How to Make a Good First Impression: The Scientific Way

Do you smile a lot? Do you wear a suit? Is your hair combed? Do you wear loud ties? We are judging you! Unfair, but true. The good news is that we can use the science of first impressions to subvert.

This study from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at everything from the neatness of your attire to where you place your hands and examines how important each is in the overall judgement people make of your personality. The study also looks at how accurate the first impressions were for the subjects’ personality traits, but what I’m interested in is how to manipulate other people’s judgement of me. Obviously.

The study looked at ten personality traits:

  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Emotional stability
  • Openness
  • Likability
  • Self-esteem
  • Loneliness
  • Religiosity
  • Political orientation (liberal)

I’m going to ignore the last three because, frankly, I’m not interested in coming across as a lonely, religious liberal. So that leaves seven personality traits.

The study measured the effect on first impressions of the following ten physical attributes:

  • Healthy vs. sickly appearance
  • Stylish vs. unstylish appearance
  • Distinctive vs. ordinary appearance
  • Neat vs. messy appearance
  • Smiling
  • Looking away from camera
  • Arms folded
  • Arms behind back
  • Energetic vs. tired stance
  • Tense vs. relaxed stance

So let’s get straight to the point. How can I make the absolute best first impression?

Smile and have an energetic stance. These correlate strongly with all seven traits. If you do nothing else, just smile: we can all do that, even if we’re tired.

Almost as effective as these two is having a relaxed stance. This correlates strongly with all of the seven traits, except for conscientiousness. So be energetic, but not frantic.

If you can’t manage these three, then a combination of dressing neatly and stylishly, holding your hands behind your back and looking generally healthy should make a favourable impression. Don’t bother folding your arms: it has a negligible impact on other people’s impression of you.

I’m actually quite heartened by the findings of this study. The key to a good first impression is not artificial social markers, like a fancy watch and £600 shoes. The best way of making a good first impression are things we can all afford: a smile and an energetic and relaxed manner.

Finally, a warning for those who dress ‘distinctively’: yes other people will think you are open, but they will also think you are lonely, liberal and irreligious!


This blog post is entirely based on the following paper, which I recommend you read:
Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance
Laura P. Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling
(Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2009; 35; 1661 originally published online September 17, 2009) http://www.simine.com/docs/Naumann_et_al_PSPB_2009.pdf

What do you think?