First impressions…best impressions? by wendela wolters


It takes just one-tenth of a second for us to judge someone and make our first impression. Although sometimes misleading, research shows that in many situations, our impressions of other people can be quite accurate. Only in more serious situations is 'going beyond first impressions to seek greater accuracy in person perception sometimes important'.

On a biological level the amygdala plays an important role. Brain circuitry allows a by-passing of the neo-cortex by way of the so-called amygdala hijack: this smaller and shorter pathway allows the amygdala to receive some direct inputs from the senses and start a response before they are fully registered by the neo-cortex'.

On a social (psychological) level we get our first impression through social concepts such as stereotyping.

Stereotypes can help make sense of the world. They are a form of categorization, which helps to simplify and systematize information so the information is easier to be identified, recalled, predicted, and reacted to. Moreover, stereotypes function as time- and energy-savers, which allow people to act more efficiently.

People use stereotypes as shortcuts to make sense of their social contexts, and this makes people's task of understanding their world less cognitively demanding.

Unconscious processes play a big role. Much of the information we receive when we meet somebody for the first time is collected into our unconscious. This way we can be as efficient as we are. It would take up far too much cognitive energy to process it consciously.

We register unconsciously small changes in tone of voice, mimicry or posture and we make up our minds.

Some examples:

  • A “firm” handshake is experiences as a positive sign of the person’s competence
  • Touching can be a sign of affection, but also as a sign of possessiveness.
  • The more space a person takes with walking or sitting, the more powerful and confident he is perceived. But the opposite is also true! People who take up little space are seen as obedient and insecure.
  • Having close eye contact can be a sign of romantic love but in other situations it can be sign of dominance and intimidation.

Concluding: first impressions are impressions, which are much more complicated then we usually realize. Through many unconscious and automatic processes we quickly can make-up our minds, as long as we are conscious of the potential prejudicial effects.

Reference: Roos Vonk; De eerste indruk (2006)