Are First Impressions Accurate? Not Always, Study Says, But They're Still Worth The Effort

The summer before my freshman year of high school, my older sister invited me to the mall. I was just about to head out the door in a pair of baggy jeans and an old, wrinkled t-shirt I’d plucked from the dryer, when she paused. Of course, you should wear whatever makes you feel most comfortable, but TBH, I did look kind of sloppy, so when my sister said, “You never know who you’re going to meet. First impressions are everything,” I knew she was looking out for me. First impressions are important, but are first impressions accurate? Personally, I’m not so sure, and according to new research, neither is science.

You really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I definitely have, and I’m willing to bet you’ve done it, too. Consider this, though: If I’d let my opinion on, say, the boring cover of John Steinback’s The Grapes Of Wrath deter me from reading this great American novel, I would have missed out on one of my favorite pieces of literature to date. First impressions are important in that they can definitely sway you one way or another, but they shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all of your opinion on someone. And because new research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has found that your brain tends to associate a certain aesthetic with very specific personality types, everyone deserves a closer look.

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According to Jonathan Freeman, the study's senior author and an associate professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, first impressions are collected “within only a few hundred milliseconds” and are often based on the person's facial appearance. Translation: First impressions not only happen hella fast, but they also tend to be built on aesthetics alone, unfortunately, and your brain basically associates certain physical traits with specific personality traits, whether you consciously realize you're making those associations or not. I don’t know about you, but to me, that seems a little unfair, not to mention shallow, but I digress.

“Initial impressions of faces can bias how we interact and make critical decisions about people,” Freeman explained in a statement. Therefore, in order to put an end to first impression biases, you have to understand where your initial assumptions stem from. In order to do this, a team of researchers from NYU, McGill University, and the University of Basel in Switzerland recruited over 900 participants and performed two experiments: The first required participants to judge the personalities of dozens of people solely based on photos they were shown online, ScienceDaily reports. For example, in this part of the study, researchers took note of how participants associated personality traits like friendliness and competence with various physical attributes. The second experiment explored what sort of facial features were associated with specific personality traits. For example, according to ScienceDaily, someone who has a round face with "babyish features" might be perceived as friendlier or more "harmless" than someone who, say, isn't super smiley in their photo. Basically, you and I likely have an image in our minds of what "friendliness" looks like versus what "aggression" looks like, and so forth.

The results showed that first impressions, and these associations that many of us make between personality traits and physical features, often aren't accurate at all. Rather, these first impressions seem to just provide clear examples that no one is immune to judging a book by its cover, and that many of us subconsciously lump certain personality traits with certain aesthetics.

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Look, it’s really unfortunate that first impressions aren’t always accurate, and even more frustrating that they’re often based on how you smile, or don’t smile, or even on physical features you literally have no control over, like how wide-set your eyes, or the size of your forehead. Still, these first impressions happen regardless of whether or not they're actually fair or accurate, so the best thing you can do is try to put your best foot forward without, of course, sacrificing your authenticity; you are exactly who you were meant to be, and all you can do is be your best self.

Of course, if someone happens to make a wrong assumption about you, that’s entirely their loss, but you should always try to make the best first impression you can. To do this, award-winning therapist and survivor of psychological abuse Shannon Thomas suggests honing in on your body language: “We give the best first impressions when we stay aware of maintaining a relaxed body and mind state when meeting new people,” she tells Elite Daily, so make sure your breath is slow and steady, that your muscles are relaxed, and make sure you’re tapping into your mental strength, too. “Maintain a positive inner dialogue,” Thomas adds. “This space allows our brain function to be optimal and our true personality can shine in that moment.”

And as far as judging another person’s first impression, don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions. “Initial impressions may be important, but it’s a person’s personality, their soul, and how they relate and interact with you and others around them that may be much more important to focus on,” Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, tells Elite Daily. “It’s what lies underneath — their inner beauty, as opposed to physical traits — that define them.”