Beyond First Impressions: Unveiling the Science of Perception

Impressions Matter, especially first impressions and especially to search committees and candidates. Neuroscience helps us understand how our unconscious mind forms those impressions and why first impressions are so strong. 

Candidates do well to keep in mind that first impressions are powerful and are formed the moment you walk into a room (or appear on the screen in Zoom) for an interview. Malcolm Gladwell made famous the concept of “thin slicing,” using small amounts of information to make quick decisions. These decisions do not originate in our conscious minds, but rather our unconscious ones. By the time you, the candidate, have settled in, interviewers have already formed a sense of you: your dress, your friendliness, your professionalism, your potential fit into their culture, and your leadership chops. It’s instantaneous as their unconscious minds have processed up to 100,000 times more info than their thoughtful, rational, and slow (very slow) conscious brain. 

There are two other neuroscience concepts at work in personal encounters. Let’s start with the primacy effect which explains why first impressions are so powerful and important. In any sequence of events, we tend to remember and be influenced by the first event most vividly. Here’s a simple test: who was the first person you talked with at the last party you went to? Who was the fifth? Most of us will remember how an event—or series of events—kicked off, but will not be able to recall as clearly or quickly the events that followed. That first “event” lasts long beyond the moment. 

Will Rogers got it right: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Another neuroscience concept at work during the search process is the power that contagion of emotion plays. As educators, we know emotional contagion can have profound impacts on the mental health of students and is likely a component in the surge of anxiety we see in young people. In the more mundane context of an interview, it means that if you come into the room (or up on the screen) nervously, others will feel uncomfortable, too. A not uncommon outcome of this situation will be for the interviewer to end the interview early. But if you show up and manifest confidence and excitement, the interviewer will reciprocate, and you’ll likely have a fulsome, interesting conversation.

These processes—thin slicing, primacy effect, and emotional contagion—aren’t just for the candidate to keep in mind. Search committees also need to be aware of them. Search committees do well to think about the role the unconscious mind plays in their initial reactions to candidates. Unconscious bias is real and can cloud the committee’s ability to clearly see the candidate’s strengths. Recognizing how detrimental and short-sighted unconscious bias can be, we offer bias mitigation training as part of the search process.

Search committees should also keep in mind that emotional contagion is a two-way street. Your engagement, respect, and ease with a candidate will be reciprocated in their interest and excitement about the position. I know a search committee got this right when I receive calls after the interview from a candidate telling me how great the committee members are and how much they enjoyed their time with the group. As a consultant, I recognize how powerful this reference point will become for a candidate (remember the primacy effect) as they move through the process. It pays big dividends when the school goes to land the candidate of their choice. First impressions matter, no matter which side of the table you’re sitting on.