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  • Writer's pictureDr. CK Bray

How to Increase Your First Impression Accuracy

In 2002 following a divorce, Randall Colvin was looking for a new life partner. A friend suggested he conduct his search online at Browsing through the profiles of potential women he finds a woman who looks so glamorous she seems to have popped off a movie set. He is anything but interested as this woman is a far cry from the more scholarly, down-to-earth women he prefers.

“She looked so superficial,” he recalls. About a month after he posted his profile an email from the glamour girl arrived in his inbox. Instead of seeming narcissistic and full of herself, she was sweet and communicative, and when they met she appeared attractive, but hardly an aspiring diva. In a single, kind email, the woman counteracted an unfortunate first impression. She is now Colvin’s wife. (Story originally published in the article the10-second take, Psychology Today, November/December 2015 issue).

Corporations would kill for a way to interview potential candidates and have a more reliable first impression on the candidates’ competencies, skill sets, and behaviors in just one interview. Unfortunately, like Randall Colvin, we all make initial judgments on individuals that can cloud how we view these individuals. Fortunately, new research is discovering new inroads to better understanding first impressions and what they can mean.

Quick judgments and first impressions have been shown to be most reliable for the broadest view of the Big Five traits including:

  • Extraversion

  • Openness

  • Agreeableness

  • Conscientiousness

  • Neuroticism.

Studies have shown that first impressions and judgments about the Big Five traits made after knowing someone for a minute are usually as accurate as those made after knowing the person for years. In just 5 seconds individuals can easily pick up on extraversion and conscientiousness, as well as intelligence and any negative effect. Stick around for another few seconds and one can hone in on openness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Colvin, 2015)

So how is this accomplished and how can you learn to do it? (I see some big money being made to take this process to corporate America and teaching managers how to correctly interpret first impressions of potential employees. Unfortunately, the research is still ongoing. Colvin describes one of the best ways to make a sound first impression comes through different parts of a conversation. One of the most telling parts of the conversation comes halfway through it. For example, “If two people are talking on a couch at a party for 30 minutes, the sweet spot of the discussion, the part where you really get a glimpse into who the person really is, will be at the 15-minute mark. This is the point they are more likely to be honest and forthright.” (Colvin, 2015). It is important to note that the correct impression may only be skin deep. “We learn the person is an extrovert,” said Colvin, “but not how many parties she attends. We learn he is depressed, but now why.” (Colvin, 2015)

To start your journey on better understanding first impressions it is important to listen to what is said, how the individual says it, and the body language that occurs during the conversation. For most individuals (without any practice) their first impressions are spot-on about 30 percent of the time. The longer the conversation, the more accurate your impression is going to be. So the next time you are interviewing a candidate, increase your focus not only on the verbal response but also on how they say it, their body language, and the manner of speech.

Watch for an upcoming podcast with Dr. Colvin as he shares more of his fascinating research on the steps of learning how to have more accurate first impressions.

Colvin, R. Psychology Today. November/December 2015.


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