Mind & Body

Don't Worry, You Made a Better First Impression Than You Think

Meeting someone new can be nerve-wracking. The possibilities, good and bad, feel endless. What if they don't laugh at your jokes? What if they're secretly a psychopath? What if you're a psychopath and they're the first person to figure it out? Well, great news: You actually make a better first impression than you think.

The Science of Meeting New People

In a new study, researchers tried to figure out how well people could judge their own first impressions. To that end, they compared the first impression Person A perceived themselves to make on Person B — also known as their "meta-perception" of the interaction — with Person B's actual first impression.

The researchers found that when two strangers met, they both thought that they liked the other person more than the other person liked them — which, of course, isn't possible. They also consistently underestimated how much the other person liked them.

This held true across a variety of situations, the researchers found. It happened when strangers met in a controlled lab setting and exchanged pleasantries for roughly five minutes, but it also happened in more organic situations: when first-year college students were getting to know their dormmates, for instance, and when participants in a personal-development workshop got to know each other.

People's tendency to believe they're making a worse first impression than they really are — termed "the liking gap" by one of the study's authors — was surprisingly persistent. It existed for women and men equally and continued beyond a pair's first conversation. In fact, it's not totally clear when and how (or even if) a relationship transcends this gap and becomes a source of comfort and security.

Why the "Liking Gap" Exists

In a way, the "liking gap" falls neatly in line with another robust psychological finding: We see others differently than we see ourselves. It's common to believe we understand other people on a deeper level than they can possibly understand us; this is called asymmetric perception. In a similar vein, we often see ourselves as better than our peers, and better than we really are. In fact, psychology researchers are so used to the fact that almost everyone thinks they're above average — dubbed the above-average effect — that they have to account for that to avoid skewing their studies.

Meeting new people, though, is one case where the typical person believes they're worse than other people. This isn't how asymmetric perception usually manifests. One theory as to why we refuse to perceive our own charm, advanced by one of the study's co-authors, is that we're "self-protectively pessimistic" about social interaction. To avoid disappointment, we default to assuming new relationships are going badly, often ignoring clear signals to the contrary (conveyed through body language, tone of voice, and other behaviors). This protects us in certain ways, it's true, but it can also keep us from forming new relationships.

On the plus side, though, observers were able to gauge much more accurately than the participants whether a first meeting was going well. So it's not that first impressions are difficult to assess, exactly — we're just bad at assessing the ones we make. Our meta-perceptions are skewed against us. But perhaps by knowing that, we can check in with our new acquaintances and become a little more comfortable taking social risks. You're more charming than you think.

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Written by Mae Rice October 9, 2018

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