It's rational to be nervous about first impressions -- a ton of science shows that people make super quick decisions when meetings others, and that those impressions are incredibly hard to shake. New research out of Yale, however, should calm your nerves about meeting new people a little.
Yes, first impressions are lasting and important, scientists found, but you're also probably making a better first impression than you think.
You're terrible at guessing what other people think of you
In general, people are overconfident in their abilities. Most of us think we're smarter than average, for instance, even though that's a mathematical impossibility. The same goes for driving. Everyone else is a maniac, most people think, while they drive like angels. This phenomenon, known as illusory superiority, is widespread and well documented, but it apparently has one major exception -- how we estimate others' first impressions of us.
Randomly ask people how clever they are and they'll give you an over-optimistic assessment. But according to a series of five studies (more details here) conducted by a team out of Yale, Harvard, and the University of Essex, actually put people into a room and have them interact in real life and suddenly we're much more humble -- too humble in fact.
The researchers "found when meeting for the first time people fail to see signals that other people like them. Both participants in conversations believe they like the other more than the other likes them," reports Yale News of the findings, which were recently published in the journal Psychological Science.
What causes the liking gap?
The psychologists term the distance between the actual, positive impressions we leave and our own assessments the "liking gap." What causes it? In short, we're all too self-conscious to see interactions with new people clearly.
"They seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others' liking for them, which observers of the conversations see right away," study author and Yale psychologist Margaret S. Clark said of the study participants.
"We critically monitor ourselves and regret not telling the joke more smoothly or worry about whether we sound as if we are bragging," she continued. "We're self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that's really true."
While this study wasn't focused on offering advice to those whose nerves get the best of them when meeting new people, the results jive with a technique often used by actors to boost their charisma. Rather than focus on your own performance, which is bound to make you self-conscious and awkward, consciously focus on the other party, asking more questions and worrying about their feelings rather than your own.
By switching your attention from the minutiae of your own behavior to the needs of the person you're meeting, you'll not only be more likable, but also better at gauging how you're coming across and how you could make an even better impression.