Science Explains How First Impressions Work (And Ways To Improve If You Failed)

Science Explains How First Impressions Work (And Ways To Improve If You Failed)

Whether you look at it in the context of your career, personal life, or dating, first impressions are incredibly important. They set the stage for how people perceive you, which generally translates into how much leverage you’re able to obtain in a given situation. And while first impressions are certainly interesting, do you know what science says about these important social exchanges? Let’s take a look.

Experts Call It “Thin Slicing”

The human brain’s ability to reach conclusions based on just a momentary exposure to someone is known by experts as “thin slicing.”

“Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it means to be human,” writes Malcolm Gladwell, author and journalist. “We thin-slice whenever we meet a new person or have to make sense of something quickly or encounter a novel situation.”


Thin slicing is not something that we consciously think about or choose to do. It’s something that’s built into the very fabric of being human.

“We thin-slice because we have to,” Gladwell continues, “and we come to rely on that ability because there are lots of situations where careful attention to the details of a very thin slice, even for no more than a second or two, can tell us an awful lot.”

Trustworthiness Is Determined In One-Tenth Of A Second

According to research, people judge your trustworthiness within a tenth of a second. This conclusion was reached by a group of Princeton researchers who gave a group of students 100 milliseconds to rate different factors – such as competence, attractiveness, and trustworthiness – based on images of actors’ faces.


After rating these factors, another group was given as much time as they needed to determine these traits. While other traits differed significantly, the time it took to determine trustworthiness essentially remained the same. In other words, at the very moment you meet someone – before you even open your mouth to speak or extend a hand to shake – people are making judgments about your trustworthiness.

The Handshake Says A Lot

A handshake goes a long way in establishing a positive first impression, especially in business settings. The reason is that a handshake makes you seem more approachable. There’s something about this safe display of human affection that allows you to connect with the other person.

“Many of our social interactions may go wrong for [one] reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings,” says Sanda Dolcos, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois’ psychology department.


Changing A First Impression Is Hard, Yet Possible

Recent research suggests that while it’s very challenging to do so, it is possible to change or alter a first impression. Here’s how that works.

Let’s say you meet a woman named Sarah at a business event. When you meet Sarah, she seems cold, rude, and standoffish. The next time you see Sarah, your brain will actually register these initial conclusions. But what happens if this time Sarah is warm, kind, and engaging? Well, your brain will still register the first impression, but will instead lead you to the conclusion that, “Sarah is always rude, except when you run into her after work.”

In other words, your first impression of Sarah being rude will stick with you, but your brain will begin to add exceptions to this fact. Over time, it’s possible to add enough exceptions that the first impression is drowned out, but it takes a lot of work.


Fashion Influences View Of Success

According to multiple studies, what you wear directly impacts how people view your success, or lack thereof. A 2011 study shows that well-dressed men are perceived as making more money and climbing the corporate ladder quicker than those who lack proper style. Furthermore, a separate study shows that those who don tailored suits, as opposed to standard off-the-rack suits, are perceived as being smarter and more successful.

Make Your First Impression Count

As you can see, science has a lot to say about first impressions. The human brain is wired in such a way that judgments are made in just a fraction of a second. Keep these tips in mind and you may be able to influence how others see you.

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Schuyler Richardson

Content Writer

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Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]


Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.


In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]



Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.


Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.


In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.


With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via


[1] US National Library of Medicine: Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain
[2] Daily Mail: Nursing a broken heart? How taking a paracetamol could dull the pain of rejection
[3] Mother For Life: Oxytocin’s Role
[4] Psychology Today: Facebook and Your Brain
[5] Alex Korb: The Upward Spiral

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