A Tenth of a Second: How to Improve Your First Impression
She was rich. She played the piano. She was recently divorced.
Her name was Florence. She was at a skating rink when she saw the man that would change her life.
He was dark, he was tall, and yes ladies — he was handsome.
Here’s journalist Mark Sullivan¹:
[He] was worth looking at…His head, features, shoulders and torso had a size that attracted attention; their proportions to each other made an effect which in any male at any place would justify more than the term handsome….in later years, when he came to be known beyond his local world, the word “Roman” was occasionally used in descriptions of him…his voice was noticeably resonant, masculine, warm….his manner as he bestowed a tip suggested generous good-nature, a wish to give pleasure, based on physical well-being and sincere kindliness of heart.
He had eyebrows that could bring men to tears, a chin that could kill a blue whale, and a jawline that could cut MMA fighters in half.
And there Florence stood, with a man, right in front of her. She was one of billions who — within the first tenth of a second² — had made a decision. She made a decision about the man he was. She made a decision about the man he would be. Most importantly, she opened up to him. She allowed him to come into her life.
Within a year, she married him.
Thousands more men and women would make a decision about that same man — within a tenth of a second — that changed their life.
It might’ve been his eyebrows. It might’ve been his chin. It might’ve been his jawline. But there was ‘something’ he had that other men didn’t.
High schoolers, parents, janitors, MBAs, college students, marketers, mountain climbers, lawyers, salesmen, men, women, even vegans — they’re all looking to capture that ‘something’. People pay thousands of dollars (from coaching to clothing to cologne) to get a glimpse that maybe — just maybe — other people will see that they have that ‘something’.
For some, that ‘something’ is elusive. For others, it’s baked in their blood. Yet, for nearly all, it’s a mystery.
A lucky few researchers, of course, have spent their lives trying to figure out what that ‘something’ is. The something that happens when you turn your head, you look at someone, and 100 brief, wonderful, forgettable, unimportant, whimsical, mind-bending, life-altering, slow, fast, and lovely milliseconds passes you by. Those seconds hold a small world inside them, right behind the blackbox of consciousness and cognitive processing, all invisible from view. You feel the end result. You feel the emotions. You form the impression. But — other than a guess and a shot in the dark — you don’t know why.
To understand what happened in those milliseconds, you need to understand the Springbok — a type of antelope.
Imagine you’re that antelope: You’re in the middle of southwestern Africa. You’ve got a wife and kids. You’ve got an antelope family. You’ve got antelope bills to pay. Most importantly, you don’t want to die.
The last thing you want is a lion snapping your neck in half and disembowling you in front of the kids.
So, springboks (and Thompson gazelles) developed a technique. It’s called stotting (or pronking or pronging). The idea is this: the springbok will spring into the air, really high up. The legs are stiff, the back is arched, the head is pointing down.
It does this, repeatedly. If there’s a mental image in your head that seems absolutely absurd, you’re on the right track.
To understand stotting (or pronking or pronging) is to understand what the tall, handsome, and dark man did that day when Florence looked at him and made an unconscious calculus that fruitfully became a lifelong affair of love-making and yelling at him to do the dishes.
Stotting is an honest signal³, and it’s a classic example of an important idea in evolutionary biology: signaling theory. It is one of the most powerful ideas in science, because like the best scientific theories, in it’s simplicity, it explains so, so much.
The idea is that an animal (including you) tries to signal specific traits, usually for a specific outcome (to get a job, to acquire a mate, or to not get killed). For the springbok, imagine him for a second: he is one of many antelope that could get disemboweled easily.
Yet, by jumping in the air, the antelope is signaling it’s genetic and physical fitness. It’s showing off to predators that, yes, I am not worth running after. I’m in great shape. I mean, really, really great shape. Running after me is a precious waste of your energy and resources. Honestly, you should kill Dave. Dave is weaker and slower than me. Also, I do Pilates.
Here’s the catch: we all do this. Whether you like it or not, every single thing we do and say is sending signals, from the goatee you’re sporting, to the gesture you just made, to the way you smile, to the smell of your perfume, to the bandana you have draped lovingly around your neck, to the texture of your leather jacket, to the friends who are hovering around you wondering how you could possibly say something so intellectually bankrupt — these are all sending signals to the world about who you are. If I give you two pictures — one of a man who’s dark, who’s tall, and who’s handsome — and another of a guy who’s got an oversized leather jacket on, a bad haircut, and doesn’t believe in climate change, it doesn’t matter who you are. You will come to a different conclusion about this person than the guy who’s dark and tall and all sorts of crazy handsome. It’s literally branded into the neural networks of your brain, all thanks to evolution.
