make me a grill

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How long do you have to make a decent first impression?  1 minute? 30 seconds? The famous 7 seconds?  If only.  Princeton University researchers Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov believe we judge strangers within 1/10 of a second.

Better not trip walking in the door.

The experiment by Willis and Todorov studied how quickly we assess the likeability, competence, trustworthiness, attractiveness, and aggressiveness of strangers.  Participants were able to judge all traits within 1/10 of a second, and trustworthiness and attractiveness were assessed more quickly than the other traits.

But how can that be possible?  Can you truly know if someone is trustworthy after 1/10 of a second?

The answer is a resounding no.

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.  Participants made an incorrect assessment nearly 30% of the time.

If we’re unable to accurately ‘snap-judge’ the trustworthiness of a stranger, then what makes us think we’re able to ‘snap-judge’ their other traits?

Would instating ‘stranger best practices’ prevent us from making erroneous snap judgments?  Maybe we should have at least 3 meetings with each new person we meet?  Or, perhaps  we should wear a blindfold when we meet someone new? The first rule would allow time to rectify a first impression with more enduring traits, and the second rule would ensure that non-physical characteristics got due weight in the assessment of a stranger.

The rules might not work: I imagine people endlessly meeting up with strangers while wearing blindfolds.  Say goodbye to free-time and hello to collisions.

So how do we break free of snap judgments?

mwf seeks bff

I get the heebie jeebies every time someone asks me to describe myself in a few sentences.  What information do they want, and wouldn’t it be better to just share a cup of coffee?  I mean, come over and I’ll bake you banana bread and tell you what I’m reading and what I’m painting and how my sister is my best friend.  But ask me to name five interesting facts and I freeze up—perhaps because the inquiry seems insincere.

For instance:
1. BBQ is my all-time favorite food
2. I write short stories while blasting rap music
3. Comedy clubs are my go-to spot on a Saturday night
4. I walk the lakes at noon o’clock
5. My husband and my brother have the same sense of humor

Did you just learn anything honest or useful about me?  You still don’t know what makes me giggle or why I blush or what makes me angry – and aren’t those the things that matter?

I always want to ask people what they wish for when they blow out the candles on a birthday cake.  But would anyone give me an honest answer?  Surely it’s more revealing to spend an hour or two in conversation, right?
I suppose the only thing worse than being asked to describe yourself is being told to ‘select the box’ you identify with – you know what I mean, right?  Those pesky little boxes that characterize profiling sites like and Linkedin.

  • Speak a foreign language
  • Went to college
  • In a relationship
  • Owns a pet
  • Is talkative

I guess my problem with these box surveys is twofold: 1) the answers are rarely all-encompassing (I kind of speak Spanish and I’m currently in college and I don’t know if he’s my boyfriend-or-not and my dog just ran away and I’m only talkative around friends), and 2 ) they try to easily define people, when, in fact, we’re filled with nuances and dualities and so many more important things than we could tell you with a checkmark inside a box.