Don’t Judge a Book by it’s Cover

Think back to the last time you met someone new…

What kind of assumptions did you make about that person based on, for example, their handshake, their posture and what they were wearing? It’s no secret that we make a number of snap judgments within seconds of meeting someone for the first time. With the popularity of social networking sites, sometimes this happens before we have even met them! For example, Sparko and Zebrowitz (2011) argue that we over-generalise our perceptions of babies (being vulnerable and needing our protection) to the extent that adults with “baby faces” (i.e., facial qualities of large/wide eyes and rounder faces) are often perceived to be warmer and less assertive than their “mature faced” colleagues. How much can we rely on these inferences?

Despite all the words of caution about not judging a book by its cover, it seems that we just can’t help ourselves! In the absence of other information, these split second inferences happen quickly and often unconsciously. Research suggests that from just milliseconds of exposure to facial structure alone, people form impressions about traits such as competence, intelligence, aggressiveness and trustworthiness (Willis & Toderov, 2006). Unfamiliar faces (with neutral expressions) were presented to research participants for between 100 and 1000 milliseconds, after which they were asked to make a series of trait judgments and indicate how confident they were in those judgments. Judgments that were made after only being exposed to faces for 100ms were highly correlated with judgments made in the absence of such time constraints. Interestingly, with longer exposure, people’s opinions didn’t necessarily change; they just became more confident in them!

First impressions do count. They can have significant social consequences as they often influence our expectations of, and behaviour toward others. There can be huge risks for employers who rely on these too heavily. Consider selection interviews and the hiring of new employees for example… these implicit assumptions can cause real harm! Given how quickly these inferences can happen, and how far they can stretch, first impressions can cloud our ability to make objective, rational decisions. How closely do you attend to yours?

Sparko, A.L., & Zebrowitz, L.A. (2011).  Moderating effects of facial expression and movement on the babyface stereotype. Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, 35, 243–257.

Willis, J., & Toderov, A. (2006).  First impressions: Making up your mind after 100ms exposure to a face.  Psychological Science, 17(7), 592-598


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