Can We Judge a Book by Its Cover – Accurately?

When President Trump was asked, before his recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, how he would tell whether Mr. Un was serious about denuclearization, he responded, “I think within the first minute, I’ll know.” How, a reporter asked?

“I just, my touch, my feel, that’s what, that’s what I do,” the president said. “How long will it take to figure out whether or not they’re serious? I said, maybe in the first minute. You know the way they say that, you know if you’re going to like somebody in the first five seconds? You ever hear that one? Well I think that very quickly I’ll know whether or not something good is going to happen. I also think I’ll know whether or not it will happen fast. May not. But I think I’ll know pretty quickly whether or not, in my opinion, something positive will happen.”

Our inclination to size up people quickly, and our confidence in these judgments, have long been topics of research in social psychology. As Nicholson (1997) has pointed out, perhaps it’s a result of our hard-wired behavior from the Pleistocene era, where our ancestors had to judge very quickly whether a person from another tribe was a friend or foe. Without relying on big data or complex analyses, our ancestors had to make decisions quickly, whether they were about people to befriend or about certain types of food to avoid. Nicholson and other evolutionary psychologists have suggested that all the environmental changes we have experienced since that time have not been different enough to stimulate further human evolution. Ten thousand years is simply not enough time for significant genetic modifications to take place across populations.

Over the past several years, I have worked with executives to help them identify and develop potential talent in their organizations, and I find that many executives not only make these judgments very quickly but also seem to make them very confidently (not surprising for them, of course). A manager who they may remember texting during a meeting, or another manager who made a less than stellar presentation are samples of behavior from which executives generalize very quickly and that can sometimes derail otherwise fine talent. Impressions do have important consequences, especially for the targets.

However, note the accounts we hear about many who are surprised that some individuals who looked friendly to them turn out to be serial killers. Perhaps even more striking were those who believed that Bernie Madoff was trustworthy and entrusted their life savings to him.

Despite this, research suggests that people are not that bad at judging a stranger’s personality and abilities based on their first impressions. Ambady and Rosenthal (1992) have labeled this tendency to quickly judge people based on a small sample of behavior (or sometimes, just by looking at their faces) as “thin slicing” (a term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell). In an early study they showed some students videotaped 10-second clips of graduate student fellows teaching and asked them to rate these teachers on several factors, including how competent they were. The students did not know who these teachers were, yet their ratings correlated highly with the evaluations given by other students whom the teachers were teaching. In fact, reducing the video clips to six seconds made no difference – the ratings were still highly correlated with the evaluations.

There have been other studies that support the seeming accuracy of first impressions. Rule and Ambady (2008) asked subjects to rate how successful they believed individuals would be in leading a company just by looking at photographs of their faces. Unbeknownst to the subjects, these faces were those of CEOs of the 100 best companies in the U.S. in 2007.  There was a high correlation between these ratings of success and the actual performance of the CEOs’ companies as measured by company profitability! Of course, there are many factors that drive company performance, but this study shows that, perhaps through the CEOs’ impact on their employees’ motivation and performance, they do make a difference – at least in the short term. Extending their research, Rule and Ambady (2011) showed subjects the faces of Managing Partners in America’s top 100 law firms and asked them to rate how powerful they thought these individuals were. Power was based on ratings of competence, dominance and facial maturity. Once again, ratings of Power were significantly correlated with the profit margin, profitability index, and profits per equity partners that the firms earned. And in yet another study, this time of female CEOs (Rule and Ambady, 2009), they found a high correlation between ratings of competence (as judged by the CEOs’ faces) and company profits for one year.

Of course, cause-and-effect cannot be determined here. In other words, do companies tend to select CEOs with a certain appearance, or do individuals with a certain appearance have an edge in becoming CEOs (or perhaps some combination of both)? To me, what these studies suggest is that we have preconceived ideas of what a “good” leader is supposed to look like and act like and there might be a self-fulfilling cycle going on here. They do not necessarily prove that impressive-looking individuals can sustain their leadership effectiveness. In fact, other research suggests that individuals who are confident and extraverted tend to be selected to leadership positions, but they do not necessarily turn out to be effective leaders.

Keep in mind that there are at least three factors that might impact the accuracy of first impressions:

  • Individual differences in social sensitivity and experiences,
  • Unconscious biases,
  • The situational context.


Differences in social sensitivity and experience. Some individuals are very good at picking up cues and reading the other person, while others are less so. A combination of low social sensitivity as well as limited experience in dealing with a wide range of individuals can certainly impact the accuracy of one’s judgment of others.


