x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

How much stock should we put in first impressions?

What is it that makes us dislike someone we don't know? Anna Bundy finds it's a behavioural science that indicates you can judge a book by its cover.

Live and let live, I always say. Each to his or her own. Different strokes for different folks. These are my mottoes. After all, people in all their great diversity are the weavers of life's rich and varied tapestr... No, I can't keep that up. It's all a lie. I can't help it - I am the most judgemental person in the world. I hate people with silly hair, clothes they consider to be "outrageous", or who are trying to make a statement. If you've got something to say, say it, don't "express yourself" via some piercings and absurd tattoos.

When I am introduced to other mums at school I almost invariably dislike them. I hate the ones who laugh too loud and then look round to make sure people have noticed. I hate the ones who come in wearing high heels and a face full of make-up at 8am - who are you trying to attract at this hour? I hate the ones in running kit trying to prove they a) don't have to work and b) are in great shape, even when exposed in body-clinging Lycra. I hate the ones who rush in wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase as if to let everyone know they are big and important. And don't even get me started on men. I hate men who hold forth and don't let anyone else speak, who dress 30 years younger than their age with their jeans hanging low so that I have to look at their pants. I hate goatees, and men with ponytails, big watches, too much hair gel, bow ties, floral ties and strong aftershave. I hate cripplingly high heels, people in dance wear who are not dancing, and anyone in statement clothing.

Now, I am sure that you are not as cantankerous as I am, and I am the first to admit that I often laugh too loud myself, wear high heels and show up at school in gym kit, but I am equally sure that you will recognise the phenomenon. Sometimes, we meet people and, however much they have been recommended to us, we just take an instant dislike to them.

I conducted a brief poll of friends and relations to see whether any common themes emerged. My mother told me she hates people who seem pleased with themselves and who look as though they believe in horoscopes. My daughter said she hates people who are too jolly and too friendly because then they are going to boss you around. My friend Chloe said: "I hate anyone who brims with confidence and has a chipper, can-do demeanour. Any snickering, bearded, in-on-the-gag media type and anyone who moans about being fat while sobbing into their huge slice of cake [me]."

So, my extensive research reveals that what most of us don't like is someone who seems self-satisfied. Is this a mammalian reaction of hostility towards those who appear more successful and satisfied than we are? Do we bristle at women who are slimmer, prettier and richer than ourselves because decent mates are few and far between and she has either got the best one or is about to steal ours? The British psychoanalyst David Morgan says envy can be a factor in our negative snap judgements about others.

"Rubbishing the other person obviates the necessity to feel envy," Morgan says. "We might also write off someone we fear might judge us harshly by getting our judgement in first. If we expect harsh judgement, we give it."

Morgan also suggests that, for those of us who find ourselves hating huge numbers of strangers, the nicer or more benign they seem, the more we might feel the need to hate them.

"By contrast with ourselves," he says, "they make us aware of what we might dislike about ourselves and so, to avoid self-awareness, awareness of our pain and those things we want to avoid knowing in ourselves, we have to find fault with the other person. If we can annihilate them, we don't have to process what they might make us feel."

I was once introduced to a woman at a brunch party. "You will love her," my friend said. "I don't know who talks more - you or her!" I hated her. I found her pretentious, arrogant, rude and, worst of all, obviously babbling through chronic insecurity so that I also felt so sorry for her that I couldn't walk away. I did see myself in her and that was, I thought, too awful to bear. Was I really like that? Ugh.

A year later I met her again in a more relaxed way - just on the street with our children, and we stood and chatted. We met a few more times and, before long, we were talking on the phone for up to two hours a day and flying round the world to spend time with each other. I got so unhealthily embroiled in her family that we eventually fell out and haven't spoken for years. I realised over time that my first impression of her had been correct. I had been so lonely when the children were little that I'd overlooked my first impressions in order to have a friend. But, in truth, I'd always found her difficult.

So, can first impressions be right, and not a defensive and evasive judgement to stop ourselves feeling rubbish?

The London School of Economics behavioural psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa thinks so:

"If you think that it is envy that causes your snap judgement, then you are saying that you dislike people who are like you and compete against you, whereas I dislike people who are like me and compete against me. But I believe there is greater consensus on whom we like and whom we dislike. I think everybody more or less dislikes the same people."

Can it be true? All women hate men with goatees? Yippee!

"One of the very, very few stereotypes which science has shown to be false is 'You can't judge a book by its cover'. A large number of experiments have shown people can judge strangers' character from looking at still pictures or a few seconds of soundless video clips," Kanazawa adds. "This is because nice people look nice, and nasty people look nasty."

