The Neuroscience of First Impressions

Getting a single job in the voice over business is a question of patience and

Getting a single job in the voice over business is a question of patience and playing the odds. But just one moment or role can make a career. In Dave Calabrese’s case, it came when he visited Edge Studios to record an online tutorial for a corporation.

“He thanked us for bringing him in. Then he did a great job. And when he left, he thanked us again,” explains Dave Goldberg, the owner of Edge Studios, one of the entertainment industry’s leading agencies of voice overs. “After he left the studio, the receptionist” (who had been working at Edge Studios for about five years) “said, ‘you know, that’s the first person who has ever thanked me…. not a single talent has ever thanked me before. I’d like to hire that guy all the time.’”

“We hire this guy so often now, we put his kids through college. And all he did was say thank you.”

Last year, a team of researchers at New York University led by Daniela Schiller examined the neuroscience of how people form impressions of others. While their brains were being scanned in an fMRI machine, subjects were shown a photograph of a face and read six sentences about that person.1Daniela Schiller, Jonathan B. Freeman, Jason P. Mitchell, James S. Uleman, and Elizabeth A. Phelps. “A neural mechanism of first impressions.” Nature neuroscience 12, no. 4 (2009): 508-514.

Three sentences revealed positive traits about the profile (“He picked his roommate’s package up for him on the way home from work”), and three illuminated negative traits (“He told the other student that he wasn’t smart enough”). Afterwards, the subject was asked for their overall impressions of each profile.

The amygdala is one of the few areas that receives information from all of the senses, making it complex enough to process the nuances of social stimuli. It controls and moderates our motivations, telling us where to go and why, navigating our social world. Damage to the amygdala in humans creates a total loss of fear, an inability to differentiate between harmful and harmless stimuli. Without it, we simply can’t learn that it’s bad to hit on the boss’s wife or drink arsenic. (Lab animals with damaged amygdalae are usually rejected by their peer groups, with tragic consequences.)

The posterior cingular cortex is the seat of autobiographical memory, attention, and the emotional influence in memory; it’s also important for spatial memory; patients with damage to the PCC show significant difficulty locating themselves or even navigating familiar terrain. Self-monitoring and self-reflection become impossible. Patients don’t know what they’re supposed to pay attention to. But the PCC is also active when we assess the value of objects, possible choices, make risky decisions and calculate bets. Stimulation of the PCC predicts exploration of a previously unexplored option: inferring the value of an alternative, whether or not we deem the change to be worth it, and what we’d have to do to get there.

Together, the PCC and amygdala help us compute first impressions of others. “These regions sort information on the basis of its personal and subjective importance and summarize it into an ultimate score, a first impression,” says Schiller. In forming those first impressions, we automatically attend to and parse relevant information about somebody, based on how important they are to our own motivations. Our split-second reactions to other people are assessments of their value to our own social world. Outside of the lab, our impressions factor in everything from what we’ve heard about them to how often they blink.

To recap, at the risk of oversimplification: meeting people activates the same region of the brain responsible for assigning prices to objects–and after we’ve assigned a value to a person, we make the decision about how to orient ourselves to someone else. Do we want to get closer? Knowing what this person’s value is to us, how to we want this person to be involved in our network?

Takeaway lessons:

  1. Be specific. Yes, even if you’re asking for an internship, you should be prepared to make a specific proposition, or give a clear idea of what you can do for others. When you’re assigning a price to something and deciding whether or not you want to buy it, specificity always rules. “A job” won’t get as many clicks as ‘Wanted: Online Marketing Specialist.’
  2. Give people a reason to trust you. Social proof can take the form of shared LinkedIn connections, number of Twitter followers, or a sincere, Duchenne smile. Remember, you’re doing this to work around more primitive (and therefore faster!) areas of the brain.
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