First Impressions from Facial Expressions

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover

Everyone knows that we shouldn’t ‘judge a book by its cover’, but unfortunately, that is exactly what we all do, intentionally or not, consciously or not; within the first 39 milliseconds of meeting someone, we have formed our first impressions (Bar, Neta, Linz, (2006) Very First Impressions, Emotion 6 (2): 269-278).

The dimensions of the face are what can make someone look dominant, trustworthy, or attractive and slight changers to these dimensions can affect whether someone finds you approachable, intimidating, intelligent, or untrustworthy.


According to Dr Tom Hartley, there are three dimensions of a first impression:

  1. Approachability – how approachable is this person? Will they help me? Will they hinder me?
  2. Dominance – how capable are they of carrying out their intentions?
  3. Attractiveness – is this person a potential romantic partner? Are they young and good looking?

However, studies suggest that these first impressions can be deeply misleading. A study by Alexander Todorov of Princeton University on people’s first impressions based on still photographs suggests that there is not a static link between face and personality.

“The face is not a still image frozen in time but rather a constantly shifting stream of expressions that convey different mental states” write Todorov and his colleague Jenny Porter. So why do we form opinions so quickly?

It’s something we picked up from childhood, possibly even infancy. A study, published in Psychological Science, found that children as young as three form first impressions based on facial expressions, judging a person’s characteristics such as trustworthiness and competence by looking at their face.

Infants learn to read facial expressions, with activity in the left temporal region of the brain activated by processing positive faces and the right activated by processing negative expressions. This has been linked to our basic survival instincts; positive expressions convey a pleasant meaning, whereas negative expressions convey danger.

Reading facial expressions and making judgements based on them is actually acquired behaviour, something we have honed from infancy. However, in this day and age, with a daily assault of photos of people on social media, this actually might be of detriment to us. Not only in the sense that you can falsely make a judgement about someone based purely on a profile picture, but that people can also manipulate you into falsely believing that they possess certain characteristics such as trustworthiness by a well-chosen (or photoshopped) image. Alternatively, you may be putting a bad or negative image of yourself out there, and based on how quickly people form first impressions, one poorly chosen photo on your Facebook or LinkedIn page may even be enough to influence the first (and sometimes lasting) impression of a potential employer, colleague or friend.

The QRi team x

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