First Things First: Understanding the Psychology of First Impressions

Posted by Ben Weiss on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 @ 15:08 PM

By: Jessica Sanfratello and Ben Weiss

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Most people understand that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  But, when a job candidate only has a 30-minute interview to prove his or her worth to a particular hiring manager, it is vital that the cover accurately represents the qualifications that lie within. 

Though it may seem unfair for a hiring manager to make a character judgment within the first seconds of meeting a candidate, record-breaking application volumes in the job market right now mean that hiring agencies don’t have the time or resources to move forward with job prospects that don’t impress them out of the gate.  

In order for candidates to best prepare themselves for such a high-pressure situation, it is valuable to understand the psychology behind first impressions, how that opinion is generated and how it can be used for strategic advantage.

I. The Filter

Ann Demarais, Ph.D. and Valerie White, Ph.D. – two experienced impression management specialists – penned a book in 2005 entitled “First Impressions: What You Don’t Know About How Other’s See You,” that laid out a roadmap for putting one’s “best self” forward in any setting.

In their book, the authors explain that a first impression likely does not tell a person’s whole story, but is the only information a stranger has to judge their initial feelings towards a person. So to, the first impression a job candidate creates will indicate to a hiring manager whether he or she should move forward with that prospect.

And while this first impression may be dependent on the mood of the interviewer, Demarais and White put forth that the initial judgment is largely based upon three characteristics: the body language, speech and confidence of a candidate. To better explore these concepts, examine a concept the authors describe known as “The Filter:”

A first impression is like a filter. Here's how others form an image of you:

1. People take in initial information - they notice your body language, what you say and how you respond.

2. Based on this initial information, they form an impression and make decisions about what you are like and how they expect you to behave in the future.

3. They then see you through this filter. Everyone likes to think they are a good judge of character, and think "I knew from the first moment I met him that he was . . ." They seek information that is consistent with their first impression and will not look for, or even will ignore, behavior that doesn't fit their impression of you.”

With this in mind, it is important to remember that even if candidates have multiple opportunities to make a positive impression on a hiring firm, hiring managers may have a psychological predisposition to judge repeat correspondences through the lens of that first impression. Consequently, if the first impression was negative, it may be incredibly difficult to change that initial perception should the relationship develop. 

Corroborating this notion, a group of researchers published similar findings on the persistence of first impressions in a 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

“As long as a first impression is challenged only within the same context, you can do whatever you want,” states lead researcher Bertram Gawronski of The University of Western Ontario. “The first impression will dominate regardless of how often it is contradicted by new experiences.”

Consequently, if you come off poorly during a job interview, candidates will likely never change that initial perception unless they happen to run into the hiring manager at the bar later that night and turn the tables over a few pints.

II. Using the first impression to your advantage

OK, so now maybe you’re thinking, “sh*t, I literally have less than 30 seconds to impress my potential employer?! And if I screw it up, I’ve likely axed me chances at this nice new job completely?!”

Well, take a deep breath and read this list of tips on how to knock that first impression out of the park to leave the hiring manager positively biased towards you in all future correspondences.

1)   Be on time (meaning be early)

Research shows that the initial impression is literally generated in under a minute, so for every second you are late for an interview, you are losing traction with the interviewer that might never be regained.

Remember that ten to fifteen minutes early is considered “on time” for an interview. And because behavior is heavily associated with personality, your prompt arrival will likely be correlated with good organizational skills.

Also, when you get there a little early, you’ll have time to collect yourself, calm down and ensure you look clean and sharp … which brings us to the next point.

2) Make sure you look fresh

Research has shown that 55% of the initial impression (in a face-to-face setting) is based on appearance. With that in mind, here are a few physical characteristics you can control that will help you nail the initial appearance judgement.

  • Eyes: According to a recent article by psychologist and author Vivian Diller, Ph.D., eyes make the most indelible impression on a person. “Eyes that are bright and open send a message of curiosity … When people avert their eyes, we tend to see them as uncomfortable and insecure with themselves. Partially closed, narrowing or darting eyes can communicate shiftiness, insincerity and a lack of warmth.” So make sure you got plenty of rest the night before and that your “windows to the soul” accurately represent the goodness within.

  • Smile: Diller goes on to state that a smile elicits the most immediate and positive reaction from people. People who are frowning or straight-faced may convey a lack of interest, while a stiff smile may suggest a lack of authenticity. So make sure your lips are naturally curling upward and you’ll likely be perceived as personable, approachable and warm.

  • Clothing: When it comes to dress, you actually want to make as little an impression as possible. Even if you get the idea that the hiring agency is funky or alternative, stay conservative and make your personality and experience the focal point of the initial interaction – not your slacks or tie. You wouldn’t want the depth of your experience to be overshadowed by the fact that all the hiring manager can remember about you is the ducks on your pants.

3)  Be Personable

Be confident and use simple, accessible diction. Be polite and try to create chemistry with the interviewer, and even when the interviewer adopts a lighter tone, be sure not to let your guard down and maintain a certain professional distance. This will likely generate a first impression that you have tact and poise in professional correspondances. 

4)  Practice

If interviewing isn’t your strong suit, a definite way to ease the pressure is by practicing! Check your appearance and practice your tone of voice in front of the mirror and test out your handshake on a friend. Make a list of your strengths, weaknesses and goals so that you are prepared for any question that is thrown your way. Prep for the interview by researching the company and the interviewer, and make a killer first impression is by asking intelligent questions to show the interviewer you are responsible enough to have planned ahead. Basically, anticipate where things can go wrong and fix them in advance!

[For more best practices, check out our recent article on, “8 Tips for Perfecting Your Job Interviewing Technique”.] 

Remember, you've already locked in the interview, and that’s the first step in the right direction. The hiring manager chose you as a job candidate, out of a potentially large applicant pool. They chose you based off how you look on paper: your education, your experience and your skills. Now, that you have crossed those hurdles, they need to see what you’re like in person. This is where the first impression comes in. The optimal combination between your impressive resume and quality of character in the interview are the critical factors to landing the job.  So even if you successfully completed step one (the awesome resume), you won’t progress through the process unless you complete the second step.

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression – so make the interview count!

Infusive Solutions Inc. is a niche technical recruiting firm within the Microsoft Partner Network dedicated to serving the workforce needs of our clients as well as taking our candidate’s careers to the next level. Join is on Twitter and Facebook

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Were these tips helpful to you? If so, let us know in the comments section!

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Topics: IT Job Search