In the blink of an eye, we judge people too quickly on 5 key traits and the trouble is, first impressions aren’t always accurate but how we behave is heavily influenced by that first judgement. And in the end, nobody wins. So what are judging and how can we limit the risk to our relationships?

Are you ignorant, an idiot or just plain evil?

American journalist and author, Kathryn Schulz wrote a big book called “Being Wrong — Adventures in the Margin of Error”, an in-depth analysis on human behaviour. In talking about our minds and our beliefs, she explains a common sequence that we go through when someone disagrees with us. It looks something like this:

“You’re just ignorant”
When someone first disagrees with us, we conclude that it’s just because they don’t have the right information, they’re ill-informed.

When they still don’t agree with us, we shake our heads, throw our hands in the air and accept that they just don’t know how to use their brain properly.

“You are pure evil.”
And finally, when they persist in disagreeing with us, they must be wilfully choosing to deny it. Just winding us up.

It’s easy to fall into these classic judgements, especially when we are fixated on our own pre-determined ideal outcome.

And we judge others in less than a blink of an eye. In 100-milliseconds to be precise.

In some modest experiments by Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov around 2005/2006 at Princeton University, they concluded that in as little as a tenth of a second of looking at someone’s face, we judge them by their facial features of expression, something known as physiognomy.

We need very little information to create an impression of someone and that first impression isn’t always accurate and yet our behaviour is heavily influenced by that first judgement of someone.

The 5 traits we judge each other on

Without placing any time constraints on the participants, they were asked to look at 70 photographs of amateur actors, 35 females and 35 males between the ages of 20 and 30. They ‘neutralised’ the images as much as possible so all the photos showed people in grey T-shirts and no distinguishing facial features — so the beardies, moustacheo’d were out and no-one wearing eye glasses, earrings or make-up.

They asked the participants to judge on a 9-point scale (from 1 not at all to 9 extremely) the degree to which the person in each picture met a certain trait. To cut a long study report short, they narrowed down the main traits as being attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness.

So that’s how we judge people. Do I like you? Can I trust you? All from looking at their face in less than a blink of an eye.

Everything is neat and sweet if you decide you like them. But let’s be honest, how many times out of all the people you have met so far has that happened?

Of the 5 traits, attractiveness, likability, trustworthiness and competence speak to the opportunity for building emotional connections and making us feel generous because of increased levels of oxytocin and other feel-good hormones in our systems. Aggressiveness speaks to introducing stress and tension between us because of increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline.

We might be judging people at the point of being introduced to them or, as is very likely at work, just by clocking them in our view or in our peripheral vision.

Judging even happens without any interaction

We don’t even have to be in conversation with someone to judge them. Oh no. Consider this, that person may be deep in focus or relaxed and resting. And I don’t know about you, but I can have the best RBF (resting b*tch face) or BRF (b*tchy resting face) money can buy. Friends would say to me, “You should smile more, you look lovely when you smile”. I appreciate now that they were trying to tell me something.

But seriously, it is a thing studied by psychologists, has its own meme and there’s an entry on Wikipedia for it too! Resting A**hole Face (RAF) is the male version, apparently.

Basically, it’s when we unintentionally hold a facial expression that reads “I’m angry / annoyed / irritated / contemptuous” when actually we’re just chilling or deep in thought.

* indicates required

The oxytocin vs cortisol battle

When we judge people too quickly, we’re actually putting up emotional barriers to connecting with them, making us less likely to walk up to them and say hello. So, our oxytocin (connection hormone) levels are low and our cortisol (stress) levels are likely to be high. That takes a lot more intentional effort to overcome and find a way to connect with that person.

In this context, we go on to make incomplete, and often inaccurate, interpretations of that person and their motives or intentions. This introduces risk into the ‘relationship’ and means we derail ourselves as leaders because we’ve created reasons to not connect any more that is necessary.

Which means we won’t reach out to them to just get to know them; we won’t think to speak to them first before making decisions that affect them; giving them feedback will be harder; and we won’t consider any influence they may have on our peers. Not enough oxytocin. Not enough generosity. And they will pick up on our reluctance to get to know them because like us, their vagus nerve is taking situation readings as fast as ours is.

And when it comes to a disagreement, a misalignment or a conflict, there won’t be enough emotional credit or willingness to find common ground and to work harder to resolve issues. So with a bird’s eye view, our judging too quickly has meant no-one comes out a winner.

Cortisol wins.

Slow down, ask questions and listen deeply, even when you disagree

The trick to not judging too quickly is, well, to slow down because when we slow down, we can be thoughtful. When we’re thoughtful we can be intentional, ask more questions and listen more deeply. This is an especially useful when we find ourselves holding a different opinion.

By the way, what’s your RBF/RAF?

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