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The Science of First Impressions: What’s It to You?
When meeting someone new, it only takes your brain a few seconds to construct a first impression. Read on to learn what happens during that brief but crucial moment.
First impressions are immediate and instinctual—a gut reaction that tells us whom to trust and whom to send down the trapdoor under their feet. But as the brain shows, when we meet someone for the first time, we assign value to that person based on our own preferences and experiences, making for a unique, intimate connection that might explain the eternal mystery of “love at first sight.”
As it happens in the brain, formulating a first impression is a joint effort carried out by the amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex. The amygdala receives and processes information from all the senses, and the posterior cingulate cortex houses autobiographical memory, regulating how we act based on what think of ourselves and how we fit into the world. Together, the regions read sensory information and filter it through our own subjective lens.
Does Confidence Matter?
In social terms, the science of first impressions is less clear. Popular opinion holds that confidence is the most important way to give off a good impression. But as Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, told Wired, the two things we evaluate first are trustworthiness and competence. In other words, coming across as honest and capable is far more important than simply exuding confidence—which is why, for instance, letting others speak first tends to work better than steamrolling a conversation.
Either way, the importance of a first impression can’t be overstated. As relationships develop, we seek out information—what a person says, does, and wears—to revise our initial opinion, but in fact, we often gloss over evidence that could overturn that all-important first impression. This phenomenon, called confirmation bias, is what inspires the old saying: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.