The worst part: just like the springbok, you can’t escape signaling theory. Everything you do — body language, grooming, clothing, jokes, your friends — they will all say things about you, whether you like it or not. The only way to escape signaling theory is to jump into a cardboard box and kill yourself, and this is not a scenario that is best for anyone.
Most of us, as miserable years of high school will teach you, know that there is ‘something’ we are trying to show off. Maybe Peter Parker wanted to buy a nice car so he could impress Mary Jane. Maybe you parted your hair a certain way so that guys might notice you more. Maybe you loosened your tie because you wanted the first day of your internship to say that you’re the human equivalent of a mullet — business in the front, party in the back.
But, like high school has taught us, a lot of us signal badly or we signal dishonestly. Whether we are trying to signal “proofs” or “displays” of our traits — from social proof (do you have friends?) to material proof (do you have resources?) to aesthetic proof (do you not have a mullet?) — we have this idea of what people ‘want’⁴. Yet, those ideas — for many — turn out to be wrong.
When you pull up in a Lamborghini to your old Illinois suburb, people don’t think you’re incredible— they think they want to uppercut you in the face. When you wear loose-fitting sweatpants because you want to show the world you’re laid back, the New York elite just think you’re sloppy and unprofessional. When you wear a tie at an early stage startup, they’ll silently judge you. In the same way that different markets of people consume different products (vegetarians aren’t shopping for bone broths), different signals can say different things to different people in different contexts.
When Florence was at the skating rink, she saw the man. The man sent signals, and in turn, she received them. Instinctively, the “locked door” of her adaptive unconscious started running code. It ran code that the signals he had, from his social proof to his aesthetic proof, were to be trusted. They weren’t fake signals (Tammy, I’m really fucking funny, I promise). They were — as the literature would say — honest signals. The first 100 milliseconds of her relationship didn’t just color the rest. It fundamentally changed the flavor of her relationship forever.
But, I left a couple details out of this story. Because, the honest signals that the man (tall, dark, handsome) showed Florence — they were the same signals that left an entire country in disrepair.
Let me explain.
The man was born in Blooming Grove, Ohio. He farmed and farmed and farmed until one day, he didn’t.
Then, he saw Florence. He met her. Talked to her. Married her.
For most, the start of that secure, stale, and most meaningful union is the most important minute of their lives.
But for the man, it wasn’t. The most important minute of the man’s life happened elsewhere.
It happened in the Garden of the Globe Hotel in Richwood, Ohio, where two strangers were having their shoes shined. Harry Daughterly was a heavy-set man who’s eyes looked like he could give you a charitable donation right before he killed you.
But most importantly, Harry Daughterly had in that moment — what I believe to be — the most important second of his life. Because, on that evening, the ‘Machiavelli of Ohio Politics’ looked at the dark, tall, and handsome man. Within a tenth of a second, his adaptive unconscious started a calculus — from the torso to the clothes to the chin — and came to a conclusion that sprung into the contents of consciousness. He looked at the man, and thought: my god, this man could make a great president.
On March 4th, 1921, Warren Harding — the man with the dark, the tall, and the handsome — became the 29th president of the United States.
Harry Daughterly convinced Harding to run for the White House because Harry himself was convinced — beyond all reason and doubt and judgement and wits — that Warren, the man that Florence had married, the man who had the eyebrows, the man who had the chin, and the man who had the jawline, would make a great president.
But he was wrong. Ask any historian and the consensus is clear: Warren Harding was one of the worst presidents to set foot in the White House.
Harry got it wrong.
He used a “thin slice” of behavior to make a conclusion that caused a series of actions that — finally — made a president. Tall, dark, and handsome was now tall, dark, and handsome in the White House, and he wasn’t doing a such a stellar job.
I wouldn’t fault you if this was confusing.
A meta-analysis⁵ of “thin slicing” says that you can classify someone beautifully and accurately and succinctly with a simple snippet of behavior 70% of the time. This makes sense. There’d be no evolutionary benefit to judging people (whether a well-suited mate or a deadly threat) if it wasn’t accurate.
