Whether you’re in a meeting or at a private party, the importance of first impressions can’t be underestimated. Alexander Todorov, Professor at Princeton University, talks about the psychology of first impressions and how they can be influenced by status symbols like cars.
Mr. Todorov, what exactly are first impressions? And how do we create them?
Often when we make decisions, we rely on shortcuts: hunches, gut feelings, stereotypes. In the case of decisions about strangers, the easiest and most accessible shortcut is our first impression. These impressions are snap judgments of others based on superficial cues like appearance.
How long does it take to get a first impression of a stranger?
These are impressions that are literally made at first glance. Seeing a face for less than one tenth of a second gives you enough “information“ to make up your mind. In fact, seeing the face longer doesn’t have any effect on your evaluation. And we are talking about judgments that have consequences, such as whether a person is trustworthy or competent.
So what advice would you give on how to make a good first impression?
Every context comes with a set of explicit and implicit rules or norms. Generally, you don't want to violate these rules before people get to know you. Even within a business context, norms might differ. Some companies are much more formal, so you're always expected to wear a suit and a tie. But if you're working for a technology start-up, it's much more informal. These are all implicit rules, so you need to do your homework and find out what is expected of you. It's all about suiting the expectations for the specific context you'll be in.
Do status symbols like cars or expensive watches influence first impressions, too?
Certainly. Brands come with their own reputations and stereotypes. People might think differently of me depending on whether I drive a cheaper or a more expensive car. But whether their inferences will be positive or negative will depend on their own preferences and biases.
Do we have concrete ideas about how cars as status symbols influence first impressions?
Inferences about the status of others are fairly automatic. And cars certainly provide a source of information for such inferences. If someone is driving a luxury brand car, we will naturally assume that they earn more money. But even within the same brand, there are many choices you can make. A family sedan is a very different choice from a sports car. We don't randomly choose our cars and our car choices reveal our preferences, at least to some extent. In some sense, judgements about us based on the cars we are driving are inescapable.
How do you think first impressions affect long-term careers?
The problem is that we often build a very elaborate picture of what a person is like based on very little information. Most people don't want to be prejudiced; they want to do the right thing. But biases are subtle and first impressions could nudge consequential decisions. A person rejected for a job for which appearance is important might end up choosing a different career path.
“We often build a very elaborate picture of what a person is like based on very little information.”
- Alexander Todorov, Professor of Psychology
When we’ve formed a negative first impression of a high-level manager or of a new colleague, how long would it take to reverse it or to at least soften it?
In general, people are very good at revising their impressions. But of course this depends on whether they get good information. If an executive at your company seemed cold and distant when they talked to you, the odds are you won’t have many other chances to interact with them. So you would be slow to change your opinion, even if their policies are good. If your coworker was just having a bad day when you first met them, you'll have plenty of opportunities to revise your opinion of them. Negative impressions are a little harder to overcome on questions of morality, because we generally care more about moral characteristics like honesty than traits like extroversion.
Alexander Todorov, Professor of Psychology
Alexander Todorov (50) has been a professor of psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA since 2002. Bulgarian by birth, he studied psychology in Sofia, Oxford and at New York University. His research focuses on the cognitive and neural basis of social cognition and how we perceive and understand other people. His interesting and easy-to-read book “Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions” came out in 2017.