First impressions are powerful and are formed in all sorts of social settings, from job interviews and first dates to court rooms and classrooms. We regularly make snap judgments about others, deciding whether people are trustworthy, confident, extraverted, likable, and more. Although we have all heard the old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” we do just that. And at the same time that we are judging others, we in turn communicate a great deal of information about ourselves – often unwittingly – that others use to size us up.
It is no surprise that complete strangers engage in a process of mutual evaluation, or that people form impressions quite quickly, and in many cases, quite accurately. One of the first studies to demonstrate this fact was conducted in 1966 by Warren Norman and Lou Goldberg, who had college students rate their classmates’ personalities on the very first day of class, before they had a chance to interact. Students were also asked to rate their own personalities. Two surprising findings emerged from that study: First, classmates tended to agree in their assessments of others; if one classmate rated a peer as dependable or extraverted, it was likely that other classmates rated that individual as dependable or extraverted too.
The second and more noteworthy finding was that students’ first impressions of their classmates tended to align with their classmates’ own self-assessments. Thus, if a person was rated as sociable by his classmates, it was quite likely that he had independently rated himself as sociable as well. These data, and those from similar studies, suggest that we are adept in rapidly and accurately evaluating some personality traits, or at the very least that we are quick to discern the way others see themselves.
Just how low can we go? If we can accurately size up a fellow student in the first few moments of class, without any significant interaction, how little information do we need in order to make these assessments? Is body language enough? What about facial expressions, clothing, or mannerisms? From the shoes we wear and the way we stand to the songs we like and the way we walk, researchers have examined what our behaviors and our preferences convey to others. In many instances it seems we need to catch only the smallest detail about a person to form an accurate impression, but of course we can get it wrong.