The mind isn’t just primed to dive beneath the surface with deep conversations about your dreams, your hopes, and your livelihoods. You are primed to dive beneath the surface with a glance, a nod, and a handshake. It doesn’t even matter how thin the slice really is. Meeting someone for 30 seconds is the same as meeting someone for 5 minutes⁵.
This is, what Erving Goffman believed to be, the “glimpsed” world, where — within those milliseconds — our head sorts through thousands and thousands and thousands of cues of information in a snap.
Yet, if the research says first impressions are accurate, why do we get it wrong? Why did Harry get it wrong? In turn — did evolution get it wrong?
While first impressions come tumbling down into consciousness, our first impressions are good at providing information that a hunter and gatherer — years ago — would want to know. Is this woman a threat? Do I find this man attractive? Is this woman outgoing? Is he aesthetically intelligent?
But just because you are tall, dark, and handsome, doesn’t mean you are a wonderful person to spend time with. Just because you wear awful t-shirts and sweat constantly, doesn’t mean you aren’t a person worth sticking around with. Our exteriors — in many ways — can match up with our interior personality traits (especially on classic ‘Big Five traits’ like extraversion). But many times, they don’t match up with the value judgements we want to project onto other people.
Sometimes, we get “thin slicing” wrong.
Imagine I was in charge of hiring a Creative Producer. There were no interviews. All that happened were that candidates walk in for 1 second, then — they walk out. Here, I use solely my first impression to figure out who would be the most effective at being a Creative Producer.
But you know it — this premise is flawed. It’s like having a very reliable calculator, and then thinking it can finish your philosophy homework.
There are people worth hiring who are not attractive. There are people worth doing business with that come off as cold. There are people worth loving that wear ironic t-shirts like “Your Mom Goes to College”.
So how do you improve your first impression?
There’s this idea:
Billy, it doesn’t matter what you’re like on the outside. What matters is what’s on the inside, what’s in your heart. If people don’t see what’s on the inside, then you should ignore them and then prolifically shame them on social media, as well as stalk their Twitter accounts until your sense of self-worth is stable enough to move on with your life. That’s when you find your next target.
This is wrong.
To set the record straight: yes, what’s on the inside is fundamentally more important than what’s on the outside. There mom, I said it!
But having a good inside and having a good outside are not mutually exclusive. If your goals are to find a position, build a team, and even — wink wink! — find a romantic partner, what’s on the outside can help people find that wonderful, gooey interior you’ve been hiding behind that crunchy, awful, gel-infused, pizza-smelling exterior.
Your first impression is judged — instantly — by the macro and the micro. Researchers, thankfully, have split up the first impression into channels⁵:
The Nonverbal Channel
Face, body, or face and body. The symmetry of your face, how your hair looks, your acne, the grease on your shirt. That’s the nonverbal channel.
The tone of voice. When journalist Mark Sullivan says: his voice was noticeably resonant, masculine, warm — he’s talking about the vocal channel. It’s the channel most likely to be trusted because it’s the hardest to fake.
This is the verbal content of your speech. When someone enters a job interview and says “Nicki Minaj is a phenomenal role model”, the words ‘Nicki’, ‘Minaj’, ‘is’, ‘a’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘role’, and ‘model’ is the verbal transcript he decided to use. Why, I have no idea.
This is the combination of the auditory and the visual together. If you’re a very attractive woman with an incredibly deep, low, grumbly, evil voice, the overall audiovisual channel instinctively feels “off” because you realize that the woman you’re talking to is clearly a super villain.
The problem with trying to figure out how to change your first impression, is that the answers can be both simple and complex, yet most advice would tell you the answers are simple only.
Give a great handshake, they say.
Look them in the eye, they say.
Keep your back straight, they say.
Giving a great handshake, creating firm eye contact, and having a great posture do matter. They answer important evolutionary questions that everyone (in the deep, dark recesses of their minds) are asking at all times.
Is he friend or is he foe? Ally or threat? Is he competent or is he going to destroy my tribe and accidentally light my husband on fire?
Yet, if you walk into an office, you give a great handshake, you have great posture, but you have a haircut that clearly ascended from the 9 circles of hell, it won’t matter that you get the fundamentals down. If your great handshake and great posture is complimented with a nice little dose of crippling anxiety, people will sense that, no matter how “locked and loaded” your spine really is.
