When I speak about Insights from the Science of Influence, most people in my audiences are amazed at how fast we form judgments about others… and how difficult it is for people to change their minds after they form the first impression. A new study from Cornell University* confirms this phenomenon by revealing that the first impressions stick with people and influences how they respond to you even months later.

Professor of Psychology Vivian Zayas and her team showed study participants photos of women, who were either smiling or with a neutral expression. The participants were then asked to evaluate the personality traits exhibited in the photos and to speculate as to how likely they might be to be friends. One to six months later, the study participants actually met the women in the photographs (without realizing these were the same women from the earlier photos.) They played games and were encouraged to learn about each other for 20 minutes. Then they asked the study participants to evaluate these “new” women they had met.

Even after having personal interaction with the women, the evaluations were in line with the impressions formed by just seeing a photograph months before. Traits, such as: likeable, agreeable, open-minded OR unlikable, disagreeable and close-minded remained consistent with the first impressions from the photos. What’s remarkable is that participants rated the same women completely differently depending on whether they had seen them with a smile or a neutral expression in the initial photos.

Zayas sited two psychology principles to explain the findings:

1.    Self-fulfilling Prophecy – the tendency to see things the way you expect

2.    Halo Effect – the attribution of additional positive traits to people when you already feel positive about them

So, how can you leverage these insights to increase your “Win Rate”? Your best strategy is to make a good first impression before you ever physically meet your prospect or colleague. If they see a photo of you on social media or your website, make sure you have a nice, authentic smile. If you have a phone call or email in advance, make it friendly and warm. Your opportunity for a successful first meeting increases dramatically the more you can predispose your business prospects to like you ahead of time.

* “Impressions Based on a Portrait Predict, 1-Month Later, Impressions Following a Live Interaction,” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Melinda Marcus’ research on first impressions is published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.