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First impressions in a job interview: why they really matter



“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.“ How true! Personnel directors and career coaches have emphasized the importance of the first handshake and eye contact on the occasion of the first job interview for years. It is obvious that the first impression also plays a role when flirting. Indeed, a study at Princeton University clearly demonstrates how quickly the counterpart’s – at any rate temporary – judgment is reached. It states that we only have one tenth of a second to catch the interest of our opposite number. With a little bad luck we could well have landed on the trash dump of history’s flirts after that. Or have messed up the chance for a new job.

The study’s participants had to judge portrait pictures according to traits like “attractive”, “likeable”, “trustworthy”, “capable”, or “aggressive”. The photos initially appeared on the screen one tenth of a second, then half a second and finally for an entire second. Each time the test subjects had to give their evaluation and at the same time state how sure they were of their judgment. With one exception the test subjects did not change their assessment even after they had an opportunity to look at the picture for a longer period of time; then they were even more sure of their valuation. Social psychologists call this phenomenon the Halo-Effect that is actually based on an erroneous perception: A person’s individual characteristics create an overall impression that can be extremely persistent. For instance, classic examples are the assumptions “attractive” = „lovable, nice“, or “wearer of glasses” = “intelligent, wise”, “blond” = “dumb, ignorant” … etc.

A tenth of a second obviously does not give what we generally call our brain - the neocortex, the outer layer of the brain – a chance to make its voice heard. That is the amount of time it takes for the image just to make it there. In terms of evolution the neocortex is the youngest part of our brain, our “thinking brain”, so to speak. It is responsible for the conscious perception and all cognitive processes. The so-called limbic system is a much older part of our brain and the “Amygdale” is its important component. The limbic system already existed millions of years ago long before the neocortex made its appearance. (Incidentally, in one of his cabaret programs Dr. Eckart v. Hirschhausen pointedly described the Cortex as something like the Government Spokesman in our brain: he/she is the last to hear about the decisions made by others and then has the dumb job to communicate and justify it to the outside. I think this is an excellent description of its role.)

The Amygdale is responsible to emotionally assess information arriving in the brain and here it basically realizes only two categories: positive and negative. And that happens incredibly fast because that protected the survival. Please imagine a pre-historic person who suddenly faces the, so often by me called upon sabertooth tiger. By the time the tiger’s image has made it to the neocortex, has been analyzed, evaluated, and a logical decision has been made with the appropriate signal transmitted to the body, („gosh, this looks like a very unpleasant fellow with large teeth, weighs one heck a lot more than I do, looks at me hungrily so maybe it may be wise….“) the problem has been resolved with a delicious lunch for the tiger. The bypass via the Amygdale is the perfect solution. It can decide “negative – let‘s get the hell out of here!” in fractions of a second and that could well have saved many of our forefathers’ skins.

It is pretty frightening to imagine the consequences in that way, no? But no worries, these days sabertooth tigers have fortunately become extremely rare. Especially in the context of flirting. Personnel directors, too, are not as dangerous as they look. All proverbs and coaching wisdoms to the contrary the first impression can be amended when the neocortex is given the opportunity to get a word in edgewise. After all, we are not made up of our face alone. Everybody is probably familiar with this typical example: „Wow, she looks cool that is a great woman, for sure!“ – and then she opens her mouth and in a Mickey Mouse pitch squeaks: “Hi, I am Tina and this is my first time here.” One thinks: „Si tacuisses …“ – you should have kept your mouth shut! Naturally there is also the reverse – someone does not impress as especially attractive but his moves on the dance floor leave one with weak knees. Or the kind that looked like the ultimate bum at first glance, during the introductory conversation convinces with precise and goal oriented problem analyses.

In most every day situations fate fortunately hands one a little more time with the counterpart than a tenth of a second – except maybe for the ample flirt at the wheel but then it behooves to concentrate on the traffic, in any case … And that can be used to jiggle the drawer into which one has been classified by the amygdale assessment a little from within. That is worthwhile in any case.

By the way: if you need to thoroughly prepare your job interview, you should take our free career test and consult your personal iPersonic Career Profile to develop the perfect strategy for your job application.

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