All of us carry unconscious biases. Perhaps the most relevant here is the similarity bias, where we tend to favor those who are similar to us in some ways. Several years ago, while accompanying an Australian executive of a multinational company on a visit to one of its subsidiaries in Asia, he mentioned to me how impressed he was with one of the local managers he met because he spoke such good English. When discussing this manager with the local executive team, however, they were unanimous in their assessment that the manager was simply not a good performer and did not have a good track record. His English proficiency had created a “halo” effect for the Australian executive. The challenge for many managers, especially those working globally, is to be careful of thin slicing when interacting with people who are members of different cultures, since they not only look different but also talk and interact differently (even when conversing in English).


Contextual factors can also impact the accuracy of initial judgments. In a high-stakes situation, for example, where you have much to lose if you are not able to build a relationship with the other person, you might tend to be inclined to have a more favorable impression of that person. Even a manager’s mood or emotional state can influence his or her initial impression.

The following are some suggestions for managers to help balance the power of first impressions to impact their judgments of people.

  1. Prepare yourself and do your homework. For example, when you are about to engage with someone from another culture especially for the first time, step back for a moment and ask yourself what assumptions you might be making about that person or group. Suppose that you are getting ready to meet with a Russian manager in Moscow. From what you have read about Russian businesspeople and about the Russian culture, you will certainly have certain expectations about the person you are about to meet. You expect to meet someone who is most probably an ethnic Russian, who is rather formal (in terms of both attire and interaction), who does not use much body language or non-verbal communication, and who prefers to get down to business almost immediately. As you meet with and engage with the person, test those assumptions to see whether they are justified or not. As Langer (1989) has advised, beware of being trapped by categories. Some of your thinking and adjustments might have to be done “in the moment.” For example, on meeting the Russian manager, you realize that he is younger than 30, and he informs you that he has only been in Russia for five years, having been raised in Ukraine. Furthermore, he got his MBA at IMD Business School in Switzerland. These are pieces of information that you learn about as you interact with your Russian business partner and might change your impression as well as the approach you take with him. For example, you might then decide to take a somewhat less formal approach and engage in some informal topics to break the ice and establish rapport. This is consistent with the suggestion (Little, 2014) about carrying multiple categories mentally when forming an impression of others.
  2. Occasionally test your assumptions with others those judgments you trust (such as an experienced manager or a colleague who you know has a reputation for being a good judge of people), encourage them to challenge you, ask for feedback, and listen to what they have to say without being defensive. When interviewing job candidates for example, have multiple people interview them and, when asking for their views, be careful not to express your opinion first (especially if you are a higher-ranking manager).
  3. Have a learning mindset to expand your experiences and learn from others. Get out of your comfort zone and get to meet and know people from different functions, from different cultures, and from different backgrounds than you. Managing by walking around (MBWA), for example, is a decades-old term coined by Tom Peters, but it is a tried-and-true timeless practice.

The research shows that while we may be accurate about our impressions of someone’s mood or even certain aspects of their personality, we should be careful about drawing conclusions about their competence and their trustworthiness from first impressions. These are important characteristics, especially in situations where you are hiring or promoting someone to responsible positions. The danger is that we can be overconfident – and wrong – about our judgments. Furthermore, some of us are better at making these judgments more accurately than others. So yes, trust your instinct, but be open to new information and be aware of your own reactions. As we know, President Trump immediately sized up Kim Jung Un almost immediately as someone who could be trusted. Whether this proves to be the case, we will have to wait and see.

Ambady, N. and Rosenthal, R. (1992). Thin Slices of Expressive Behavior as Predictors of Interpersonal Consequences: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111 (2): 256-274.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: DeCapo Press.

Little, B. (2014). Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. New York: Public Affairs.

Nicholson, N. (1997). Evolutionary Psychology: Toward a New View of Human Nature and Organizational Society. Human Relations, 50 (9): 1053-1078.

Rule, N. and Ambady, N. (2008). The Face of Success: Inferences from Chief Executive Officers’ Appearance Predict Company Profits. Psychological Science, 19 (2): 109-111.

Rule, N. and Ambady, N. (2009). She’s Got the Look: Inferences from Female Chief Executive Officers’ Faces Predict Their Success. Sex Roles, 61: 644-652.

Rule, N. and Ambady, N. (2011). Face and Fortune: Inferences of Personality from Managing Partners’ Faces Predict Their Law Firms’ Financial Success. The Leadership Quarterly, 22: 690-696.