Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
May 23, 2019

Beyond First Appearances

by Liam Satchell
Two men shaking hands

We’ve often been told that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and, psychologically speaking, it’s good advice. A book’s cover does not provide much information about what’s inside. It might give clues to the genre of the book and maybe the name of a familiar author, things that may lead you to pick it up or leave it alone. But most book-buyers want more information.  So, we pick up the book, read the blurb on the back, or maybe flip through the pages. We interact with the book.  We go beyond judging the book by its cover to actively seeking more information about it.  

Our perceptions of other people follow the same pattern. Yes, we do judge other people on first sight. In a way, we have to. To manage everyday life, we often must form quick impressions of other people. Is this person going to hassle me? Is this person going to be nice? What are the risks and rewards of interacting with this person?

These judgments are often based on our generic beliefs that allow us to quickly categorize other people based on easy-to-see characteristics such as the person’s gender, skin tone, fashion choices, and so on.  Given that these judgments are based on our general stereotypes about groups of people, it is no surprise that our judgments about particular individuals can be inaccurate and even prejudicial.

A long history of research in psychology has studied first impressions of people based on photographs of their faces. This research has consistently shown that people’s initial judgments of others are based on stereotypes linked to physical appearance. Given how many first impressions we now form from photographs that we see on social media or the web more generally, forming first impressions based on photographs of people is more and more common.

My research focuses on what happens next. How stable are the first impressions we make from a photograph of a face? Some interesting research shows that seeing photographs of people smiling decrease the strength of people’s initial prejudicial judgments. When people display a sociable, friendly expression, our perceptions of them change. What was interesting to me, though, was that psychologists have not studied whether the impressions we form from seeing someone’s photograph survive a short interaction with the person.

We conducted a study where we introduced pairs of strangers to each other. Before they met, each participant saw a photograph of the other person’s face and rated their initial impression of the person on characteristics such as friendliness, confidence, likeability, energetic, aggressive, threatening, and so on.  The two participants then met and interacted with each other for up to 5 minutes.  During their interaction, the two participants could talk about anything they wanted and were not limited in what they could talk about.

The results of the study showed that, after interacting, the participants’ perceptions of each other tended to become more positive than their ratings had been after seeing only the photograph of the person. After interacting, participants perceived each other as more friendly, likable, confident, and energetic, as well as less aggressive and threatening.

We also found that the judgments of the other person’s personality were more accurate after the interaction. In particular, participants were better at recognizing how anxious, energetic, creative, and confident the other person was in general.  It took only 5 minutes (or less) of general conversation to ‘soften’ first impressions that were based on the photograph to be more positive and less negative, as well more accurate.  

First impressions are an important topic of research for many areas of psychology such as police interviewing (which I study), job interviews, and dating, but we do not know much about how first impressions are affected by short social interactions. Given that much of the research in this area focuses on people’s impressions after seeing photographs of people, we need to study what happens when people first meet.

Other people offer a world of information and experiences that you might learn from or enjoy. So, you can disadvantage yourself by restricting your interaction with them based on a bad – and often inaccurate -- first impression of someone from their appearance alone. Just like a book cover provides only a hint about its content, first impressions provide only a hint about what others are like, and we should take the time to interact, however briefly, with other people to understand them better.

For Further Reading:

Satchell, L. P. (2019) From photograph to face-to-face: Brief interactions change person and personality judgments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 82, 266–276. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2019.02.010.

Funder, D. C. (2012). Accurate personality judgment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1, 177–182

Liam Satchell is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester, specializing in personality, methodology, and everyday uses of psychological research.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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