The game of first impressions

We tend to think that most of the decisions people make are based on research, argumentation and careful planning. This is a very nice thought. From time to time people make educated choices. More often though people simply trust their first impression, or try to justify it one way or another. In this article I will share my thoughts about the subject. For thoughts of other people you are welcome to read here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

From dating to job interview

When we are looking for a new job, everything can happen. Quite often we close a great deal in the first interview, and sometimes we need to search for several months till we find a suitable position. We can change the position we are looking for, our preparations, use friends for introduction, and even prepare the perfect sales pitch. Yet the first impression is one of the most important and unpredictable factors in decision making. So we need to play the game.

Finding a perfect match

The first time I really noticed the role of the first impression was during the dating period in my 20s. Since I was working on my PhD dealing with a statistical methodology, I decided that to maximize my chances I need to use a dating app. Then I developed a simple routine. After checking that the personal details make sense, I introduced myself and tried to generate a phone call. The phone call was meaningless. In fact the shorter the call the better were the meetings afterward. After a short phone call, a meeting was scheduled. So for several years approximately once or twice a week, I would meet with a perfect stranger. Eventually, I met Anna and we got married.

The law of big numbers

When we meet enough people, we will likely to see a Gaussian distribution of their aptitude in all areas. If the distribution is not Gaussian, this means we applied filters. In theory, the more people we meet the better are our chances to meet the match we are happy with. Most of the people will be average in most aspects, very good in something and very bad in something else. If we want someone to be great in one area, we have very little control over the others. We may choose a person who is above average in several aspects, but then that person will probably not be exceptional in any single thing. People have a limited amount of resources to develop their skills. If you want someone to be in the top 10% in 3 areas, it is as hard as being one in a thousand in 1 area. Most people are good at something, but this is not necessarily something we need. Before the meeting, we fill our checklist. The first impression covers everything that is not on the checklist.

In a blink of an eye

Studies show that we can judge if a person is trustworthy in the blink of an eye. In a similar way, we can judge if the person is likable. It’s not just the visual cues. Researchers found that men and women who spoke with higher pitched voices were rated as more trustworthy and likable.

We can even judge the level compentence, not necessarily in the things we understand. Dates and interviews are especially difficult for people who are not very confident, stressed or depressed. People are very good at detecting weakness, and usually, this is not an attractive quality. A firm but not too firm handshake really helps.

Researchers found that we select elected politicians not so much by their actions and beliefs, as by their likability. In times of crisis, we tend to select leaders that are more aggressive and masculine than in the times of prosperity.

What I was looking for in my date

People do not always look like their profiles or CVs. Some look better, but most people disappoint in reality. There are people whom cameras love, and others are very good at selecting the most advantageous photos. Very soon I understood that what matters is not something I could define formally, but some sort of charisma that mirrors the inner world of the person. Intelligent eyes full of engagement and curiosity were very important for me. So was the pitch of the voice, which ideally should imply proper articulation. Also, I love to see people smile. People are at their best when they smile. A smile is contagious. If you smile, people will smile back. Regarding other qualities, I was usually looking for a balanced natural impression which communicates integrity and resilience.

Why does the first impression matter

I think that the result of the date is determined in the first 11 or maybe even 7 seconds. Then we look for various ways to rationalize the original choice. If the original impression is one of empathy and true interest, the communication gets easy and open, and there is a good chance of an interesting match. The first impression is usually mutual. If we do not like what we see, typically the communication tends to be formal. Instead of trying to generate a personal or professional relationship, we fill a checklist. It gets much harder to generate something meaningful, especially if the initial impression is lack of trust.

How to improve your chances

There is no recipe to nail the first impressions, but some things do usually work. It is best if we come just in time. We should be dressed appropriately for the occasion, possibly one step better than the person we meet. Overdressing will not work well. A short reassuring eye contact is usually good. Our first sentences should ideally be slow and well articulated. The body language should be open and confident.


Dating is hard. We are disappointed and reject. Alternatively, we build up hopes and get rejected. Some dates are boring and pointless. Occasionally people are prejudiced against us or decide to pursue other things. Very few dates result in meaningful relationships, and even then the relationships often do not last. It is important to keep positive even though there were failures. Even more important is learning. We may try different small things and check the reaction. Some small cues may provide enough feedback for a meaningful improvement. Sometimes one of the first people we meet is just right. Other times we need to spend many months searching. Eventually, if we try long enough, something good happens.

Cultural fit

First dates and job interviews do not help to predict successful or unsuccessful relationships, but they are very good at predicting the cultural fit. People who dress in a similar way, whose body language is so similar they often mirror each other, who share friends and interests, will be more likely to have great scores in the interviews. Some people are natural charmers, and they can mirror the behavior their interviewer expects to see. Unfortunately, if the fit is not truthful, the lie is detected often within a month, and the results are typically unfortunate for both parties.

Unrealistic expectations

First dates and interviews are not interrogations, but they are also not a casual small talk. We are expected to check that there is a fit between the person and the roles this person is expected to fulfill. Interviewers, usually honestly want the interview to succeed. Sometimes we find gaps which we try to close and compromises we try to rationalize. Very often we can clearly see that there is no fit. Very rarely we see that the fit is perfect. Usually we explore the differences and the compromises, trying to evaluate their effect on future events. At the same time, we try to charm each other, so that the future collaboration starts from the most advantageous point. We do check qualifications, but more as a filter and decision-supporting factor.

Assets and attitudes

It takes several seconds to form the initial impression. Then we spend around an hour trying to assess the assets and the attitudes of the person. Assets are clear to assess and they often can be backed by documents or measured in simple tests. People usually know their major strengths and achievements and will be happy to list them. Attitudes are sort of mental habits and we need some time to evaluate them. Attitudes are harder to estimate, and we often get them wrong. Everybody has good and bad days, only the degree of damage may vary. If we catch a person on a bad day, we may build the wrong impression. If you are experiencing a bad day, it might be wise to call off the meeting.

Computer interviews

Some of the interviews are done by computers. Computers enter every aspect of our life, including dating and job interviews. Usually, computers try to measure our attitudes and estimate what we need. It might feel strange that in order to score a date, a computer needs to test our compatibility. Passing aptitude test at work is even stranger. While computers are seemingly objective, they stress many people which can also bias the results. Human and computer matchmakers view the world differently and will select the best matches using different criteria. A computer will not judge by the first impression, but this probably will not result in a better fit. Computers penalize the people who do not follow the instructions.

Open mindset

One thing that may change the results of the interview beyond the first impression and assessment is an open mindset. A creative person will know how to modify the situation. Companies with open mindset attract more creative and diverse employees and improve the personal growth of the employee. Some positions have nothing to do with certification. Anybody can be a life coach if he has tools to help others, experience with personal change and empathy to others. In the same way, a creative suitor can change the mind of the most reluctant date. Not everything can be measured and anticipated.

I never planned to fall in love with my wife. We almost became just friends, and our first kiss was not planned by either of us. Some things simply happen, and we should accept and embrace them if they are good.

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