First Impressions

By Srinivas Balagopal


   As the popular adage goes: “first impressions always last.” Or so we think. 

   Author Malcolm Gladwell stated that we unconsciously make “snap judgments” in the blink of an eye all the time. This arises from our human desire to make sense of something or someone as soon as possible. Our first impressions are simply the byproducts of our own experiences. What we, as individuals and as a society, superficially deem as “attractive,” “intelligent,” or “mature” shapes our snap judgment of people immensely.

So in fact, our first impressions of others are more a reflection of ourselves than of them.

     The quintessential example of the power of first impressions is the classic job interview: well-dressed, firm handshake, projection of confidence; the interviewer is mentally marking off a checklist of everything he or she already expects.

   Now imagine if the interviewer meets a candidate who differs from the mental checklist of expectations. When we encounter someone or something that does not match our preconceived expectations, we become uncertain; to reduce our uncertainty, we immediately default to our first impression.

 According to Professor Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, it is incredibly easy for us to agree with our 30-millisecond judgments of others, such as attributing facial features to characteristics like “trustworthiness.” However, Todorov argues that these judgments are often wrong, or at least severely incomplete.

  “We trust first impressions automatically [because] they feel right … We never vigorously test our hunches,” Todorov states.

   Beyond a gut feeling, the first impression is completely lacking in empirical evidence. Before the candidate even begins the interview, the interviewer has already made a snap judgment.

   Only with an open mind can the interviewer accept, perhaps not immediately, those deviations from the mental checklist. That negative first impression begins to melt and coalesce into something new, as every second and every interaction in the interview goes by.

   I am not arguing that we should never trust our first impressions. Many of the decisions that we make are done impulsively, with equal probability, on average, of being beneficial or detrimental. We are tempered by the way we choose to view our experiences. Sometimes, our first impressions of people and situations do hold true in the long-term.

   But we never know that beforehand. If you worry that you made a negative and inaccurate first impression of yourself, you should patiently wait, observe, and interact. Only time will tell if other people’s snap judgments of you were correct. 

   When society relies solely on the first page of a book to explain the whole story, we become complacent under the false notion that we already know everything there is to know. But it isn’t first impressions themselves that pose a danger to us; it is the unjustified faith in them that threatens to degrade our levels of patience, curiosity, and understanding when responding to life. The first impression should never be the last one.

   Despite all of this, we will continue to rely on first impressions to take stock of our lives. When going for an interview, we will want to dress well, have excellent poise, and speak confidently. It is in our nature to be easily encouraged by spectacular first impressions and discouraged by negative ones. But we should never internally expect the first impression to serve as the be-all and end-all.

   At heart, we are creatures of instinct. While it is impossible to stop forming these impressions, we can minimize our reliance on them in the long-term. Our opinion of a person or situation will change, for better or for worse, as we become progressively informed. We recursively update our thinking. 

   And more frequently than we realize, first impressions are first forgotten.