Psychology in the News

May 11, 2009

Too quick to judge? Maybe not.

Filed under: decision making, evolution, personality — intro2psych @ 8:54 pm

by Jason Adler

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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

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

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

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

Lea Winerman. (2005). Thin slices’ of life. Monitor on Psychology, 36, 54. Retrieved March 1, 2009, from


  1. The one problem I have with these studies is that they don’t seem to explain or take into account our judgments of shy people. People who are shy or are at least nervous around other people may give off an aura of standoffishness or even seem to be self-absorbed, but once you get to know them they open up and show you a whole different side. In this case it seems that our judgments of peoples’ personalities tends to fail.

    Comment by Will Jobs — May 14, 2009 @ 8:24 pm

  2. This study doesn’t just not take shyness into account but ignores situationism. In Mischel’s 1984 study on personality and situationism, he found that the situation was more influential on personality than any internal or inborn traits ( Although traits like extraversion and the rest of the Big Five are certainly still valid in judging a someone’s personality, the situation is still important. An extraverted person could certainly act introverted in a given situation, just as a particularly introverted person could behave in uncharacteristically sociable and extraverted ways. Where were these conversations taking place? How was each researcher acting? How comfortable was each subject? The thin slices the subjects were asked to judge on could have been affected by these things. Maybe on the first day moving into school I came off as rich or neurotic or dependable, but who could blame me? I probably thought I was being judged, I was probably doing some judging of my own, and I was simultaneously being asked to move into a room for the next nine months and say goodbye to parents I had been living with for eighteen years! If the situation is remarkably different, uncomfortable, or stressful, perhaps there’s not such a good chance your first impression is correct.

    Comment by Elena Hershey — November 18, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

  3. I have a hard time believing that an accurate inference can be made on someone’s sexual orientation just from a ten second silent video clip, unless glaring stereotypes are used to harshly judge someone. I suppose that stereotypes are what lead our judgments in life but coming to college, and especially Vassar College, has taught me that initial judgments of people can be very inaccurate especially regarding sexual orientation, and that I cannot know what someone’s sexual orientation is by looking at them for a couple of seconds. Also in response to judgment in a fight or flight situation, I have to point out an example of a split second judgment from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, in which two police officers shot an innocent man multiple times based completely off an initial judgment of him. The officers believed the man had a gun when really it was a wallet with identification he was trying to show them. This is just one example of how completely inaccurate and consequential a first impression judgment of someone can be.

    Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, (2005), Little Brown

    Comment by Samantha Garcia — May 3, 2010 @ 12:00 am

  4. It seems that first impressions are a valuable and often accurate tool, which we can use responsibly if we consider them with critical skepticism. It is no use telling ourselves to ignore first impressions entirely. We know none of us will be able to do that and this post suggests that we have no reason to try. The best solution, which takes into account the points raised in both the post and the subsequent comments, is to use first impressions as one of many factors that influence our perceptions of others. In this way, we can consider first impressions but not take them very seriously, and remain open to new information about people as we get to know them better. We should never lose this openness, since even people we have known for a long time change and develop. An important part of respecting other people is remembering that we never know their whole stories, no matter how well we know them. There are interesting and admirable things about everyone we meet, even if we don’t discover those things in the first five minutes or even in the first five years.

    Comment by Sarah Yanuck — April 30, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  5. These studies provide interesting data on the accuracy of first impressions in the setting of a scientific study, but I feel that these findings must be taken lightly, especially in real life encounters. As a previous comment mentioned, setting can be extremely important to explaining someone’s behavior. Often you have to meet someone several times, in several different situations before you can form a strong and accurate opinion about their personality and characteristics. Also, someone’s behavior can be further affected by the presence of other people. At least in my own experience I have found that I shouldn’t stay stuck on first impressions, and I should always be willing to modify my opinion about a person. While my first instincts about people are sometimes accurate, other times I have initially disliked a person only to later become good friends. Despite what some scientific studies seem to prove, I believe that everyone should to be given more than just one chance to make a good impression.

    Comment by Hannah Keohane — February 10, 2013 @ 8:03 pm

  6. These findings seem mostly consistent with my experience but in the method a major piece is left out if comparisons are to be made with real situations. The missing piece is the involvement of the observer in the scene. It is very different watching people and interacting with people. In interactions you may be more able to test for certain traits you suspect to make your judgments more accurate. You could also be more emotionally invested and possibly be less accurate as was found with negative moods.

    Comment by Treigh Manhertz — May 11, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

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