The psychology behind first impressions

For people who are at the start of their careers, succeeding in first impressions is an important factor. But is a good first impression mostly dependent on your looks, or is there more behind this process? An interview with expert Zabeth van Veen.

Story by Willemijn Besaris

Zabeth van Veen (56) is an image expert and coaches people on visibility and prejudice. She knows all about the attitude of body and mind, and the impact of one’s behaviour inside and outside the office. After many years of teaching, she became curious about the psychology behind first impressions, studied general social sciences, and has been the owner of Imago Match since 2005: a company that helps people improve their image. 

What’s involved in making a first impression?

When you enter somewhere, the first three seconds are very important. If you enter with a smile, start with something positive or shake someone’s hand, you can immediately make the other person feel good. This is related to the halo effect: people tend to judge you positively, based on one positive aspect. Conversely, the horn effect can also occur, in which a certain dislike toward a person is based on a single negative aspect. If you don’t look someone in the eye, don’t shake their hand, or don’t pay genuine attention to what someone has to say, that person is going to search for reasons why this isn’t the right candidate. This is an automatic process in the human brain. 

What happens in the brain during those first three seconds of meeting someone?  

You can’t manipulate a first impression. If you walk in somewhere and you happen to look like someone’s annoying cousin, for example, that association is quickly made, and you’re screwed. You can control a lot yourself, even though it’s only three seconds in the end. The introduction is important, introducing yourself in a good way. In two or three sentences, you should be able to explain what kind of person you are. If you prepare that, you also do it with a certain confidence. 

Are there biological factors that are beyond your control?

The factors which you have no control over have to do with the limbic system. That is a part of your brain that is supposed to protect your body from possible danger. Without that brain function, we wouldn’t live more than a week. For example, if you meet someone with a purple skin colour, it is something you are not familiar with. Your limbic system then sends signals into your body that there is possible danger. A more realistic example is someone with a wine stain. You’ll look at it, even if it feels a little embarrassing. Your limbic system often hasn’t seen this situation before and needs time to process and register whether you’re in danger. 

How do you deal with judgements when you have an alternative appearance?

You do always get looked at, yes, and then it’s up to the other person how they deal with that. For the person with the wine stain, it’s obviously not nice to be studied. But if you keep in your mind that people who have never seen a birthmark don’t observe to judge, then it becomes easier not to take it personally. 

There is a quote that says: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”, do you agree? 

Not entirely. I always say that you have three first impressions. The first one is online. The second is when you walk in the door and the third is when you start talking. But suppose, the first impression is in the pub and it’s not immediately positive, you can always make up for that later with a prepared introduction of yourself. So, say who you are, and what you have to offer the person who invited you. If you prepare this, you will look much more confident. In this way you can make the other person admit they’re wrong about you, without losing face.