Think at London Business School
Aneeta Rattan shares lessons on confronting gender bias in the workplace.
By Aneeta Rattan
The saying goes that first impressions count. And in fact, science shows this to be true. Psychological research reveals that the first impressions we form of someone go on to shape the way we continue to see them. They set the tone, as it were, for the relationship we’re likely to develop – and it happens remarkably fast. It takes us just 100 milliseconds to read someone’s facial features and form an opinion about them, and around five seconds to absorb information from other non-verbal cues, gestures and interactions.
In the age of Zoom and Teams, even the background context or environment in which we ‘meet’ someone for the first time contributes to the inferences we make about them.
This makes sense in evolutionary terms. We need to be able to form impressions of others fast to know how to react to or interact with them. There is huge adaptive value in being able to assess others as quickly as possible. Catching a glimpse of someone, however momentary, gives you a chance to make important inferences about them that tie to the key dimensions of social judgment: warmth and competence. Can we trust them? Are they friend or foe? Are they capable or incompetent? Can we depend on them?
These judgments are fundamental to the way we function within groups or as a society, but what’s really telling about them is that the opinions formed are enduring.
Research has shown that first impressions predict the way we continue to think or feel about a person over time. In other words, that initial feeling or inference about someone tends to stick – almost no matter what. Even if they’re off base or partly inaccurate, first impressions really do matter because of the way they shape our ongoing perceptions.
Say you’re interviewing someone for a job. You want to know if they are competent and trustworthy – if they can be relied on to deliver in terms of the challenges of the role, or fit in with the company culture. Remember, your first impressions of that candidate are formed faster than you think. Within a few seconds you will make an assessment based on their facial features and non-verbal behaviour. You quickly form a rich opinion about what kind of person they are.
Now consider this. These impressions will shape the way you interact with this person, such that you end up drawing out the kinds of responses or reactions that confirm your first impressions.
The research shows that a recruiter whose first impressions of a candidate are positive will create a process and environment that is warm and welcoming. The recruiter will ask more questions about the candidate’s strengths and competencies than about their weaknesses; they will likely talk more about the job than the candidate; and they will create a friendlier, more supportive dynamic because, to an extent, they have already decided that they want to ‘win’ this candidate for the role.
Conversely, if the recruiter forms a negative first impression, they will make it harder for the candidate to perform well. Questions will be tougher and more focused on the candidate’s weaknesses. This, in turn, will evoke different responses from the candidate – less confident, more defensive – that end up confirming your first sense of them and creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy dynamic that in reality may have little to do with the actual competencies and qualities of the interviewee.
So, first impressions are highly consequential. Positive or negative first impressions can bring out the behaviours we expect to see. They can set the tone for a relationship without us being aware of them, even if they are incorrect. And not only are first impressions often resistant to change, they are also a good predictor of the first impressions that other people will form of the same person. In other words, if you feel that someone is competent, chances are that others will feel the same.
This is particularly interesting in the political context. One study shows that the way people judge the competence of political candidates based on first impressions alone can predict with about 66% accuracy who will go on to win the election. So, making it into the UK Parliament, the US Senate, the German Bundestag and so on is arguably based on whether you appear competent or not. And that’s an important finding – because appearing competent and actually being competent are two different things.
Armed with these insights, what can you do to take control of the first-impressions process? We can break this down into two categories: the impressions you create in others, and those you form of other people.
It’s only human to judge a book by its cover – but at least we can try to remember that it’s just the cover and not the contents.
Thomas Mussweiler is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School