First Impressions

There is a well-circulated statistic that 33% of interviewers know in the first 90 seconds if they’ll hire a candidate.

The human brain is extremely proficient at detecting (sometimes barely perceptible) cues and quickly categorizing new stimuli as either a “threat” or “ally.” In fact, studies show that first impressions are surprisingly valid. So why aren’t hiring interviews cut down to two minutes?

Well, cognitive distortions for starters (another area where humans are “extremely proficient” unfortunately).

Cognitive distortions are “tricks” the brain plays in an effort to reduce anxiety created by uncertainty. In ambiguous situations, we feel more comfortable “knowing” rather than guessing, so our brain develops conclusions to appease us.  We feel better since the ambiguity is gone, but the problem is, our conclusions are often wrong.

Research also shows that when we’re incorrect about a first impression, it takes a long time to figure it out (much longer than the 45 minutes of a standard interview, by the way). The result? We miss out, get duped, waste time, or make poor choices.

Selective attention is a common distortion we engage when meeting new people. After categorizing someone (positively or negatively) based on a first impression, we (often unknowingly) scan for signs that support our interpretation, and ignore data that negate it. Additionally, we interpret actions in ways that reinforce our conclusions.

  • “She seems like a know-it-all. Did you see how she jumped in to finish the instructor’s sentences?!”
  • “She’s so thoughtful! Did you see how she jumped in to help the instructor when he lost his place?”

The problem with first impressions is humans are ridiculously complex, and there are many confounding factors that can interfere with our conclusions. Here are a few examples:

  • Context. In an interview or on a first date, there are obvious pressures to “perform” that can distort a person’s presentation. Hiring the “charismatic” candidate or dumping the “clumsy” date can both be major judgment errors.
  • Mood. Irritability, jubilation and everything in between color how we perceive others. When we’re melancholy for example, our ability to perceive external cues lessens, and everything seems lackluster.
  • Environment. Smells are the most powerful memory triggers humans possess, and a particular scent can link to an experience in your past which causes you to see someone favorably (or unfavorably) based on the association with the previous experience.
  • Culture. In Korea, people laugh when nervous or embarrassed. In Bahrain, burping after a meal is considered a compliment to the chef. In Argentina, being on time is considered rude. As our multicultural world becomes intertwined, it’s best not to assume your way is the only way.

So if you’ve ever been wrong about someone – for better or worse – based on a first impression, it’s worth taking time to check your distortions in the future.

Happy hunting!

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