First Impressions Make Lasting Impressions

Side profile of two young men shaking handsThough not judging a book by its cover is a widely admonished adage, new research suggests that people are innately inclined to do just that. First impressions—based on appearance—stick, whether we want them to or not.

A series of studies presented at a conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas, revealed that in a matter of seconds, people tend to size up each other’s outward trappings and make snap judgments of everything from trustworthiness to sexual orientation. It happens so automatically that “we can’t help but do it,” according to researcher Nicholas Rule.

“As soon as one sees another person, an impression is formed,” said Rule. “This happens so quickly—just a small fraction of a second—that what we see can sometimes dominate what we know.”

And once we’ve formed an initial, superficial opinion of someone, it can be difficult to alter it, regardless of how fervently the moral mind may wish to tolerate and accept a person.

In one of these studies, Rule and colleagues focused on people’s perceptions of sexual orientation in photographs of 20 men. The 100 participants were told whether the men in the photos were gay or straight in the “learning phase” of the experiment.

But when the pictures were shown to them again and they were given different lengths of time to assess each subject’s sexual orientation, the participants went solely on visuals, not facts: the less time they had to judge a person, the more quickly they were to make flawed assessments.

Additional studies examined the effects of online versus in-person first impressions. Researchers evaluated the impressions that came about via Facebook photos, video introductions, and passive observation and compared them with those that arose from face-to-face interactions. The results showed that though accurate opinions can be formed through both in-person and “passive” forms of introduction, the passive impressions tended to be on the negative side. Those who met face to face had more positive things to say about each other.

This also applies to romantic interactions; when meeting one another for the first time in person, people are likely to follow how they feel and listen to their gut reactions. When meeting for the first time online, people tend to be more analytical and critical.

Based on research results, this appears to be because it is difficult to experience accurate, authentic feelings when viewing someone’s online dating profile. This is similar to a phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect, which is the tendency to overshare personal information online, simply because face-to-face interaction isn’t putting one’s inhibitions in check.

There is always the possibility that a person may seem ideal based on their online information and photos, but in person, the chemistry simply might not be felt.


Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2014, February 14). Even fact will not change first impressions. Press Release. Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rebecca H

    Rebecca H

    February 25th, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    I try to tell my kids this all the time, but of course I’m just old and don’t know what I’m talking about right?
    I try to stress to them that it is a good idea to always put your best foot forward, even when you don’t necessarily feel like it, because the first concept that we form about someone is most often the one that stays with us even when we may find out something differently.
    They always say but oh people aren’t judging you based on that kind of stuff, but I tell them that I have been around long enough to know otherwise.

  • cheryl


    February 25th, 2014 at 10:46 AM

    While I do think that a first impression is important, that doesn’t mean that it should be the end all be all in any first meeting. There are always subtleties that can be uncovered later on that can answer a whole lot of questions that you may have had in the beginning. Don’t be so close minded that you are unwilling to see that later on.

  • Sarah Swenson

    Sarah Swenson

    February 25th, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    i agree with the author. As a therapist, I find that one of the most difficult things to unravel is an inaccurate first impression. Regardless of our intentions “not to judge,” or “not to be superficial,” our drive toward forming lasting initial impressions is evolutionarily sound and not likely to to be extinguished any time soon. The challenge is to bring consciousness to first impressions, to tell ourselves that we may be misinterpreting events or individuals, and to permit ourselves to change those first impressions to allow for and account for additional information as it becomes available, if it contradicts that first impression. Most often, as research suggests, that first impression is accurate, however. We human beings are profoundly gifted at pattern recognition, which is often referred to as our “intuition” – and as a result, more often than not, we are correct in our initial assessments. As for online encounters – when you consider that up to 65% of communication is nonverbal, is it any wonder that first impressions are often inaccurate? In person, however, all your senses are working in your favor, and you are more likely to form congruent assessments.

  • Talia


    February 26th, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    That’s so opposite of what I usually do, because I tend to see people through rose colored glasses like they can do no worng, and I have gotten pretty hurt by that in the past. Maybe I need to start turning more of a critical eye toward people before jumping in.

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