Some issues are an easy fix. A good haircut is simply a matter of getting a good haircut and getting a roundtable of people to agree that it’s subjectively good.
But fixing the fact that you can’t come up with words to say when someone says “Hi!” is an acute problem in the verbal channel that requires deeper resolve. If someone says “Hi!” and you say, “Your mother”, the substantial lack of social intelligence is a screaming red flag that pings deep within the adaptive unconscious: this guy will destroy me, reputationally and emotionally, if I engage in more conversation with him.
These are the problems of impression management that people don’t talk about. Your firm handshake won’t save your awful, smelly cardigan from not fitting. Your strong eye contact won’t save the fact that you’re not wearing pants. Your erect spine won’t save the fact that you’re shivering from your repressed fear of funnel cake.
Fixing the channels means delineating between what changes are deep and what changes are simple, but also, more crucially, knowing which changes you actually need.
Imagine you’re Jimbo Jimbo. You read an article that’s telling you that you need a great handshake and great posture. But you already have a great handshake. You already have great posture. And still….
People don’t give Jimbo Jimbo jobs. People don’t take Jimbo Jimbo seriously. People don’t realize that Jimbo Jimbo has a heart of gold, buried behind an unfortunate name. So, the question now becomes this: what does Jimbo Jimbo do?
Getting more conscious about the signals you send means knowing which signals you send and what your target audience thinks of those signals.
This is difficult, because if you don’t have a close friend who you’re comfortable talking to or if that person has bad taste, this information is almost impossible to retrieve. To complicate matters: if you’re making changes in the wrong direction without a ‘human compass’, your attempt to be more laid back could backfire. If you’re wearing Crocs, they could even get you killed.
Uncovering where your first impression goes wrong, though, is valuable work. Theoretically, the law of diminishing returns⁶ says that going from 60% positive to 80% positive in any endeavor is easier and more simple than going from 90% to 95%. A 20% increase could mean stopping signals that hinder you (i.e. coldness, offensive t-shirts, etc.), and it could, more importantly, mean that when you say “hi”, people say “hi” back and do it happily.
Everything counts. Those cues collect and out of those cues springs a calculus that tries to answer deep evolutionary questions. From those questions, arrives — from unconscious to consciousness — an answer.
Thankfully, we’ve been given control — but not complete control — over what that answer is. Making that answer good, then, requires digging deeper (from fixing your tie to fixing your neuroticism) that’s beyond the scope of this article. To fine-tune your channels and fine-tune your signals just takes actionable information, feedback, and — like most of everything — time.
In the space of a tenth of a second, there’s a world you’ll never be able to see. It’s a world that is locked, yet, is just barely beneath the surface.
Within those milliseconds, there’s a blur of bad hair and good looks and black t-shirts and skinny jeans and eyebrows, and behind that blur might be a person worth uncovering. Your head looks in a direction. It makes eye contact. The wheels — before a single conscious thought enters your head — start turning. It’s effortless. It’s fast. It’s free.
To the mind, a tenth of a second is like seeing in black and white and stepping into color. The person becomes more 3-dimensional. As milliseconds pass, they become more complete.
It’s as easy and as hard as simply looking at someone, to figure out who they are and for them to do the same. Just — for the love of Christ — don’t make them President.
Thanks to Justine Brumm and Kevin Sanji for feedback on this piece!
- Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. Back Bay Books.
- Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First impressions making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face. Psychological science, 17(7), 592–598.
- Sosis, R., & Alcorta, C. (2003). Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: The evolution of religious behavior. Evolutionary anthropology: issues, news, and reviews, 12(6), 264–274.
- Max, T., & Miller, G. (2015). Mate. Little, Brown.
- Ambady, Nalini, and Robert Rosenthal. “Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: A meta-analysis.” (1992): 256.
- Staff, I. (2004, February 23). Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. Retrieved May 26, 2017.
- Ambady, N., & Skowronski, J. J. (Eds.). (2008). First impressions. Guilford Press.
- Edwards, V. (2017). Captivate. Penguin Random House LLC.
- Means, Gaston B., and May Dixon Thacker. The Strange Death of President Harding. The Minerva Group, Inc., 2001.