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 capabl