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The Psychology of First Impressions

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In a world dominated by quick interactions and rapid judgements on the basis of them, first impressions are everything. First impression is a Psychological term referring to the mental image formed by the perceiver when they first observe another person. Be it an anxious candidate, looking to impress his job interviewers, a youngster meticulously choosing photographs for her dating app profiles, an election candidate working on her posture and accent before giving a speech in public, or an accused making his case during a judicial proceeding, the first impression one makes on others determines the future of their interactions. Research says that it takes no more than one-tenth of a second to form opinions after observing another person. People make deep inferences about a person’s personality and character traits within seconds of glancing at them.

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The centrality of first impressions in social consequences has propelled years of researchers and scholars to look into what factors determine the formation of a first impression. The very first study to grapple with this question was psychologist Solomon Asch’s classic article from 1946 – “Forming Impressions of Personality.”

This study, and further research, have some important conclusions, which can help us better understand the processes behind the formation of first impressions. Researchers have found that the impression of a person is not merely a collection of independent character traits. Instead, all traits observed integrate into one unified impression of the entire person. This article explores what factors determine this unified impression.

Central and Peripheral Traits

Researchers have shown that certain traits are considered central to a person’s personality. For example, social psychologist Asch, through his experiments, showcased that the knowledge of whether a person has a warm or cold nature affects the perception of other traits as well. With the other traits of a person remaining unchanged, warmth or coldness of a person resulted in a generally positive or negative assessment of their personality respectively. Asch termed this phenomenon of one dominant trait colouring all peripheral traits in a negative or positive light as the ‘Halo Effect’.

Primacy Effects in First Impressions

Research also indicates that the perception of a person’s personality gives the most weight to the first trait observed. For example, if a person first encounters another person in a situation where the latter is displaying anger and hostility, the former will form a negative first impression of them. First impressions are also considerably stable and highly resistant to change, meaning that despite showcasing numerous positive traits in future interactions if the first impression of a person is negative, it is unlikely that it will change quickly.

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Facial Appearance

One of the most significant contributors to a person’s first impression is their physical appearance, especially their face. Research has illustrated that people often perceive characteristics such as warmth and trustworthiness on one hand and power and dominance on the other, depending upon four factors, listed below:

1. Baby-Face Generalization

Upon looking at people with a babyface, referring to facial features such as larger eyes, thicker lips, and roundness, as that of a baby, people generally form a positive impression despite what the person’s actual age may be. This is due to the tendency of people to respond to babies in a
manner that is protective and inhibits aggression. This perception of people with baby-like features as warm and low in power has significant implications. It is apparent in the general perception of women as submissive and incompetent in comparison to men, because of their baby-like features.

2. Familiarity Generalization

The first impression of a person also depends upon the perceived familiarity of the person by the observer. People tend to trust familiar faces more, while they approach unfamiliar faces with apprehension. This tendency results in people from a certain region finding others from the same region more trustworthy.

An example where this phenomenon has significant consequences is in judicial trials, wherein a judge’s racial familiarity biases might hinder the fair administration of justice.

3. Emotional Face generalization

People have an adaptive response to approaching faces that display positive emotions such as happiness, whereas an angry face elicits an avoidant response.

Thus, first impressions of people are rooted in adaptive learning. This learning causes individuals with facial features resembling a smile to be perceived positively. Facial features akin to an aggressive expression tend to evoke negative first impressions.

4. Unfit Face generalization

Another factor with its origin in adaptive responses is unfit face generalization, wherein facial features that resemble a genetic anomaly, or resembling disease or lack of good physical health, leave a negative first impression on the perceiver. In situations where age bias is prevalent, people tend to perceive younger individuals positively. People often view older individuals negatively, regardless of their actual health status, even if they are in prime health.

Another notable consequence of this perception is the inherent tendency of people to find relatively attractive people more approachable, friendly, and warm. Unattractive faces cause reactions of suspicion and fear at worst, and neglect in milder forms. Notable attributes of attractiveness are facial symmetry, and averageness (resemblance to the average appearance of humans).

An ‘Attractiveness Halo effect’ comes into play, resulting in the increased likelihood of people having a positive first impression of conventionally attractive people and ignoring any negative traits they might observe. In internet culture, people have also dubbed this phenomenon as ‘pretty privilege‘.

Concluding Remarks

As we wrap up our discussion on first impressions and the psychological processes that underlie their formation, it is important to keep in mind that first impressions are often mistaken and are greatly influenced by the observer’s own past experiences. Although considerably stable, one can overcome these traits with consistent exposure to a person’s actual personality. It must be kept in mind while forming opinions on others’ personalities, our own biases and predispositions, and giving everyone a chance to familiarize themselves with their actual personalities.

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