Character  &  Context

Accurate First Impressions Leave a Lasting Impression

Image of businessman shaking hands at a restaurant table with businesswoman

By Lauren Human

Everyone knows first impressions are important. They can potentially determine whether you get the job, a second date, or develop a friendship. But what does it really mean to make a good impression? Of course, to make a good impression you need to be seen positively, but could there be more to it than that? Perhaps it is also important to be seen accurately – to have other people understand what personality traits make you uniquely you.

My colleagues and I sought to address this question by examining whether accurate first impressions among new classmates would predict greater liking and friendship development, both immediately and over time. At the start of the semester, we brought groups of about six new classmates from large undergraduate classes into the lab. Each new classmate met with each other one-on-one for a few minutes. After each conversation, both people rated each other’s personality on traits such as talkativeness and reliability. They also rated how much they liked each other and how interested they were in talking in the future.

Three months later, at the end of the semester, we had everyone rate the classmates they had met through our lab a second time. Classmates again rated how much they liked one another and how interested they were in talking in the future. Classmates also rated how much they actually had interacted throughout the semester, such as whether they had talked outside of class.

We expected that accurately perceiving a new classmate’s personality would predict greater relationship development, such as greater liking and a greater amount of interaction. Why? Accurately perceiving someone could create an immediate sense of familiarity and closeness to a new acquaintance, potentially making you feel comfortable with them more quickly, in turn promoting liking. Thus, we expected that part of making a good impression would involve being open and transparent to others. Mysterious people might be intriguing but can also be off-putting if you can’t quite put your finger on what a person is really like.

So did accurate first impressions predict relationship development among new classmates? Yes: people who formed more accurate first impressions of a new classmate – understanding that they were more talkative than reliable, and more talkative than a fellow classmate, for example – liked that new classmate more and were more interested in talking to them in the future, both immediately and three months later. More accurate first impressions also predicted interacting with that person more throughout the semester, such as talking more outside of class. Importantly, accurate first impressions predicted these indicators of relationship development above and beyond the very strong benefits of forming positive personality impressions.

In sum, first impressions do matter – they predict relationship development among new classmates both immediately and up to three months later. This study sheds light on what it means to make a good impression, above and beyond being seen positively. Specifically, it appears to be important to be seen accurately – to have your unique personality traits be understood by others. So when meeting people for the first time, although it is certainly important to be on your best behavior if you want them to like you, this probably shouldn’t come at the expense of being yourself. It is also important for people to know you, if you want them to like you.

Of course, there may be limits to the benefits of being seen accurately. Being seen accurately on our less positive traits could certainly backfire at times. For example, telling a potential new boss that you are disorganized may not make them like you, let alone hire you. It is also not yet clear exactly why it is that accuracy predicts relationship development, or how far reaching these effects are. Do accurate first impressions impact who your friends are a year or more later? Do accurate first impressions also impact whom you date or hire for a job? These are interesting questions for future research to address. Overall, these findings suggest that accurate first impressions can leave a lasting impression, one that may help foster new relationships.

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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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