

Vivian Zayas, Ph.D., who is an associate professor of psychology at Cornell University, wrote that the study’s findings could be explained in by self-fulfilling prophecy, which psychologists call behavioral confirmation. That is, study participants who were primed to like the person tended to act in a friendlier way to begin with.

“They're smiling a little bit more, they’re leaning forward a little bit more. Their nonverbal cues are warmer,” she wrote in the study. “When someone is warmer, when someone is more engaged, people pick up on this. They respond in kind. And it’s reinforcing: The participant likes that person more.”

Dr. Zayas is an expert in the cognitive and affective processes that regulate close relationships. She noted, “Facial appearance colors how we feel about someone, and even how we think about who they are. These facial cues are very powerful in shaping interactions, even in the presence of other information.”

The study gives us a few key insights: One, that people show a great deal of consistency in their initial judgments and are unlikely to revise their opinions, and two, your mother was right when she said that first impressions count.


Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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