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Here's what your brain is doing to make a first impression

Are you making the best decision of a first impression that you can be? Photo: IMBb/ Wolf of Wall Street.

It takes just 100 milliseconds to make a first impression.

“In that time, you have taken in a myriad of details about the other person, processed them and come up with a conclusion,” says Sonia McDonald, founder of Leadership HQ, who has studied neuroscience to better understand what it takes to be a better business leader.

When forming a first impressions, a person uses two areas of the brain – the amygdala and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC).

While the amygdala processes the data from your senses to respond to social signals, the PCC works with emotion and memory, linking your life experiences to emotions – basically, it’s the decision maker.

Understanding how first impressions are formed will help you make more informed decisions, rather than relying on subconscious bias.

McDonald describes this as “filling in the blanks”.

“We won’t always have memories which are relevant, so the brain compensates for the lack of information,” she says.

“It simply draws conclusions based on similar impressions and experiences from your past, which means your first impression is not always accurate.

“It’s a reflection of you, rather than an unbiased assessment. Usually we call it a ‘gut feel’ or ‘instinct’ and it rounds out the impression we have already received and justifies it.”

Here are two reasons why understanding what your brain is doing to make a first impression will help you make better decisions.

1. Know your biases.

“In any role, but especially that of leader, your people skills need to be in use at all times. When you form a negative first impression of a team member, it can be tough to keep your emotional response under control, and your bias can show without you even being aware of it. That’s a great way to sabotage a potentially good working relationship.

“When you understand that your brain is painting this person with your own early memories and feelings – colouring the image you see – it is much easier to come to grips with your response. While seeing the similarity to Great Uncle Fred who broke your favourite toy as a child, you can apply logic to the situation and start unlinking that emotional response.”

2. Know that other people’s biases will affect how they see you.

“Once you understand that someone is viewing you through their own emotional memory, you can make the conscious effort to prompt the positive, rather than negative experiences. Open body language, eye contact and a smile are always a good start, but don’t overlook the safety signals of common interests and mutual acquaintances. Give people something positive to catch onto.

“By understanding how a first impression is formed, you also know how to create a different impression over time. And it will take time. First impressions are hard to shift, but it can be done.

“Neuroscience is teaching us more and more about the power of our brains, and giving us some insight about how they really work. It has shown us that our first impressions are actually a summary of information we’ve gathered, and then painted with our own interpretations. Sometimes they will be accurate and sometimes they won’t, but they will always be very powerful.”

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