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Faces and first impressions

When we look at a photograph or at a person’s face, we quickly form a judgement about them. Judgments about their personality, traits and, in fact, we can tell an entire story about them.

What is the power and significance of a first impression?

A first impression, at its core, is evolutionary. It protects us and is critical for survival. The process of a first impression takes a tenth of a second (Willis 2006). It’s activity is done in the brain. The brain uses two main areas: the amygdala and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The amygdala process the sensual input and responds to social cues, and the PCC differentiates between harmful and non-harmful stimuli, works with emotion and memory, links life experiences and makes decisions. (Schiller, 2009). The fact that we have the ability to make an impression quickly and immediately proves the importance of the first impression, and its evolutionary need. A first impression allows for immediate action with the minimal exertion (Schaller 2008). The importance of a first impression is so critical that it begins in early childhood and does not require years of social experience. (Cogsdill 2014).

The face is hugely significant in creating a first impression (Schaller, 2008). The ability to glean information from a face is important for social interactions and enables communication (Pascalis 2009). The face exposes the developmental and genetic history of an individual, and teaches about their familial closeness, healthy, parental matching and more. (Moalem 2014), (Rhodes 2006), (Barber 1995). Facial structure is deeply coded in an individual’s biology. (Chatterjee 2009).

As early as the 19th century, Cesare Lombroso, a criminologist and anthropologist, argued that different crimes have unique facial traits. He even provided “scientific” evidence in criminal cases. (Oosterhof, 2008).

From an evolutionary standpoint, the final goal is multiplication and survival of our genes. Therefore, the ability to quickly recognize those who may hurt us in any way is critical. (Schaller 2008).

It has been shown that peoples’ first impression is trustworthy and accurate. (Carlson 2010)(Schaller 2008). Women, for example, are very careful in selecting a mate due to the effort of creating a fetus, carrying it and caring for it. Therefore the importance of a first impression is critical; evolution prefers that a woman miss a good mate due to a mistaken impression, rather than mating with a partner that will harm the breeding and survival abilities of her offspring. (Schaller 2008). Another example can be seen in research that successfully predicted political elections, after subjects looked at pictures of candidates for just one second. (Todorov 2005).

The ability to analyze at a high accuracy based on a first impression is universal and is not dependent on culture, language or race, but is a human, evolutionary trait. In every culture, the first impression serves to select attractive mates, good matches, quality of health, intelligence, friendliness, polluting illnesses, (Zebrowitz 2011), and competition for resources. Protection from threats to health and breeding, avoidance of cheaters and thieves, (Schaller 2008), selection of leaders (Rule 2008) and more.

As such, using each individual’s unique face, a first impression is made which is critical to evolutionary survival and social interactions.


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Carlson, E, N, Furr, R, M, & Vazire, S. (2010). Do We Know the First Impressions We Make? Evidence for Idiographic Meta-Accuracy and Calibration of First Impressions. doi:. Social Psychological and Personality Science(1 January ), 94–98. doi:10.1177/19485

Chatterjee, A, T. (2009). The neural response to facial attractiveness. Neuropsychology(23), 135-143.

Cogsdill EJ, Todorov AT, Spelke ES, Banaji MR. (2014). Inferring Character From Faces: A Developmental Study. . Psychological Science. doi: 710.1177/095679761452329

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Schiller, D' F'. (2009). A neural mechanism of first impressions . Nature Neuroscience. doi: 10.1038/nn.2278

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Zebrowitz, L' A', Wang, R', Bronstad, P' M', Eisenberg, D', Undurraga, E', Reyes-Garcia, V', & Godoy, R'. (2011). "First Impressions From Faces Among U.S. and Culturally Isolated Tsimane' People in the Bolivian Rainforest". Journal of Cross-Cultu(19 Decembe). doi:10.1177/0022022111411386

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