Quick Impressions

Emily-didonato Chances are the moment you saw this photograph you instantly had an opinion about it: whether you felt the model was beautiful, whether her red lipstick looked stunning or overdone. Studies have shown we form initial impressions surprisingly quickly. At Northwestern University researchers found that when they tested listeners by letting them hear tiny samples of music, the listeners were able to classify different styles of music based on samples lasting only 250 milliseconds. A half-second sample added only a little more accuracy, and with a sound sample lasting a second most listeners could classify every style of music they were familiar with. This is an astonishing finding, because it suggests that we use timbre, the character of the sound, to quickly do most of the work when we are identifying musical styles. 

This ability to form quick impressions is an extension of our survival skills, stemming from the need to assess sights and sounds that might indicate the presence of danger, or a friend, or an enemy. These quick impressions can of course be mistaken, but without the ability to form quick impressions our ancestors could not have survived. 

Those of you who have watched Project Runway or The Fashion Show know that you decide almost as soon as the model walks onto the runway whether you think her outfit is attractive. Later, you sometimes think the judges are crazy to like an outfit that you immediately found unattractive. If we watch an awards show in which music, film, and TV stars are trying to look glamorous, we take one look and quickly decide if we think they have succeeded or failed.

Emily-dinato2 The model in the photograph above is Emily DiDonato, a relatively new model who has been featured in several recent Maybelline ads. The photo at right shows her with little or no makeup. For a chance to form other quick impressions, look at DiDonato made up in strikingly different ways herehere, and here. If we were to imagine each image as our first impression of her, then our initial reaction to her might be quite different.

Understanding this allows us to see why some religions have been suspicious of makeup for centuries. When we see an image of Emily’s face, within milliseconds we have evaluated her appearance and formed an initial impression about her as a person. When her makeup changes she instantly appears to be different—perhaps even a different kind of person. This is horrifying if you believe that people should present only one face to the world. But, if you believe that we play different roles in life, and that we should have the option of presenting ourselves differently, then the ability to dramatically change our appearance in various ways seems liberating and fun.