Can we control first impressions?

Do you believe in love at first sight? When I asked this question in a room full of serious people, I gained a few chuckles and shaking heads.

But I wouldn’t be the first person to suggest that there is more power behind a trope like love at first sight than we may initially believe. After all, human beings are probably the most superficial of creatures.

We rely on first impressions for more than we realize. It’s not just job interviews and blind dates that we should worry about – first impressions rule every potential relationship ahead of us.

The problem, of course, is that we sometimes have very little power over how exactly we come across to someone who knows little about us. We  can dress a certain way and adjust our behavior, but ultimately, the subjective forces behind the extremely specific preferences of every single human being we come in contact with are almost impossible to predict and anticipate.

That said, we are not slaves to first impressions. We just need to better understand the numerous ways in which the mind forms an impression so that we can react accordingly.

1/10th of a Second

The bad news is that someone’s first impression of you is figured out pretty quickly. Our minds excel at mapping out a mental image of what it encounters almost instantaneously.

That may seem impressive, but reality can be a tricky (and complex) concept for our minds to make a copy of. Philosophers have debated for centuries over whether or not our perception of reality is even remotely accurate or if an objective world even exists for us to reference.

In other words, we have very little control over how our physical appearance and behavior translates to any given person at any one moment.


First impressions are determined by too many factors for us to comprehend, but we can identify the big and broad cues our minds are drawn to when encountering someone for the first time.

Physical appearance is probably the most obvious. Human beings are superficial creatures, and we assume that “beautiful” equals “good.” Now, everyone’s rubric for what is attractive varies, but you can pretty much guess that some people gain good first impressions easier than other others based on little more than their good looks.

This is why any self-help book or blog post worth its salt will tell you that actionable steps toward improving your appearance will land you that first date or second job interview. This isn’t tough for us to wrap our heads around.

But first impressions are complex. They rely on vastly more than just physical appearance,  especially when you factor in how subjective the concept of beauty is for each person. Further, some people may actually form a negative impression of an attractive person based on their previous experiences with someone who was pleasing to the eye.

Being beautiful doesn’t cut it.

Context Clues

Other obvious factors that play into first impressions include context, age, and gender. For example, a woman would have a slightly different impression – at least initially – of an adult male she doesn’t know in a dark alley from a young boy in that same environment. In this case, it’s good that our minds form quick judgements for us to anticipate dangerous situations.

Our minds are also quick to judge the nature of someone based on their non-verbals. This includes everything about us that isn’t spoken, from the way we shake hands to how often we smile.

One of the most important non-verbals may be eye contact, which  helps us determine how interested the other person is in us. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who won’t even look at you?

Additionally, we interpret posture in a variety of ways. Standing up straight gives an impression of composure and confidence, but for someone else, it could communicate arrogance (puffing of the chest). A relaxed posture, on the other hand, may put others at ease.

How Impressions Can Be Altered

The biggest strength of a first impression is also its weakness. Because they are typically formed according to snapshot judgements, we don’t always fully trust our first impressions. For the most part, we like to give people second chances.

One of the biggest ways an impression can be altered is through a simple change of environment. For better or worse, an impression that was formed in a group setting can shift dramatically when interacting one-on-one.

Familiarity is also a powerful force for improving an impression. Generally, we are on guard when we first meet someone, but seeing that person often may not breed contempt as the saying goes. For the same reason you watched the same movie countless times as a child, familiarity tends to elicit positive feelings toward something we are used to and understand.

Impressions are also linked to association. Our minds use association to process data quickly and hopefully accurately. For example:

  1. That person is friends with Doug.
  2. I like Doug.
  3. I like that person.

This happens so quickly that we essentially think of them as the same person, as we are thinking about both people at the same time. Association is a powerful – and active – way for us to form ongoing impressions in almost any type of setting.

Finally, being different is probably the most powerful force behind a first impression. You are more likely to think through an impression you have of someone wearing shorts in the middle of winter than you are someone wearing a jacket.

Your brain scrambles to try and find out why that person is being different, and for good or ill, you are thinking through your impression a little more carefully.

We can use this to our benefit. During our first interaction with someone, we can position ourselves as being more interesting and memorable if we find ways to make ourselves stand out.

The opposite also works. You’ve probably noticed that finding common ground with other people works to build a quick bond with them (familiarity plays into this), and this is considered by many to be essential for forming romantic relationships.

In the end, the only control we have over external perception is how well our inner thoughts and feelings correspond with how we come across, and it can take a few years or even a lifetime for us to achieve that kind of harmony.