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First Impressions Really Do Count

We’ve all heard about how important first impressions are. In business, the firm handshake, eye contact, smile and initial greeting are all highlighted as key to creating a good first impression. But how much control do we have over it?

As neuroscience develops, it is confirming just how important and deep-seated these initial feelings towards others are – and often we can’t do anything about it.

The judgemental amygdala

Neuroscience, through the use of advanced brain imaging techniques, allows us to test how specific areas of the brain react to certain stimuli. Those images you have seen of the brain with brightly-coloured ‘hear map’ areas lit up denote extra neural activity as measured by fMRI.

Neuroscientists have a good understanding of which areas of the brain are responsible for which elements of behaviour, though the exact mechanics of these relationships are less certain.

The amygdala, for instance, are two almond-shaped areas located within the temporal lobes of the brain and they are known to play an important role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. They are part of the limbic system of the brain.

They also play a key role in making snap decisions and judgments it seems, and they are capable of producing responses to complex social signals such as the trustworthiness of a face even before we become aware of it – as confirmed in a study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In the study, subjects were shown a series of facial images of strangers – both real and manipulated ones using features like high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones known to engender a feeling of trust.

The scientists found that specific regions inside the amygdala exhibited activity tracking how untrustworthy a face appeared; other regions showed activity tracking the overall strength of the trustworthiness signal even when not seeing faces consciously.

Almost like a throwback to our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mentality, the amygdala seems to help us instantly form an impression of someone even before we are conscious of it.

Taming the emotional response

It’s easy to see how these snap judgments could be of use in our ancestor hunter and gatherers; but in the meeting room or the boardroom they are less helpful.

That’s why the best leaders usually demonstrate an ability to tame these responses. They are able to ‘switch’ away from the more primitive and emotionally-based limbic functions of the brain, to the more measured and considered responses characteristic of the ‘higher thinking’ system of the brain.

Understanding the primitive responses in our brains is the first step to being able to master them better and achieving the control over our reactions that is one of the keys to leadership. Rather than relying on first impressions, leaders make informed decisions – and it may take an extra effort of will to overcome the ‘instincts’ of the brain.



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