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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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