There's a very good reason why first impressions are thought to be so important: it's because most people really can accurately judge another person after just one meeting. Turns out we're much more perceptive than we give ourselves credit for.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the first impression a person makes is always accurate. Rather, it means that most people are surprisingly good at judging whether or not a first impression really is an accurate reflection of the person they've newly met, and then determining whether they would want to meet that person again.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia recently put this to the test with the following experiment:
Researchers had two separate groups of more than100 people meet in a "getting-acquainted" session much like speed-dating, until the people had spoken with everyone else in the group for three minutes each. At the end of each 3-minute chat, they rated each other's personalities, and rated how well they thought their impressions "would agree with someone who knows this person very well." To establish what the person was "really" like, the researchers had people fill out their own personality reports, which were bolstered with personality ratings that came either from friends or parents.
As it turned out, most of the participants really were quite good at judging the personality of these almost total strangers, and the more confident the respondents so too the judgments more closely mirrored those of friends or parents.
Unfortunately, we don't necessarily have the keen insight into other people's psyches that this study suggests. Instead, it might have a lot more to do with a shrewd subconscious realization: that, in the end, most people really aren't all that different:
The research team, led by Jeremy Biesanz of the University of British Columbia, noted that there are two ways to be right about people's personality. We can know how people are different from each other, but a good judge of persons knows that people are mostly alike-for example, almost everyone would prefer being friendly to being quarrelsome. The more people rated their partner's personality in a way typical of most everyone, the more accurate they felt their perception was. And because most people are like most people, they were indeed being accurate.
All this means that, while first impressions can often be accurate, they're not necessarily going to actually be helpful in judging whether one person is really better than another. But honestly, here's why I'm excited: psychology has already told us that we should judge people on first impressions. It's now this close to giving us permission to start judging books by their covers.