I feel vindicated. Those gorgeous Russian models who drop their kids off at school are not just better looking than me - they are actually mean.

This, says Kanazawa, is why actors are often typecast.

"Tom Hanks always plays the nice guy, and Ray Liotta always plays the nasty guy," he says. "You can tell by looking at their faces that Tom Hanks is a nice guy and Ray Liotta is a nasty guy. Whether these judgements are actually true - I doubt that Ray Liotta is secretly a serial murderer - the point is that everybody agrees that he looks like a serial murderer."

It's as simple as that. Jennifer Aniston just looks nice.

The human ability to judge the character of others on zero acquaintance has actually been scientifically tested by evolutionary psychologists at Cornell University, who show people a series of photographs of 32 Caucasian men in their 20s, without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair, all in neutral expressions. Sixteen of them are convicted criminals. The researchers simply ask their experimental participants to indicate how likely they think it is that each man is a certain type of criminal (murderer, rapist, thief, forger, assailant, arsonist and drug dealer) on a seven-point scale from one - extremely unlikely - to seven - extremely likely. The results from these experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not.

Now, I am not trying to claim that the people I don't like are criminals (though some of them should surely be locked up), but the idea that mean people look mean is a comforting one. Kanazawa believes in the human ability to judge a character correctly: "When we instantaneously dislike someone upon meeting them, and especially when different people agree on this instantaneous judgement, it's likely that people are (unconsciously and unknowingly) picking up on the underlying character of the person."

But what if this person has been recommended to us by a trusted friend? Surely then we are just being bigoted and mean if we judge negatively? Not so, says Kanazawa: "Your friend may tell you that this person is benign and that you have no reason to dislike him, but your friend may be lying. My guess is that the instantaneous liking or disliking of someone is due to the innate human ability to judge the character of others simply by looking at them."

I have always trusted my instant reaction to people, but that trust can be skewed by a good actor and it is this, I think, that is the essence of what many of us instantly dislike in a person - a good actor, someone who seems false. Silly hair, statement clothes, big sunglasses, too much surgery, apparent over-confidence - all these things smack of lies to me, of an attempt to conceal what is really in this person's mind, whether it is something nasty or just something very shy.

This is why masks are scary. The first thing we see in life is, ideally, a face we can, and must, trust. Any attempt to conceal oneself, whether with clothing or words, is what riles people, because it messes with the friend-or-foe detection and survival system, and nobody likes that to be messed with because it can be life or death.

Right, I'm off to pick the kids up now in high heels, make-up, shades and a Lycra cat suit. I'm not planning on making any new friends.



Why we hate people


  • She is slimmer than you
  • She is prettier than you
  • She is richer than you
  • Her children do better at school than yours
  • Her husband is more successful than yours



  • She is just like me! I am ghastly!



  • She is nicer to her children
  • She is kinder to strangers
  • She works for a charity
  • She is not showy
  • She doesn't talk as loudly as you do



  • She probably hits her children
  • She says unkind things about people who think they are her friends
  • She will lie to get what she wants



Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock



Christopher Walken, Ray Liotta, Sissy Spacek



Wise words on first impressions


"When you meet someone for the first time, you will be judged in less than five minutes, so always make sure to leave a first good impression. if not, then make it a bad one - both work as long as your name will be remembered."

- Mohamad Ghalayini (1986-), Lebanese entrepreneur


"It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us."

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), German philosopher


"You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

- unknown


"First impressions are often the truest, as we find (not infrequently) to our cost, when we have been wheedled out of them by plausible professions or studied actions. A man's look is the work of years; it is stamped on his countenance by the events of his whole life, nay, more, by the hand of nature, and it is not to be got rid of easily."

- William Hazlitt (1778-1830), British writer


"Don't be over self-confident with your first impressions of people."

- Chinese proverb


"The answer is that we are not helpless in the face of our first impressions. They may bubble up from the unconscious - from behind a locked door inside of our brain - but just because something is outside of awareness doesn't mean it's outside of control."

- Malcolm Gladwell (1963-), Canadian journalist and author


"Adjust your philosophy of first impressions. You should know they're meaningless by now."

- Timothy Correa (1988-), US musician


"First impressions are a constant in society. However, their product, the period that proves or disproves their validity is not; good ones are pleasant and long lasting, bad ones long and difficult to disprove."

- Diego Velasquez (1966-), Colombian educator


"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer and poet


"People's first impressions of people are really a big mistake."

- Vincent D'Onofrio (1959-), US actor


"First impressions are often entirely wrong."

- Lemony Snicket (1970), US novelist

Sources: http://thinkexist.com, www.goodreads.com, www.quotesdaddy.com, www.searchquotes.com