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Selection Interviews: Understanding the Psychology of First Impressions

By Brian Fitch, Ph.D., Los Angeles, California, Sheriff’s Department

election interviews continue to be one of the most popular tools used by organizations to choose prospective candidates for entry-level positions and promotion. 1 Because the evaluations that law enforcement administrators and managers make have important implications for applicants, their agencies, and the community, the ability to judge candidates is an important skill. Evaluating candidates objectively, however, is not as simple as it might seem. People’s judgments and decisions can be influenced by subtle, yet powerful forces, which can have a profound impact on the ways individuals form social judgments—commonly referred to as first impressions.

Upon meeting someone for the first time, individuals know within a fraction of a second whether they like the person or not. These judgments are commonly called gut reactions—positive or negative feelings toward another person that are often difficult to articulate or justify. The feeling might not be precise, but it is always there, influencing judgment and interaction with the person in a host of subtle yet powerful ways. Unlike objective judgments, however, the affective reactions experienced toward others cannot always be consciously controlled. Still, people trust their gut reactions because they believe these reactions are true and accurately represent the person’s character—or, in the case of a selection interview, offer a valid representation of the candidate’s ability, potential, and work ethic.

While interviewers often deceive themselves into thinking they are judging the person objectively, more often than not, this is not the case. The information that people collect after formulating a first impression is seldom evaluated impartially, but rather is used to rationalize preliminary judgments. This is because many of the processes involved in making social judgments—as well as many other types of decisions—occur automatically, outside of one’s conscious awareness or intent, and are shaped in important ways by a host of mental short-cuts, biases, and affective reactions.

Law enforcement managers who understand—either explicitly or implicitly—how these processes work are in better positions to judge prospective candidates objectively, thereby improving their chances of selecting the best applicant. The purpose of this article is to explore how the perception process works, examine some of the factors that contribute to social judgments, and offer practical advice on making the selection process more objective.

Automatic Evaluations

Most people recognize that with enough time and practice, many complex motor skills such as operating a vehicle or riding a bicycle can become automatic—that is, they occur without the need for conscious awareness or intent. What most people fail to realize, though, is that with enough time and practice, the way individuals form social judgments also becomes automatic.

A growing body of evidence from social psychology suggests that human beings are not neutral observers. Rather, they automatically evaluate virtually all stimuli—including people, events, and things—as either good or bad upon encountering them. In fact, studies have demonstrated that people evaluate many of the features that they observe about others in trait-like terms (good versus bad) within a fraction of a second (250 milliseconds or less) of meeting the person—a phenomenon that might help explain why individuals often form preferences for certain people without being able to explain why.2

Studies suggest that the human brain relies on two distinct approaches to processing information and forming judgments, called System 1 (S1) and System 2 (S2). these processes roughly correspond to the commonsense notions of intuitive and analytical modes of thinking.3 These two systems learn and operate in quite different ways, are activated by different parts of the brain, and have different evolutionary origins. S1 processes are characterized as fast, automatic, inflexible, and emotional—concerned mostly with pattern recognition and gut reactions. In contrast, S2 is believed to be slow, deliberate, flexible, and logical—typically limited to no more than one or two pieces of information at a time, while requiring considerable cognitive energy.

While the connections necessary for S1 require considerable training, once these associations have been formed, S1 has the ability to process large amounts of information and communicate intuitive judgments quickly and effortlessly. Considering the processing limitations faced by most people, it makes sense to rely on the gut-level, emotional responses produced by S1 for most day-to-day decisions, while reserving the more energy-intensive thinking associated with S2 for more important judgments. However, unlike the logical, conscious judgments associated with S2, S1 processes are prone to a variety of cognitive errors and judgment biases.4 Thus, while S1 processing may not always lead to the best decision, it usually leads to decisions that are good enough.

The automatic judgments produced by S1 processes are important because they set the stage for the rest of the encounter. While interviewers might be able to hide their initial reactions, they cannot control their responses. The expectations formed by an interviewer’s first impression can distort attention and recall of information in ways that confirm the preliminary judgment and expectations, as well as influence the evaluator’s questioning strategy in ways that confirm their pre-existing beliefs—a phenomenon termed a self-fulfilling prophecy.5

Categorical Thinking

During an interview, it is virtually impossible for an evaluator to attend to every detail of the encounter. Therefore, they need some way to simplify and structure the decision-making process, especially when the evaluator is pressed for time, questioning several candidates, or otherwise distracted. This is accomplished by thinking categorically. Rather than focusing on the unique aspects of each candidate, interviewers perceive everyone in a given category as essentially equal.6

Categories influence the perception process by linking networks of information and affects that have been learned through experience with similar people. Each person probably has thousands of networks for judging others—each of which contains beliefs, feelings, and information that are connected in long-term memory. Additionally, the information and affects contained in a given category can be triggered automatically upon mere exposure to a person.7 Once activated, these traits, as well as any feelings—positive or negative—come to mind automatically. Using categories allows people to go beyond the information given, fill in gaps, and form global impressions of others with little, if any, cognitive effort.

