We all know the cliché: “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Opinions formed during the first moments of a relationship are usually long-lasting. This leads to all sorts of social manipulation to make a good impression: dressing your best, smiling a lot, leaning forward in your chair, all that stuff the job-hunting websites write about.
Recent science teaches us that’s less effective than the advice your mom always used to give you: “Just relax and be yourself!”
Why do first impressions matter? Do we have any control over them?
The Speed of Emotion
First impressions are made, not with logic, but emotion. That’s because our emotions reach conclusions far faster than we can find them logically.
In one experiment subjects were given an imaginary budget and three decks of cards with financial rewards or punishments. They drew cards from the three decks, keeping track of the wins and losses to end the game with as much money as possible.
The decks were stacked. Drawing from two of them led to more consistent wins. The third, though it had high payouts, carried extravagant punishments. The logical mathematical course was to avoid the dangerous deck, though participants didn’t know that.
On average, people chose about 50 cards before they stopped drawing from the danger deck, and about 80 cards before they could explain why. Eighty cards for logic to find a workable answer.
Biochemical measurements revealed that by the 10th card physiological responses to the danger deck driven by unconscious emotional reactions were already evident.
Their emotions learned in 10 draws what it took their conscious mind eight times as long to learn.
If it’s all emotional, you might as well show up to the interview in your jammies then, huh?
Your own intuition tells you that’s wrong.
The chemical which made emotions learn so quickly in the card experiment is called dopamine. It’s the primary feel-good chemical in your brain.
It’s also a primary foundation of intuition. Our unconscious mind uses dopamine to move us toward behaviors which reward and away from behaviors which threaten.
In effect, dopamine creates a powerful “surprise detection” circuit. Powerful, because surprise has an intense magnifying effect on our emotions.
What’s in the Package?
Think about how you feel when someone hands you a simple package, and you open it to find the latest novel or CD by your favorite artist. The surprise heightens the pleasure enormously.
Imagine (or remember) someone handing you the same book or CD. No wrapping, no build-up, just, “Here ya go.”
It’s not the same, is it? Sometimes we feel guilty for not feeling as appreciative as we think we should. Yet that difference is biochemical, beyond our control. Eliminating surprise kills a huge portion of the emotional response.
Also true with bad surprises. Here’s a place where giving away the ending can be incredibly helpful. The less surprised we are by a negative event, the less emotional impact it will have.
Surprise as a First Impression: Not a Good Thing
Back to that first impression: imagine all the expectations set up by the job interview, the first date, meeting the in-laws or a prospective buyer or whoever it is.
If, in the first moments, you disappoint (negatively surprise) their unconscious, the levels of dopamine in their brain drop significantly. Suddenly, the feel-good chemical in their brain isn’t making them feel good anymore.
And whose fault is it? Well, who just walked into the room?
The first impression, negative surprise, is difficult to overcome with logic. They may realize logically that you’re the right person, but dopamine makes them wary of you because you gave them an unpleasant surprise. By skipping the negative surprise you gain more control over their first impression of you.
Now mom’s advice works. Relax. Be yourself. Let their unconscious find what it likes about your unconscious (we call this “getting to know someone” and it has little to do with external factors.)
By avoiding negative surprise you’ve given first impressions a second chance.