From Our 2009 Archives

First Impressions Surprisingly Accurate

Personality Traits Accurately Judged Based on Appearance

By Caroline Wilbert
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Nov. 6, 2009 -- How many times did your mother tell you: Don't judge a book by its cover?

All our lives, we've been admonished not to jump to conclusions when we meet people. However, a new study shows that those early conclusions are surprisingly accurate.

More than 100 undergraduate students at the University of Texas participated in a study -- either as subjects or as personality judges. The judges were able to accurately guess subjects' personalities based just on photos.

Here's how it worked. Two pictures were taken of the subjects. In one, they posed in a way that researchers told them -- staring at the camera, not smiling, feet should-width apart, hands at sides. In the other, they were photographed in natural, spontaneous poses. Their actual personalities were evaluated based on a questionnaire they filled out themselves, as well as questionnaires completed by people who knew them well.

Judges then evaluated the subjects based on the photographs for 10 personality traits. Even when just looking at the posed photographs, the judges were able to accurately guess three traits: extroversion, self-esteem, and religiosity. When looking at the more spontaneous photos, the judges were able to accurately guess almost all the traits.

"We have long known that people jump to conclusions about others on the basis of very little information," researcher Sam Gosling of the University of Texas says in a written statement, "but what's striking about these findings is how many of the impressions have a kernel of truth to them, even on the basis of something as simple as a single photograph."

As examples, extroverts tend to smile more, stand in energetic and less tense ways, and look healthy, neat, and stylish.

The researchers conclude that the results "suggest that personality is manifested through both static and expressive channels of appearance, and observers use this information to form accurate judgments for a variety of traits."

In other words, your mother may have been wrong. Maybe you can judge a book by its cover.

SOURCES: Naumann, L., Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2009.

News release, University of Texas at Austin.

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