Wear Out There: First Impressions Count

Christina Proctor

Matt Smith

First impressions count. Research shows it takes seconds for individuals to form an opinion about a person’s characteristics and traits, and once formed, those initial conclusions are hard to change. This year’s federal election has brought the psychology behind first impressions to the forefront as candidates travel the country looking to spark support for their idea of a better Canada. With governance on their minds, candidates are using all available tools to ensure they appear confident and credible. This includes presenting a polished and professional look.

Whether we realize it or not, our impressions of each candidate are derived, in part, by their appearance. What they look like, what they wear, how they speak and how they stand all communicate strong messages about their ability to lead. Few of us have the opportunity to meet each individual, and must therefore rely on our perceptions. Do we feel they are trustworthy, likeable and competent? Will they make a great leader? While their position on critical topics will ultimately determine voter behaviour, portraying a positive image throughout the election increases the likelihood of a successful campaign.

A study by Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren and Hall (2005), is just one example of the power of appearance in politics. Their study had participants rate candidates on a number of traits after flashing their photo for one second. The result? Impressions of candidate’s competence predicted the outcomes of U.S. congressional elections in 2000, 2002 and 2004. This finding suggests we do make rapid, often subliminal decisions about a person based on our initial reactions – a result politicians are well aware of.

In a similar situation, when completing Vote Compass on CBC’s website, I was presented with a photo of each candidate and asked how trustworthy and competent I found them. Separating our perceptions from reality is difficult, if not impossible, and the former clearly influences our behaviour as voters.

The stakes are obviously high for political candidates, but everyone should pay attention to the psychology of first impressions, because the image we present impacts our ability to reach our goals.

As we tell those around us who we are, what we represent and what our values are, we need to make sure our image is working for, and not against us. As for the election, will it be the candidate who makes the most positive impression that wins? We will see on October 19.