Imagine you need to hire someone for a job. You’re reviewing applications, searching for people on LinkedIn, or leafing through competing proposals. What are your first concerns?
My guess is, you’ll want to know who you can trust to have real skills and a track record of doing what you need – not just the appearance of one. You’ll want someone who is competent and confident, who can do the job despite unforeseen challenges. And more than likely, you want someone easy to work with, yet able to fight your corner where needed (in negotiations, for example).
Turns out, those aren’t things you judge solely from someone’s resume or cover letter.
According to Princeton research psychologist Dr. Alexander Todorov, you are gathering first impressions on those topics within one tenth of a second of seeing that person’s photograph. As he summarizes years of research in his book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, when we see a face, our brain quickly and automatically judges how trustworthy, competent, extroverted, and dominant they are.
In other words, you’re unconsciously and automatically assessing everything you’re looking for in a person already from their photo, before you read a line they wrote. Based on signals in the photo, the brain categorizes people based on stereotypes and cultural norms, and these impressions can bias our decision making without being even aware of the bias.
This is our automatic reaction to faces. Everybody does it all the time. That includes people who are looking at your photos, too.
And these impressions influence decisions made long after the impression was created.
The level of influence depends on specific facial features and expressions, and those impressions are remarkably consistent within cultural groups.
Now, research has also shown there is no actual connection between facial features and personality traits. It is not possible to make an accurate prediction of a person’s personality based on the shape and other features of their face. Although many claim this is true, this has been debunked many times since the 1700s, including more recently by Dr Todorov.
So it is fascinating that despite the fact that there is no real link between facial features and personalities, our brains still make those assumptions.
This is particularly important to know if you’re looking to hire or be hired. Impressions can create a bias strong enough to prevent someone from choosing you simply because your image sent the wrong signal.
Let’s take look at one of my clients, Clay, who works in financial services. His original headshot below on the left is friendly and youthful, and he’s dressed appropriately, but the expression is not creating the appropriate first impression. He does is not project the competence and authenticity expected in finance. Without those signals, a potential new customer might think twice about choosing that guy on the left as an advisor.
Clay’s updated headshot on the right is clearly serious and ready for business. It’s showing confidence and determination. It could be a bit friendlier, but it appears to have the right attributes for someone with financial responsibilities.
So what, exactly is going on here?
Two differences stand out to me right away. First the fake, “say cheese” smile on the left is gone in the new image, and this brings more authenticity. Second, the new image shows a very pronounced jawline. This feature, in particular, is typically associated with dominance and can be interpreted as confidence and competence.
So which one is the “real” representation of Clay?
We can’t be sure if either one is accurate. We must be careful to remember that it is not possible to determine someone’s true personality from a photograph or even from a first impression created in person.
This results in two almost contradictory conclusions: First impressions can be unreliable and we need to be aware of our own potential biases. First impressions are unavoidable, so we also must be mindful of the impression we create in others with our images.
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