New Book Shows The Eyes Don’t Always Have It

A Princeton professor's book, Face Value, explores the importance and power of a first impression.

In his new book, Princeton professor Alexander Todorov describes the power of first impressions. (We think he looks like a really nice guy.)
In his new book, Princeton professor Alexander Todorov describes the power of first impressions. (We think he looks like a really nice guy.)
Photo by Alexandra Todorov

They say you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression and that first impression is made in the blink of an eye.

“You need as little as 30 to 40 milliseconds of exposure to a face to form an impression,” writes Princeton University psychology professor and researcher Alexander Todorov in his new book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions (Princeton University Press).

Todorov, who has taught at the university since 2002, explores how forming opinions from facial appearances can influence criminal trials, elections and hiring decisions.

While eyes are important in initial impressions, another feature plays a bigger role. “Much modern research shows that the eyebrows are more important than the eyes for expressing emotions,” writes Todorov. “When we express emotions, our eyebrows move in specific ways, helping other people read our emotional states.”

Todorov documents the history of physiognomy, the now discredited science of judging character and mental qualities by observation of facial and bodily features. He quotes a contemporary analysis of Warren G. Harding that described the 29th president’s forehead and chin as indicators of his “broad-mindedness” and “strong willpower.” On the contrary, historians judge Harding as one of the worst U.S. presidents, thanks to widespread corruption in his administration.

It’s an illustration that appearances can be deceiving. “Our biases shape the picture in our heads,” Todorov writes.

Todorov cites another study that found women had a better chance of joining a symphony orchestra in a blind audition where their gender could not be determined.

How do we stop first impressions from warping our judgment? “The first step,” Todorov tells New Jersey Monthly, “is to be aware of potential biases of first impressions, and to know they often provide less information than we think.”

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