04/19/2011 09:14 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who Is Popular at First Sight?

You're in a new environment. You don't know anyone. You look around the room and try to size people up. Whom should you talk to? Who is likely to like you? Some people immediately rub you the wrong way. Others seem more attractive. Everyone else at that party is doing the same thing. You know you are being judged, just as you are judging others. Welcome to the fascinating world of person perception.

Recent approaches are allowing us to dig deeper into person perception and pinpoint the factors that influence popularity at first sight. A new approach that holds particular promise is the Social Relations Lens Model, which integrates a number of prior approaches. The model allows researchers to investigate the components of interpersonal attraction and make a more finely-grained analysis of the personality traits and cues involved in the perception process.

Adopting this framework, Mitja D. Back and his colleagues conducted a comprehensive study that included multiple personality traits and behavioral cues. At the beginning of a freshman introductory psychology class, 73 German students (52 female and 21 male) were randomly assigned a seat as they entered the classroom. One by one, each student went to a marked spot on the floor and briefly introduced himself or herself. The introductions, which lasted from 4 to 21 seconds, were videotaped. Each person was then evaluated by the rest of the freshman on two dimensions: liking ("How likable do you find this person?," "Would you like to get to know this person?"), and meta-perceptions of initial liking ("How likable will this person find you?," "Will this person like to get to know you?").

Each freshman was also given a packet of questionnaires to complete at home, including measures of personality. Among other personality traits, the personality battery included 35 items related to self-centered values (e.g., social power, forgiveness, success, courtesy, ambition), which were combined to form an overall dimension of self-centered vs. self-transcendent values. Afterwards, all videotapes were coded by independent observers for observable physical, nonverbal and audible cues.

Who Is Popular?

Those high in neuroticism and low in self-esteem expected to be disliked, when in reality neither neuroticism nor self-esteem were related to popularity. It seems, then, that neurotic people and those with low self-esteem have inaccurate perceptions of reality. Extroverts, on the other hand, were more liked and were also expected to like others more. In reality though, extroversion was not related to being a liker or expecting to be liked.

Most alarmingly, those who reported more self-centered values were more liked and were also expected to like others more. In reality, self-centered people actually disliked others more, evaluating their peers more negatively! Therefore, while self-centered people may be perceived as more friendly, they are actually less friendly.

Why were extroverts and self-centered individuals evaluated more positively? What cues were they broadcasting that influenced their popularity? Extroversion was related to cues that had a positive effect on popularity: fashionable appearance; speedy, energetic and self-assured body movements; friendly facial expressions, strong voice; and original self-introductions. Interestingly, those with self-centered values tended to display very similar cues.

Prior research has linked the popularity of the extrovert to their desire to captivate the attention of others, their expressive behaviors, verbal humor and fashionable dress. This study shows that both extroverts and self-centered people share similar behavioral cues. These cues appear to be related to emotional expressiveness and social dominance. Extroverts and self-centered people both are signaling these traits, and these traits influence popularity. Interestingly, prior research has shown that people accurately perceive extroversion even after only being exposed to a face for 50 milliseconds! Consistent with the Back and colleagues study, signals such as cheerfulness and positive facial expressions were particularly related to extroversion.

Independent of personality, the researchers also found that friendliness of facial expression (amount of smiling) and pleasantness of voice were the best predictors of liking and meta-perceptions. Unsurprisingly, prior research has also found that smiling plays an important role in attraction. Additionally, students with baby faces were perceived as likers.

Birds Of A Feather

The researchers also looked at similarity effects. According to the prominent social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the influence of similarity on attraction is "one of the best known findings in social psychology." Their results are consistent with earlier research in social psychology.

Participants who had similar preferences regarding subcultural scenes (e.g., punk) and clothing (e.g., outlandish) were prone to like each other and expected to be liked by each other. This worked in both directions: more normative beauty-oriented perceivers (those into "fitness and wellness") specifically tended to like dressed-up (as opposed to outlandishly-dressed) others. No similarity effects were found for other personality traits, interest similarity or self-concept similarity.

Why Are Self-Centered People Attractive At First Sight?

The finding that extroversion is related to popularity at first sight is not surprising. Neither is the finding that those with higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of self-esteem expect to be unpopular. Prior research by the same researchers (also adopting the Social Relations Lens Model) found that men with a long-term mating orientation (which is correlated with reduced levels of extraversion) and shy men (which is correlated with higher levels of neuroticism) get the short end of the stick in rapid mate-selection settings such as speed dating. Other research has shown that extroverted people fare better in a speed dating context.

The reason is pretty straightforward: at first encounter, extroverted people are more likely to reveal their personality than introverts; extroversion acts as an amplifier of human traits. As for those with high levels of neuroticism and low levels of self-esteem, they may come across as more socially anxious and make others feel uncomfortable at first meeting. (Note, however, that the opposite of extroversion is not shyness. Many introverts may not be noticed at first sight, but are OK with that, as they simply aren't as interested in the social stimulation.)

While alarming, the finding that self-centeredness is related to popularity also isn't terribly surprising. Prior research has found that narcissists -- well, actually, the very worst kind of narcissists, those who enjoy exploiting and manipulating others -- are the most popular at first sight (see "Why Are Narcissists (Initially) So Popular?"). In that study, they found that those scoring high in narcissism tended to display the four main components of the "charismatic air": attractiveness (flashy and neat attire), competence (self-assured behavior), interpersonal warmth (charming glances) and humor (witty verbal expressions).

The real world bears this out; everywhere I look, it seems like self-centered people are the most popular. Those with humanitarian ideals are appreciated but aren't flashed across the television screen. This isn't terribly shocking: people seek entertainment, and self-centered people provide entertainment for some people. I'm a fan of Kanye West's music, even though his self-aggrandizement annoys the heck out of me. I've had some self-centered friends in the past, and they could be fun to hang out with.

The most interesting and perhaps surprising thing about the Back and colleagues study is the finding that extroverts are virtually indistinguishable from self-centered individuals at first sight. Both extroverts and self-centered people displayed self-assured body movements and friendly facial expressions and made original self-introductions.

This finding has important implications when it comes to the domain of intimate relationships. How we are perceived at first sight plays a crucial role in mating and dating. I assume most people are attracted to the extroverted aspects of the self-centered individual, not the actual self-centeredness. But how can a person tell the difference without more interactions with that person? This also poses a problem for people who are shy or more introverted. People who aren't flashy and attention-grabbing aren't as popular. This is a shame. I've had quite a number of very meaningful relationships with people who aren't particularly alluring at first but who are awesome people once I've gotten the chance to know them.

A potential criticism of the Back and colleagues study is that it was conducted on college students, and college students aren't representative of the rest of humanity. There is some truth to this: this generation is particularly narcissistic, spending a lot of attention on superficial aspects such as style of dress. Future research should certainly look at a wider range of ages and in a wider range of contexts.

Still, I think their effects do transcend age. In their prior speed dating study, their results, which were consistent, held even after controlling for age (the age range was 18 to 54).

So what are people to do? I think the best advice to everyone is this: before getting too involved with a person, observe them in multiple contexts first, and give people who seem shy or who aren't particularly flashy at first sight a chance. To shy people and introverts who want more social stimulation, I'd suggest working on amplifying your best traits. Whether we like it or not, perception at first sight matters.