“Social progress, unless we’re careful, can merely be the means by which we replace the obviously arbitrary with the not so obviously arbitrary.”
– Malcolm Gladwell
Frank Bernieri, a psychologist at the University of Toledo, conducted an experiment in which he trained two interviewers for six weeks on how to properly conduct an effective job interview. Those two then interviewed 98 volunteers and evaluated how likely they would be to hire them. Then the first few seconds of the interviews – the time from when the volunteers walked in the door to when they shook the interviewer’s hand – were shown to a new set of observers. “On nine out of the eleven traits the applicants were being judged on, the observers significantly predicted the outcome of the interview,” Bernieri says. “The strength of the correlations was extraordinary.” It’s not so much that the interviews themselves didn’t matter. Rather, everything that followed those first thirty seconds was colored by the initial impression the applicants made.
Compare that to a similar experiment conducted by Nalini Ambady, an experimental psychologist at Stanford. Ambady cut down video footage of Harvard professors teaching their classes until she had ten-second video clips of the professors’ facial expressions and other physical cues. She then turned the sound off and showed them to neutral observers. The observers had no difficulty evaluating the professors and a fifteen-item checklist of personality traits. What’s more, those evaluations were almost exactly the same when she pared the clips down from ten seconds to five seconds, and again when she pared them down from five seconds to two seconds. Two seconds is all it takes to consistent impression of a professor’s personality. More astonishing still, when Ambady compared those evaluations with the ones made by students after a semester class, she found that those were virtually identical. As Malcolm Gladwell put it, ”A person watching a two-second silent video clip of a teacher he has never met will reach conclusions about how good that teacher is that are very similar to those of a student who sits in the teacher’s class for an entire semester.”
If you think of the state of dating in the context of these studies, I think it starts to become obvious why relationships are so hard. We make an intuitive judgment about a person’s desirability as a sexual partner within the first thirty seconds of meeting them. We color every subsequent interaction with them through that lens. Bernieri’s best applicants weren’t the ones who would be best at the job; Ambady’s highest-rated professors weren’t necessarily the best teachers. In both those cases and with dating, those rated the best were just the ones that struck the reviewers – initially and intuitively – as the most likable. When we find someone likable or desirable, we overlook a lot of things that would put us off. I’m not trying to make a case for arranged marriage (I’ll save that for another blog post). Rather, I’m just wondering: if we’re aware of that pitfall in modern relationships, could we avoid much of the heartache, infidelity, and divorce that is plaguing us today?