The science of first impressions (and why most candidates mess them up)

Meeting someone new can be nerve-wracking, particularly in a formal setting such as a job interview. This is because that meeting has serious consequences. The outcome of your first encounter with a potential employer impacts your livelihood, your day-to-day life for the foreseeable future.

So, there’s a lot riding on the first impression you make in a job interview. That pressure makes many candidates strive to come across as intelligent and competent right from the outset. Because of course you want the potential employer to find you intelligent and competent.

The trouble is, the overly formal approach often doesn’t work.

According to Harvard psychology professor Amy Cuddy, when we first meet someone, we instinctively try to answer two questions about them:

  • Can I trust this person?
  • Can I respect this person?

Those questions are answered more by your mannerisms, how you present yourself and how you speak, much more than by what you actually say. Rehearsing your elevator pitch and quoting your credentials right off the bat won’t make you come across as warm and likeable.

Cuddy explains, “If someone you’re trying to influence doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get very far; in fact, you might even elicit suspicion because you come across as manipulative. A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”

Successful first impressions depend on getting past the transactional nature of the meeting and having a human encounter. Friendly people having a pleasant meeting with other friendly people.

The research shows that in the first few seconds of meeting someone, what is said aloud has little impact on the formation of that crucial first impression.

The first-impression breakdown according to science*:

50% – Appearance

  • Posture, handshake
  • Gestures, facial expression
  • Clothes, hair, makeup

40% – Sound

  • Tone, volume
  • Articulation, cadence
  • Accent

10% – What is actually said

Positive first impressions aren’t made by showing off your intelligence or competence – or frankly by showing off anything at all. Above and beyond your credentials, for someone to hire you for a job, they have to like and trust you. A large part of determining that happens within just a few seconds of meeting you.

For your next job interview, remember to focus on the 90%. Dress professionally, have a warm smile and a friendly handshake. Pretend you’re meeting the friend of a friend who you’ve heard good things about, and you’d like to hang out with. Hopefully, they’ll be left with the impression that they want to hang out with you too. Because of course, that’s what will happen if you land the job: you’ll be spending a great deal of time together.

Here are some tips on making a conversational – rather than formal – first impression.


* You’re Too Smart for This, Michael Ball, SourceBooks, Inc., Napierville, Ill. USA, 2006

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