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FRESH FRIDAYS: First impressions count. Right…?

by Ami Jayakrishnan and Bryony Robottom October 31, 2014

​From a very young age it's been ingrained in us never to judge a book by its cover, and rightly so. Here at FreshMinds we meet new people on a daily basis and formulating judgments about these people is a major part of our job. We all recognise the initial tell-tale signs of a strong candidate that form our first impression - the firm handshake, the friendly smile, the confident stride towards the interview room. However, what we didn't realise until now is that before they've done more than look at us, our brains have made some incredibly fast snap-judgements based solely on their face.

A host of recent studies have shown that our brains are in fact capable of subconsciously creating an impactful first impression of a person from a mere glimpse of their face. We don't realise we've done it, but the information has registered itself, ready to influence our opinions. This phenomenon, aptly termed 'facism', inadvertently affects our conscious first impression and consequent judgments of that person.

Scientists have learned more about the human brain in the last 10 years than ever before. Located deep and medially between the temporal lobes of the brain is the amygdala, a tiny pea-sized nodule with a rather large impact on our thinking. The amygdala is the powerhouse of 'perception' within our brain and it controls how we formulate first impressions of people from a glimpse of their face.

The Psychology department at the University of York, led by Dr Tom Hartley, created a database of cartoon faces (using photos from social media) and used mathematical models to measure and tweak 65 different factors, from eyebrow length to jaw shape. Participants were asked to rate the faces on three 'core' factors - attractiveness, dominance and approachability. The results proved very consistent across the group showing that certain facial features trigger the same reactions in people's brains. A similar study looked into the connection between faces and career success, assessing whether a face can be used to predict a person's success in reaching prestigious leadership positions. CEOs, for example, whose faces are perceived to look more competent are more likely to be hired by large, successful companies even if they don't perform any better than their peers whose faces look 'less competent'!

What can we do to stop these snap judgements?

Now that we are aware that our brains make subconscious first impressions, we can prevent this from affecting our true judgment. We may not be able to control the subconscious workings of the amygdala, but we can consciously help people we meet to make a fair first impression by asking the right questions. For example, a strong jaw line may prompt our brains to label a person as a good leader but discovering how they have dealt with challenges in the workplace can paint a much more accurate picture of their capabilities. So, with some careful questioning we can consciously transform a superficial first impression into a much more meaningful and useful judgment.

So next time you just don't like the look of someone, remember to question your amygdala- it's not always right!

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