Published July 31, 2000

Who Decides What Is a Good First Impression at Interview?

You walk into the interviewer's office, smile and shake hands. Whether or not you and the interviewer know it, the fate of your candidacy probably already has been sealed.

There's now scientific evidence proving that you really do have just one chance to make a good first impression - and that chance lasts all of a few seconds. Dr. Frank Bernieri, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, says we seem to be wired to make virtually instantaneous judgments of others, and once we've made these subconscious snap "decisions," we cling to them.

"When people have any kind of belief, which can be as simple as 'I like this person,' they tend to become biased and start to look for evidence that confirms their belief, even if they're not aware of it" said Dr. Bernieri, who recently completed a study in this area.

Bernieri and a graduate student trained two people to interview 98 volunteers. After 15- to 20-minute interviews, each interviewer completed an evaluation. The original intent of the study was to learn whether interviewees coached in certain nonverbal gestures would do better in an interview. They didn't. But later, an undergraduate student tested whether the initial handshake was important.

"She took 15 seconds of videotape showing the applicant as he or she knocks on the door, comes in, shakes the hand of the interviewer, sits down, and is welcomed by the interviewer," Bernieri said.

Then the student got a series of strangers to watch the tape and rate the applicants using the same criteria as the interviewers.

Contrary to expectations, the observers predicted the outcome of the interview on nine of the 11 traits judged, Bernieri said.

The experiment seemed to prove that the interviewers and the tape watchers both had made up their minds that they liked or disliked the interviewee almost immediately. The interviewers then spent the rest of the interview confirming their belief. Of course, none of this was done consciously.

"When we are presented with conflicting evidence, we tend to weigh the evidence differently," Bernieri said. "We give more weight to what we believe. And if the information is ambiguous, our bias helps us see it as less ambiguous."

Since we're apparently a lot less logical and rational about human decision-making than we care to admit, it can be helpful to know what drives positive visceral responses. Bernieri says a lot of it is common sense: We like friendly people who look us in the eye, walk with confidence, offer a firm handshake, and present a neat, clean appearance.

Obviously, if your credentials or background are severely deficient, you probably won't get the job. But if you turn off the interviewer in the first few seconds, you could be Mr. Paper Perfect and still not be chosen.

Bottom line: If you're shy and believe that putting on the "friendly" act for an interview is phony, get over it. The interviewer doesn't know you, so how could he or she ever suspect that your friendliness and confidence is an "act"? What's more, keep "acting" and pretty soon everyone will think of you as confident and friendly - after all, it's only taking them a few seconds to decide.

Article - Copyright 2000 Evan Cooper. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA