Do first impressions actually matter?

How much do we judge people on the first impression they make, and why might the brain do this?
01 September 2022

Interview with 

Daniel Sgroi, University of Warwick


A handshake.


We’ve all heard the old saying that first impressions matter, or that there’s no second chance at a first impression. But what does the science behind first interactions say on the subject? A new study ran an experiment which found that subjects engaging in small talk with other people formed impressions about their personalities that then appeared to influence their behavior when playing strategic games. Julia Ravey has been talking to Daniel Sgroi, of the University of Warwick, about how early interactions shape future opinions, and why the brain decides to judge people on the first impression they make.

Daniel - I think actually it's a natural thing that we do. We tend to do that so that we can use those impressions later on in life. So even a short conversation or a brief interaction can give us a little bit of insight, which we can then use later on to benefit ourselves and also to benefit the sort of group interactions we have with other people. So it's almost an evolutionary advantage that we have as humans

Julia - And what elements contribute towards this first impression of a person?

Daniel - If we are thinking about talking, it's to do with the words that we use, to do with the rapidity with which we speak, the amount of information that's contained and, fundamentally, it's to do with the sort of personality of the person that's speaking and how easily we can determine the personality of that person through the words that they use.

Julia - How big a role then does small talk play in forming that initial first impression?

Daniel - A very big role. I think our own research suggests that even very short bursts of small talk, maybe talking for two minutes with someone you've never met before, can give you a decent stab at guessing the sort of personality of the person you're talking to. And in future, that helps you to understand them, helps you to form a mental model of the sort of person that they are, and which in turn helps you to interact with them better.

Julia - Are there any specific traits of a person's personality that are particularly susceptible to be picked up in this initial small talk?

Daniel - Yes, absolutely. So one of the big traits that's been identified by psychologists over the years is how extroverted people are. So how much they talk, how outgoing they are, how much they enjoy interaction with others. And that trait, as you might expect being the trait that really is about interaction, is the one that comes through first. So even in a short burst of small talk, you can often detect whether the person you're talking to is an extrovert or an introvert.

Julia - And with this initial small talk, how prolonged can the effects of that influence be?

Daniel - They can be pretty prolonged. In our own experiment, you talk for two minutes and then maybe admittedly within about an hour or so, these sorts of impressions are sustained. It seems likely that within the workplace, since you don't talk to someone once then interact with them and never speak to them again, more likely you are gonna be talking to them on a repeated basis. So as long as you, as long as you keep that small talk going, talk to someone a little bit every day, you can generally form lasting and quite accurate impressions of the sort of personality of the person you're interacting with.

Julia - And in your experiments you've recently just published, you looked at how small talk impacts strategic interactions. So what did you find there?

Daniel - Well, we found that in the sort of strategic interactions we were looking at, which were the sort of situations where cooperating and coordinating well with others improves, improves everybody's wellbeing. In those sorts of situations, a little bit of small talk can really have a dramatic effect in how well you form beliefs about the personality of the person, which feeds into your understanding of how they're gonna behave in those sorts of interactions, which in turn makes it easier for you to coordinate and cooperate with them. If you don't have that small talk, which was in the placebo setting, you don't see any of those benefits. And so generally speaking, the groups do a lot worse if they don't get to have a couple of minutes of chatting with each other at the beginning

Julia - How do you think this work could extend outside of the lab? How could it apply in the real world?

Daniel - I think one of the things that we showed in our research, we use a sort of standard experimental design in which the only difference between our two settings is whether people get to communicate or not. And the benefits that are obtained through that communication are quite sizable for the individuals and for the groups. So I guess what we're showing is that people might think small talk is irrelevant, maybe a drain on productivity, maybe it doesn't fulfill any sort of social purpose over and above, perhaps just a normal chat with someone, just a bit of social lubricant, if you like. But what we see is it actually fulfills an important purpose in terms of efficiency, wellbeing, and improvement. It just makes groups work better together and I think the sort of further point really is that any managers out there, any people who are thinking, 'well, I want to stamp down on social interaction of this sort, I don't think it's good for productivity'. Perhaps our research is telling them that's not true, that this sort of small talk actually is very good for productivity.

Julia - So do first impressions count?

Daniel - Yes, they do, which can be a bad thing and it can be a good thing. All I would say is if it's the first time that you are interacting with someone, even if they've just asked you how you are, who you are, how you're settling in at work. I think it's important, in that very first impression, to try and reveal as much about your personality as possible. Don't just respond with the standard 'I'm fine. Thanks'. Try and say a little bit more, give them a clearer idea of the sort of person you are, help them to better understand how you are gonna behave when you interact with them in the future. And you'll be able to coordinate and cooperate better with them when you do interact with them.


Add a comment