You can’t overestimate the value of a good first impression, says OSU psychology professor Frank Bernieri.

Frank Bernieri is professor of Psychology at OSU
Frank Bernieri is professor of Psychology at OSU

Can you overcome a bad first impression and gain someone’s trust?

Not likely, says Frank Bernieri, chair of Oregon State University’s Department of Psychology.

“First impressions are liking planting a seed,” Bernieri says. “When you shake someone’s hand, you immediately make a judgment. Was it a good handshake? Was the person well-groomed? Are they attractive? Everything that happens after that point is anchored to that first impression and skews what we learn and perceive.”

Several years ago Bernieri worked with Dateline on a project involving an Ohio employment agency’s in-depth interviews with candidates for a technical position. The agency provided personality profiles, questionnaires, and reams of background on the candidates.

Bernieri then had several focus groups analyze five seconds of video of the opening handshake and correctly pick out the successful candidate. It’s a scenario that repeats itself time after time, he says.

“People are amazed when they see the research. They find out how biased and inefficient our social analytical skills are, and there just isn’t much we can do about it.” What happens is that people tend to filter out information that doesn’t back up their first impression, or they skew the data to make it fit.

“When we hand out a teaching evaluation form on the first day of class–right after the syllabus–invariably students will fill it out almost the same as they will on the final day of class,” Bernieri says. “All that they experience during the term won’t change the evaluation they made based on the syllabus.”

In addition to appearing in numerous scientific journals, Bernieri’s research has been featured on the Discovery Channel, in the Science Times, Redbook, Self, the London Evening Standard, and even in a book by noted columnist E. Jean Carroll.

Frank Bernieri’s home page

Bernieri students looked at first impressions last summer

Bernieri’s research on identifying people in love

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