A job interview, a first date, or a new job: whether we like it or not, first impressions matter. But how do we form impressions of others? What do we base our judgments on? Maybe some elements are more important than others, or we shift our focus depending on our goals. To answer some of these questions, we need to use tactics from social psychology. Social psychology studies how people think, feel and behave in their social environment, and might help us understand a thing or two about the way we form impressions of others.

For decades, social psychologists have been studying how people form impressions of others and what kind of information they focus on while doing so. This had led to the acceptance of two basic elements underlying social impressions. Since the mid-2000s, Fiske and collaborators have discussed the two universal dimensions  and labelled them “warmth” and “competence”. They explained that when we are getting to know another person, our priority is figuring out whether they have good or bad intentions: do they want to harm us or not? This principle is referred to as warmth. Only once we’ve established this do we then try to figure out whether they can carry out any bad intentions: can they harm us? This is known as competence. The warmth dimension, then, seems to be of primary importance when we form that first impression.

Marta train passengers

How do you make your first impression of a fellow passenger?

So why do we prioritise warmth over competence? The different importance of these two dimensions can be explained in evolutionary terms, as they correspond to two central questions that are necessary to survive in the social world.

Several studies have explored how people form impressions about others and check them. In these experiments, researchers asked people what kind of information they would gather when getting to know someone, and what traits they deemed more important to form an impression. They found that people mainly focus on moral traits, such as honesty, reliability, or trustworthiness to form an overall impression. While testing their expectations, people tend to be much more cautious when exploring moral traits (e.g. “is this person honest?” or “is this person trustworthy?”), and more flexible when testing other features (e.g. “are they competent?” or “are they shy?”). To put it into context, we want to make sure that the passenger who just sat next to us on the train is indeed nice and honest, but knowing whether they are also sociable or creative is not a priority. If we look at it from an evolutionary perspective, this is a sound approach: assuming another person’s honesty and being wrong is more dangerous than assuming that they are extraverted when they are not.

To protect ourselves even further, we also tend to generalise moral and non-moral traits to a different extent. This means that when someone shows competence in one area, we tend to label them as a competent person overall. But following one display of warmth, we’ll still hold our guard up before we label someone as completely trustworthy.  Thinking back to our fellow passenger, if they appear knowledgeable on one subject we might be tempted to think that they are indeed a competent individual. However, even if they point out that we were about to leave behind our wallet on the seat, we might still need further evidence to convince ourselves of their honesty.

This also makes sense -  generalising someone’s good intentions from just one behaviour could have serious or even dangerous consequences if we’re wrong. But there’s not that much risk if we wrongly assume that another individual is more or less competent (unless their competence is what we want to test).

It seems then that being nice could be a better choice than showing off our skills, as far as first impressions go. Marketing experts have applied the two dimensions to brand perception: if morality is the main feature used in impression formation in a social context, why not apply it to your brand or product too and highlight its warmth and trustworthiness? Coaches and trainers also use an understanding of these giving people tips and tricks on how to be more influential, most of them referring to the works from Fiske and colleagues and to the warmth/competence model.

The warmth/confidence model can also help in leadership roles: if you want to be an effective, respected leader, you might want to first be liked by your team, and only then you will show your technical skills and competence. In short, if they don’t like you then they will be less likely to respect you and your authority.

All signs seem to point to a simple and powerful idea: for a first good impression, kindness might be your best bet.


About the Author

Dr Marta Mangiarulo is a cognitive scientist with a background in social psychology and social cognition. Her job is to ask (and possibly answer) questions such as: how do we make decisions? How do we interact with others and form impressions of them? Marta is passionate about scientific communication and outreach, when not working she can be found drinking coffee, trying out new restaurants, or buying makeup. You can reach Marta on Twitter at @Marta_Mang.