Fooled by first impressions? Reexamining the diagnostic value of appearance-based inferences

Christopher Y. Olivola, Alexander Todorov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

221 Scopus citations


We often form opinions about the characteristics of others from single, static samples of their appearance - the very first thing we see when, or even before, we meet them. These inferences occur spontaneously, rapidly, and can impact decisions in a variety of important domains. A crucial question, then, is whether appearance-based inferences are accurate. Using a naturalistic data set of more than 1 million appearance-based judgments obtained from a popular website (Study 1) and data from an online experiment involving over a thousand participants (Study 2), we evaluate the ability of human judges to infer the characteristics of others from their appearances. We find that judges are generally less accurate at predicting characteristics than they would be if they ignored appearance cues and instead only relied on their knowledge of characteristic base-rate frequencies. The findings suggest that appearances are overweighed in judgments and can have detrimental effects on accuracy. We conclude that future research should (i) identify the specific visual cues that people use when they draw inferences from appearances, (ii) determine which of these cues promote or hinder accurate social judgments, and (iii) examine how inference goals and contexts moderate the use and diagnostic validity of these cues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)315-324
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


  • First impressions
  • Judgment accuracy
  • Nonverbal behavior
  • Person perception
  • Social cognition
  • Spontaneous trait inferences
  • Web-based research


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