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The First Impression: Is It Fact or Folly?

We’ve all heard the dueling expressions ‘It’s important to make a good first impression’ and ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.  And, as with so many things in life, they are in direct opposition to one another.  Is a first impression really that important? 

Do we follow our gut, or do we extend the benefit of the doubt?  Well, since ‘going with your gut’ sounds so unevolved, I’ve opted for the latter.  (And no, I don’t care that I’m the one who chose that particular idiom, thereby prejudicing my choice, placing it firmly in the realm of subjectivity.)

This is hardly the first article or blogpost to be written on why first impressions should be considered warily. 

In preparation, I read an article on, entitled Can we trust first impressions?  While undeniably expert, it has the unleavened-bread flavor that accompanies professional, well-researched, and accurate publications.  Fortunately, I am not bound by those same restrictions.  For your benefit, I included some interesting bits I stumbled upon during my cursory research, with all quotes attributable to Hélène Fresnel and Laurent Bègue, the authors of said article.  Or to the doctors and specialists those authors quoted.

Basically, if it sounds well-researched, intelligent and not at all like an opinion, then I didn’t write it.

First Impression Facts

It’s hardly shocking to discover that forming an opinion of someone at first-glance is an innate survival mechanism—an instinctive Darwinian trait designed to trip the fight-or-flight signal in the brain.  Undoubtedly an evolutionary advantage—even a necessity—once upon a darker time.  And to argue against its importance, even today, would be unwise.  Say you’re walking alone through a dark alley late at night and someone is walking toward you, hood up, hands in pockets, face hidden—you should probably get the hell out of there.  Even if it turns out you were wrong.  The instinct for self-preservation is, well—  It’s right there in the hyphenated word.

But the reality is that (hopefully) you’re not making too many first impressions in dark alleys.  And if you are, that’s cool.  Just keep your wits about you.  It’s safe to say most first impressions are made in a public, (again, hopefully) safe place, whether at a bar, a party, or job interview.  In fact, it’s impossible not to make or perceive a first impression.  According to a study conducted at Princeton University by psychologist Alex Todorov, it only takes our brain a tenth of a second to make a judgment when seeing someone for the first time.  Obviously, our brains our getting the better of us in this instance.  A tenth of a second to mentally codify a person in their entirety.  And I thought a ‘snap judgement’ was too quick.  Armed with that knowledge, we as a species should be able to immediately recognize the inherent fallibility in that logic…

First Impression Follies

I said should.

In truth, it’s impossible to ignore what our brain is telling us, since it tells us, well, everything.  As (arguably) the most intelligent species on the planet, we are perfectly aware that our brains—uniquely brilliant as they may be—are perfectly capable of leading us to some fairly dubious decisions.  (Anyone claiming they’ve never done something stupid on a whim should think twice, and then consider the irony of that claim.)  Because our brains are about as trustworthy as we are: It’s our brain that’s responsible for giving us the green-light to shove a steaming piece of pizza straight from the oven into our mouths, and for thinking that one more shot’s not such a bad idea after all.  (Always up for debate.)

Which brings us to the dangers of mistaking a first impression.  Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, Nobel laureate, and author of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, quoted in the previously mentioned article, said, “If your first impression is a mistake, it can take a while to realise this, as your expectations tend to be self-fulfilling.  When you expect a certain reaction you are like to perceive it even if it isn’t there.”  Now I’m no psychologist.  Nor am I a Nobel laureate, or even a published author—excluding Kinda Kind, of course.  I’m certainly not all three, but it does sound plausible.  I know it’s something I’ve done—semi-consciously trying to twist someone’s words or actions into a way that fits my opinion of that person—and, let’s face it, there’s always going to be someone you dislike for no readily apparent reason other than the simple fact that their presence is irritating.  And that’s fine—we’re only human.  But I also have good friendships, great friendships, with people I never would’ve expected.  As I’m sure we all do, which is why leaping to conclusions straight out of the gate can be detrimental, if not downright rude.  I mean, you’ll never know what you’re missing if you never try.  Or so I’ve been told.

Another issue, in my opinion, is that those who tend to make a good first impression are those who have a knack for exactly that—portraying themselves how they want to be perceived rather than how they are.  And that’s what first impressions are: People acting in a manner befitting their agenda or goal.  The types of people that interview well are those same people with the uncanny ability to win over everyone in the room (excepting that lone skeptic, hanging back, watching as people fall under his or her spell).  Not that there’s anything wrong with that—I’m not saying they’re duplicitous, conniving, narcissistic sociopaths on a mission to pull the wool over your eyes.  Certain people are naturally personable, gregarious, magnetic; others have skillsets that don’t fall into the ‘People’ category.  But that first impression, good or bad, isn’t necessarily indicative of who that person is beyond the parameters of social obligations, professional atmospheres, and behind closed doors.

For those of us unskilled or unpracticed in the art of impression-making, it’s not only possible, but likely, that, in attempting to appear in one way, we subsequently present ourselves in very different light.  Ultimately—and depending on your personal quirks—the impression you do make can be very different from the one desired.  Either way, though, that first impression is rarely an accurate portrayal of a person’s character, strength, skills, etc.  It’s little more than a lie, all said and done.  Not malicious, but merely an attempt to display a 'better' version of ourselves.

But it's sill a lie.  And, when you think about it, it’s you willingly tucking into the lie you’re being fed.  I mean, who wants to be that guy?

And while certain personality traits can’t help but slip through the cracks of our public façade, gauging a person based solely on a first impression is tantamount to judging a book by its spine—lazy, unfair (to both sides), with the added bonus of potentially coming off like kind of an asshole.

Difficult as it is, making the conscious effort to be your honest self can go a long way.  While the public front we put forth may be undetectable at first, sincerity has a way of making itself known immediately.  Plus, it makes judging character that much easier, dispensing with the game of psychological hide-and-seek, trying to determine the other’s true nature.  A bit idealistic, I know, but a guy can dream, can’t he?


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