by Jason Adler
She seems down-to-earth. He is going to be annoying. That girl has to be rich. That guy must be outgoing. She is humorous. He is nice. She is definitely neurotic. That girl has to be dependable. These were my first impressions of my peers in my student fellow group less than 30 seconds after meeting them. Such thoughts are ubiquitous and indispensable in daily life, as when we first meet people, we instinctively judge and form conclusions in a brief amount of time. Whether or not first impressions really are everything, they are prevalent and are surprisingly accurate. Perceptions of traits are formed through the cognitive process of intuition based on seconds of behavior; a concept that can be referred to as thin slices.
In a study performed by Carney, Colvin, and Hall (2007) at Northeastern University, the accuracy of first impressions based on thin slices was examined by looking at judgments, thin slice length, and slice location. Three hundred student judges observed 30 subjects, 15 dyads (groups of two), engage in conversation and then judged social constructs by rating the subject’s traits on a scale. These social constructs included states of positive affect (happy) and negative affect (sad), cognitive ability, and the “Big Five” traits of neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The thin slices, exposure of behavior, varied in time ranging from 5 to 300 seconds and the location of the thin slice was taken either at the beginning, middle, or end of the conversation. The trait perceptions of the student judges were then measured against trait perceptions from trained coders who were given specific items to measure constructs such as moody for neurotic or kind for agreeable. The researchers found that for every construct, the judges perceptions were significantly accurate, defined as much greater than chance, suggesting that thin slices lead to accurate impressions. In addition, the researchers generally found that thin slices taken later in the conversation were generally more accurate. Furthermore, increased exposure improves the accuracy of impressions for positive affect, extraversion, and agreeableness. However, increasing exposure does not improve the accuracy of conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, negative affect, and intelligence. The researchers surmised that all those traits fall into threat or intelligence and quick judgments of these traits are important to life or death situations (Run away or pet the tiger).
It is not surprising that if impressions of personality traits can be made using thin slices then accurate judgments regarding sexual orientation can also be made using brief observations. In a study performed by Ambady, Hallahan, and Conner (1999) judgments of sexual orientation were made based on a 10 second silent video clip, a one second silent video clip, or eight photographs. The results show that very accurate impressions of sexual orientation can be made using thin slices. Homosexual men and women seem to be better at identifying sexual orientation with diminishing amounts of information, while women, in general, are better at identifying sexual orientation at all levels. In addition, the judges made more accurate impressions when identifying lesbian women than gay men. A following study showed that even without static indicators such as jewelry and clothing, impressions are still very accurate. The researchers interpret that the ability to perceive traits regarding sexual orientation may be adaptive to finding romantic partners and reducing hostility.
Further research has also yielded valuable information regarding thin slices and first impressions. Ambady and Gray (2002) have shown that sadness impairs the ability to draw behavioral inferences. Ambady and Gray propose that negative moods resulted in a more careful, deliberate study of behavior rather than intuitive process; a strategy that significantly reduces accuracy of trait perception and may explain why depression reduces sociability.
The influence of thin slices and trait perception can be widely seen in areas as different as personality disorders (Friedman, Oltmanns, & Turkheimer, 2007) , socio-economic status (Kraus & Keltner, 2009), and speed-dating () , but their ubiquity belies their important use for forming quick and reliable impressions. The next time you judge someone as being well-off, histrionic, intelligent, or dependent know that there is a good chance your first impression is correct.
Ambady, N., & Gray, H. M. (2002). On being sad and mistaken: Mood effects on the accuracy of thin-slice judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 947-961. Retrieved March 1, 2009 from http://ft.csa.com/ids70/resolver.php?sessid=icb2o6r2lrmf4b0sbk26p10so1&server=csaweb111v.csa.com&check=d6ef858d0c121c58eae1bf351d04b4b9&db=psycarticles-set-c&key=PSP%2F83%2Fpsp_83_4_947&mode=pdf
Ambady, N., Hallahan, M., & Conner, B. (1999). Accuracy of judgments of sexual orientation from thin slices of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 538-547. Retrieved March 1, 2009 from http://ft.csa.com/ids70/resolver.php?sessid=f7g3f260rt9m1qbu2bptbj5s86&server=csaweb108v.csa.com&check=279b2051806a06a85b9d61d428a199a3&db=psycarticles-set-c&key=PSP%2F77%2Fpsp_77_3_538&mode=pdf
Carney, D. R., Colvin, C. R., & Hall, J. A. (2007). A thin slice perspective on the accuracy of first impressions. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(5), 1054-1072. Retrieved February 28, 2009 from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WM0-4MY0MD3-3&_user=557743&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000028458&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=557743&md5=30120a9450fadcb42518d613b567512d.
Friedman, J. N. W., Oltmanns, T. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2007). Interpersonal perception and personality disorders: Utilization of a thin slice approach. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(3), 667-688. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2006.07.004.
Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2009). Signs of socioeconomic status: A thin-slicing approach. Psychological Science, 20(1), 99-106. Retrieved February 28, 2009, from http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/121549448/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0.
Lea Winerman. (2005). Thin slices’ of life. Monitor on Psychology, 36, 54. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar05/slices.html.