Don't judge a book by its cover

Last update: September 11, 2022
Reading time: 3 minutes
By BrainMatters

Whenever you meet someone new, you immediately (believe to) have a general sense of what the person is like. This is the first impression we get from someone. Studies show that first impressions are made in just 100 milliseconds. That is literally in the blink of an eye. But do these first impressions actually matter?

We base our first impression (often unknowingly) on a wide range of characteristics, such as tone of voice, how someone dresses, and body odor. During a first impression, we categorize this individual as a certain type of person. Is this person nice? Or dangerous? And especially “is this person like me?”. Our brain likes to categorize things.This makes a complicated and chaotic world a bit more organized. Initially this is done by the amygdala, a small almond shaped structure in the brain that is responsible for attaching emotions to the things we perceive. The posterior cingulate cortex also plays a role in the first impression. This brain area is involved in many different functions (the exact function is still unclear, but it seems to be involved in memory and associations). First impressions are very useful. They allow us to make fast decisions. However, many nuances do get lost during this categorisation, and sometimes lead to incorrect judgments. These initial categorisations made by the brain are also known as “biases”.  

An example of a bias is the beautiful-is-good bias, meaning that we tend to assume that beautiful people are also good people. This can be explained by the halo-effect. The halo-effect entails that the brain incorrectly thinks that if someone has one positive trait (in this case, beauty), this person is also likely to have other good traits (like intelligence, competency, or kindness).

A study published in 2021 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior investigated this beautiful-is-good bias in an experiment. Participants were shown attractive and unattractive faces on a computer screen. Then they were asked how likely these individuals are to possess a character trait. For example bravery, intelligence, or kindness. It turned out that people are more likely to assign positive traits to attractive faces compared to unattractive faces. On top of that, participants thought that the people with attractive faces had a higher morality than those with less attractive faces.

So, do first impressions matter? Yes, they do. Our brain draws many conclusions from how someone looks, although they are sometimes unjustified. However, we still treat people accordingly. For example, studies show that attractive people are more likely to be hired or promoted, less likely to be found guilty or receive less severe punishment in court, and are more likely to be elected as political candidates. We even tend to give more attention and care to attractive children compared to less attractive children.

This is unjustified. You can’t know about someone’s intelligence or kindness based on the symmetry of their face. To prevent injustice, we would have to actively counteract the beautiful-is-good bias. To do so, the most important thing is to be aware of your brain making this thinking error (Congratulations! Since you’ve read this article, that has already been achieved). So, the next time you meet someone new, hopefully, you will ask yourself “Do I base my impression on facts? Or am I falling prey to a bias?” 

Author: Pauline van Gils

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