While the information that interviewers use to form categorical judgments can come from a variety of sources, first impressions seem especially vulnerable to visual cues, such as gender, age, ethnicity, clothing, posture, and facial expressions. Research on nonverbal communication indicates that 55 percent of the emotional impact of a communicator’s message comes from nonverbal sources, with an additional 38 percent accounted for by paralanguage, that is, the tone, pitch, and volume of a person’s voice.8 Since S1 judgments are emotional in nature, candidates’ emotional sway can have a profound impact on the way they are viewed by others.

Categorical thinking and nonverbal behavior are important because many judgments formed about others are based on appearance. During a selection interview, one of the first things a prospective employer notices is the applicant’s clothing, bearing, and grooming—a finding that is particularly true of interviews conducted in uniform. Candidates’ clothing communicates messages about their socio-economic statuses, education levels, trustworthiness, social positions, levels of success, and moral characters.9 Although a person’s appearance becomes less significant with familiarity, nonverbal behavior seems to be especially important when forming first impressions. And, while this applies to interpersonal relationships and casual meetings, it also appears to be a critical factor during selection interviews when a candidate’s appearance can impact the type of impression that evaluators form, as well as the ways subsequent information is evaluated.

Other Factors

An interviewer’s judgment of a prospective applicant is influenced by a number of sources, yet certain factors seem to carry more weight than others. Four factors that deserve further discussion are pre-interview impressions, types of information, attribution bias, and the order of events.

Pre-interview impressions. This first factor refers to the judgments raters make about an applicant prior to the actual interview. Although first impressions can have lasting and profound impacts on a candidate’s rating, the image created by a prospective applicant can occur long before the formal interview begins. Prior to actually meeting a candidate, interviewers often gather information from the person’s application and résumé. This information—however slight or incomplete—can have a significant impact on a interviewer’s expectations and on the way the applicant is eventually evaluated.

Studies on the job interview process have consistently demonstrated how evaluators behave in ways that confirm their pre-interview impressions.10 For example, interviewers are more likely to follow up positive pre-interview impressions (formed by viewing a candidate’s application and paper credentials) by showing positive regard, “selling” the position, providing more job-related information, and gathering less personal data. Studies have demonstrated a similar phenomenon with applicants who present negative first impressions. Not surprisingly, such candidates tend to be asked more difficult and fewer positive questions, receive more negative ratings, and spend less time being interviewed.

Bad versus good. As a general principle, psychologists have found that bad or negative information carries more weight than positive information in the same category. While it is certainly true that many good events can overcome the effect of a single negative experience, research has consistently demonstrated the profound and lasting impression caused by negative information. 11 The psychological effects of negative information on first impressions seem to have a much greater influence than similar measures of good information—a finding that has been supported by a number of studies on person perception. For example, when people are presented with both negative and positive traits, they are twice as likely to remember bad traits as they are to recall the good ones. Similarly, the processing and recall of negative information tends to be more vivid and longer lasting than the recall of good information.12

Attribution bias. This third factor refers to the natural human tendency to look for consistency in a person’s behavior across a variety of contexts. The definition of personality implies a high degree of unity and consistency in a person’s behavior. Thus, when forming judgments, individuals expect people to be the same—with the same behaviors, traits, attitudes, and values—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.13 If, for example, a person is outgoing and friendly in one context, similar behavior is expected in other situations as well. Because people naturally anticipate a high degree of unity, they assume that a person’s behavior in a given context reflects a more general underlying explanation of the person’s character—that is, a symptom of deeper, more fundamental dispositions.

People prefer stable dispositional characteristics because they provide a way to describe, explain, and predict the behavior of others. When evaluating candidates, interviewers use their initial observations as starting points, or anchors, for judging later behavior. As we have seen, an interviewer’s opening observations—whether formed before or during the actual interview—are critical because they create expectations that are used to judge subsequent information.14 If interviewers’ opening observations are positive, they are more likely to notice information and behaviors that confirm their initial impressions, while dismissing negative conduct. If, on the other hand, evaluators’ initial reactions are negative, they will be prone to pay special attention to unfavorable actions or words that support their preliminary reactions—again, while being less likely to notice positive behaviors.

