We all know that first impressions are important, but how does it all work? In 2009, a study led by Daniela Schiller at New York University examined the neural mechanism of first impressions. In the study, they found that the brain’s amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) are key to forming first impressions.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons located in the medial temporal lobe. It is also important for the processing of emotions — it receives messages from our senses and internal organs — and in moderating our motivations. The PCC is believed to have significant roles in cognition and affect, but scientists have not come to a consensus on those roles. We do know that the region is active when we recall autobiographical memories and emotional memories. According to Schiller, these two regions help us figure out whether or not information is important to our own motivations, lending to how we value certain people and also how we respond to them.
In short, we determine the value of the people we meet in quick but complex computations, whether or not we realize it. There are other factors that we look at, one of the most important being trustworthiness, and you can find more about them below.
Are you trustworthy?
Trust is key to relationships and can be built over time, but it really starts from the second you meet someone. In a study led by researchers at Princeton, two groups were asked to rate the ‘attractiveness, competence, likability, aggressiveness, and trustworthiness’ according to actors’ faces. The first group had just a tenth of a second to decide while the second group could take their time. Their answers differed except when it came to the trait of trustworthiness.
Where do you stand on the social ladder?
One thing that folks look at to determine your social status is your clothes. A Dutch study revealed that people in name-brand clothes were considered to have higher status than those in non-designer wear.
We’d like to argue that our perceptions of the people we meet don’t always depend on brand, but style. We look at their shoes and decide if they’re clean. We look at their hair, and if it’s messy, we decide if it’s a good messy or bad messy.
The indicators will depend on the person, because remember that you determine other people’s values based on our own motivations. In addition to clothes, we look at accessories, form of transportation, and even the way they walk.
What’s your orientation?
In 2012, the New York Times published an article that confirmed that gaydar, the ability to read an individual’s sexual orientation from mere observation, is a real thing. In their study, there was only a 60 percent accuracy when it came to the gaydar judgments but still ‘several times above the margin of error.’
Why does sexual orientation matter when it comes to first impressions? It matters if that person is interested in relating in some way, if they themselves are queer for example, and if they are discriminatory. While we do not condone discrimination, remember that people will scan for how valuable you are relative to their own motivations.
Can I have an intelligent conversation with you?
There are a number of factors that people look at when determining intelligence. We’re not saying that their methods are accurate or inaccurate, we’re talking perception. What is your perceived intelligence?
For some folks, individuals with glasses and expressive speech appear smart. For others, these were not enough. According to a study led by Nora A. Murphy of Loyola Marymount University in 2007, some people believed that eye contact was more significant in perceived intelligence.
Do you sleep around?
Sorry to say, but when people are on the prowl, they look to see whether or not you match up with their lifestyle. For instance, if they are interested in casually dating, they might look for signs of promiscuity. If they are looking for a committed relationship, they scan for signs of trustworthiness. Unfortunately, stereotypes often help draw these perceptions.
Here’s one example. I have tattoos on my arms, and more than half the time people will tell me, ‘You don’t seem the type to have tattoos.’ This tells me two things. They have a certain perception of me and they have another perception of women with tattoos.
Beyond just my own experiences, a British study revealed that tattooed women were often associated with ‘ladette’ culture, where alcoholism, sports, and fast cars, among other things, are considered important.
How dominant are you?
For better or for worse, dominance can start with appearances. This means that one doesn’t necessarily have to be dominant to be considered a dominant person, and it’ll all depend on the people they’re interacting with.
Studies reveal that men with bald heads, beards, and brown eyes (in comparison to blue eyes) are perceived as more dominant.
Are you successful?
When you get your clothes tailored, it can make all the difference, at least if you want to exude an air of success. Well-dressed folks are believed to rake in more cash than those in ill-fitting suits or casual attire (this may not apply in tech hubs like San Francisco where engineers are often seen in a T-shirt and jeans ensemble).
What’s your potential? Are you constantly moving up?
If people judged us based solely on where we’re at in life then who knows what our friendship circles would look like? It turns out that when people meet you, they are also interested in your potential. Confidence can be delivered through speech and again with style, a crisp shirt versus a raggedy one for example.
Are you adventurous?
Your gait, or manner of walking, says a lot during those first impressions. Remember when you were in school and saw someone walking in small, robotic steps with their head down? You probably had your own thoughts about what type of person this was.
According to a study conducted at Durham University, looser gaits were associated with a proclivity for adventure and extroversion. Unfortunately, tight walkers were viewed as less adventurous and even neurotic.