Do First Impressions REALLY Matter?

Photographed by Alice Gao.

In a recent survey from Match.com, 59% of men and 49% of women admitted to believing in love at first sight. Given pop culture's recent skeptical attitude toward this fairytale trope — even Disney has shaken it off — these numbers come as a bit of a surprise. Love at first sight is a tall order, but research shows that some snap judgments about your date are unavoidable, if not downright instinctual.

It actually takes less than one second for a new person to make an impression. A 2006 study from the department of psychology at Princeton University claims that we make our minds up about people's attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness within one-tenth of a second of seeing their faces. In fact, even when research participants were given more time to consider, they hardly wavered from that instant impression.

There are, of course, ways we can attempt to control the impression we leave. People who wear "dressier" clothes (suits, blazers, etc.) and glasses come off as more intelligent — while women who wear red or have visible tattoos are somehow assumed to be more promiscuous.
Feeling immediate butterflies in your stomach can actually alter your perception of your date's personality, due to a little something called the halo effect. The phenomenon — most frequently associated with your wholehearted devotion to certain celebrities — causes you to make positive assumptions about people you find attractive, even though you may know little about them. So when you feel an initial physical attraction, you're already primed to think of your date as more competent or trustworthy — despite having no real evidence of this.
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These quick-and-dirty impressions (those made in one-tenth of a second) were shown to have surprising staying power. According to another study, published in Social Cognition, if the judgments made in that split second are more positive than negative, you're likely to go on to be more open, even friendlier, to that person in the future.

While openness and friendliness might not necessarily be the makings of love at first sight, they could certainly spark the beginnings of a friendship — so as long as you don't come away from a first date completely turned off, there's potential for some kind of relationship down the road.
Photographed by Alice Gao.
Furthermore, romantic relationships that take longer to develop have something in common: Last month, a study from Northwestern University found that partners who started dating soon after meeting were more likely to be similar in how attractive they are, while couples that came out of a longstanding acquaintance or friendship had a larger disparity between their looks. This, the researchers argue, is because relationships that come out of friendships are more likely to be based on a mutual attraction to the more idiosyncratic qualities of each person. Which is why these relationships didn't happen right when the couple met; the individuals needed time to notice and appreciate each others' more specific personality traits — things that you could never know about a person in the first tenth of a second.

Sometimes, first impressions really can be effective, and that's what makes them so mystifying: It's obviously not the case that couples who become couples immediately are together because they analyzed each other's body language, verbal cues, and facial structure with the utmost accuracy. No one actively takes all of these factors into account when they meet someone. This might be why so many people still believe in the idea of love at first sight; most of its causes operate at a subconscious level. We now have the sudden urge to go back and watch The Little Mermaid for clues.
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