Primacy and recency. The order that information is presented seems to be another factor that influences what people notice, as well as what they remember about an encounter. Behavioral scientists have discovered that we tend to pay closer attention to our first and last encounters with a person or event.15 This phenomenon—referred to as the laws of primacy and recency—may help explain why negative first impressions are so difficult to overcome. Primacy refers to the tendency to remember the first things noticed, while recency concerns the last things observed about a person. It appears that the first detail an interviewer notices about a candidate establishes a frame of reference—and therefore the specifics the interviewer should focus on in the future. In contrast, the last thing an evaluator sees tends to be freshest in memory because it was processed last.

Creating a More Objective Process

The first impressions that interviewers form of prospective candidates are shaped by a number of automatic processes, including categorical thinking, pre-interview impressions, negative information, attribution bias, and the order of events. Perhaps even more important, the initial impression that an evaluator forms sets the tone for the rest of the interview, potentially biasing the ways that interviewers evaluate subsequent information. Most of these problems, however, are most closely associated with unstructured interviews—that is, unscripted dialogues between the interviewer and interviewee. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that interviewers can take to make the process more objective, including the establishment of specific job criteria, a written assessment, a focus on relevant experience, and the use of a standard set of questions.

The first criterion, establishing specific job characteristics, makes it possible to assess the explicit job knowledge and personality attributes necessary to perform the assignment and allows for the development of an instrument—most preferably a written examination—to test prospective candidates’ relevant expertise. Next, candidates should be rated on their applicable experience or lack thereof, instead of on the first impressions they emanate. Candidates with more relevant experience should be looked at more favorable than applicants who lack such understanding. Finally, interviewers should adopt a standard set of situational questions that, again, focus on the specific characteristics of the job by asking applicants to address potential tactical, administrative, or technical issues that they are likely to encounter. 16 Realistic, situational questions provide the evaluator with a way of objectively assessing a candidate’s pertinent job knowledge, problem-solving skills, and ability to make decisions under pressure—all important criteria for selecting the best candidate and for making the process more objective for everyone. ■

Brian Fitch is a lieutenant and 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. He holds faculty positions in the Psychology Department at California State University, Long Beach, as well as in the Organizational Leadership program at Woodbury University in Burbank, California. He can be reached for comments at


1Benjamin Schneider and Neal W. Schmitt, Staffing Organizations (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foreman, 1986).
2For a discussion on automatic cognitive processes, see John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54, no. 7 (July 1999): 462–479.
3For further information on dual process models of cognition and judgment, see Jonathan St. B. T. Evans and Keith Frankish, eds., In Two Minds: Dual Processes and Beyond (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
4Vincent R. Ruggiero, Beyond Feelings: A Guide to Critical Thinking, 8th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2007).
5Diane F. Halpern, Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2003).
6C. Neil McCrae and Galen V. Bodenhausen, “Social Cognition: Thinking Categorically about Others,” Annual Review of Psychology 51 (February 2000): 93–120.
7For a more complete discussion, see James P. Morris, Nancy K. Squires, Charles S. Taber, and Milton Lodge, “Activation of Political Attitudes: A Psychophysiological Examination of the Hot Cognition Hypothesis,” Political Psychology 24, no. 4 (December 2003): 727–745.
8Albert Mehrabian, Nonverbal Communication (New Brunswick, N.J.: AldineTransaction, 1972).
9For a more complete discussion, see William Thourlby, You Are What You Wear (New York: New American Library, 1978).
10Thomas W. Dougherty, Daniel B. Turban, and John C. Callender, “Confirming First Impressions in the Employment Interview: A Field Study of Interviewer Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology 79 (1994): 659–665.
11For a discussion of negativity bias, see John J. Skowronski and Donald E. Carlston, “Negativity and Extremity in Impression Formation: A Review of Explanations,” Psychological Bulletin 105 (1989): 131–142.
12See Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky and Catrin Finkenauer, “Bad is Stronger Than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, no. 5 (2001): 323-370.
13See, for example, David L. Hamilton and Steven J. Sherman, “Perceiving Persons and Groups,” Psychological Review 103, no. 2 (April 1996): 336–355.
14See, for example, Donald C. Pennington, Social Cognition (London: Routledge, 2000).
15Daniel M. Wegner and Robin R. Vallacher, Implicit Psychology: An Introduction to Social Cognition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
16For a discussion of situational interviews, see Gary P. Latham et al., “The Situational Interview,” Journal of Applied Psychology 65, no. 4 (1980): 422–427.

Please cite as:

Brian Fitch, "Selection Interviews: Understanding the Psychology of First Impressions," The Police Chief 77 (April 2010): 120–126, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 4, April 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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