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Look Into My Eyes?! – A socio-psychological study explores the famous first impression

Electrodes measure the movements of facial muscles. Photo: Thomas Roese.
Photo :
Electrodes measure the movements of facial muscles. Photo: Thomas Roese.

A glance is enough: in a fraction of a second, we get a first impression of someone – whether we find them likable or unlikable, attractive or unattractive, pleasant or unpleasant. The first impression can be misleading but can also be confirmed once we get to know someone better. Researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of Potsdam are investigating what gender, ethnicity, and the color red have to do with this. Jana Scholz participated in a “self-experiment” and talked to the researchers about the study.

I am the 50th participant of the study in the social psychology laboratory in Golm conducted by Nadine Wenzel and headed by social psychologist Prof. Daniela Niesta Kayser. Ultimately, 80-100 female subjects will have to be tested to get a meaningful result. In the laboratory, however, I meet no people, only a computer. On the screen, I am shown 96 black and white portraits of 48 people: 24 women and 24 men of different ethnic backgrounds, to be exact. I see each person twice, once in front of a red background and once in front of a white one. I rate each of them – from one to nine – in terms of attractiveness, trustworthiness, and perceived dominance.

But doesn’t the first impression come from a person’s gestures, posture, and voice – and not from just a photo of their face? “In interpersonal relations, the first impression influences us more than we think,” says Niesta Kayser. “Even a photo has a lasting impact on how we perceive our vis-á-vis.” It is no coincidence that dating apps like Tinder are based on this first impression that only a photo can convey. If we don’t like a photo, we simply swipe to the next picture.
This is exactly what I do at the Golm Lab; I click, click, click, and click for about 25 minutes. Although I don’t remember smiling or frowning while looking at the faces on the screen, experiment supervisor Nadine Wenzel created an electromyogram (EMG) and recorded the activity of my facial muscles. Six electrodes on my forehead, above my eyebrows, and on my cheeks record even the slightest movements, that is contractions of the corrugator supercilii – literally, eyebrow wrinkler – and the zygomaticus major – the so-called risible muscle, which draws the corners of the mouth up or down. It takes only 90-400 milliseconds for these muscles to react to a picture. By measuring my emotions physiologically, the future psychologist gets an accurate picture of when my mouth and eyebrows moved upwards. This procedure aims at  revealing automatic psychological processes and defining emotional reactions following my viewing of the faces. 

After having rated nearly 50 people based only on my first impression, I fill out a questionnaire. Some of the faces already familiar to me reappear on the screen. I now evaluate in more detail: whether they made a “manipulative”, “selfish”, “handsome”, or “penetrating” impression on me and how high I perceived their “status”. For each picture, I also note my mood, my inner excitement, and self-esteem. While some people in the photos seem to me to be rather manipulative, others make a very trustworthy impression; my mood, however, does not change much. What I didn’t notice, though, was that every other photo had a red frame.

For three years, psychologist Daniela Niesta Kayser has been researching the effect of the color red in the DFG project “Romantic red? The domain specificity of the color-red effect in the context of affiliation and social status”. In addition to the University of Potsdam, the universities of Wuppertal, Munich, and Vienna are participating in the project.
The study in Potsdam examines how the first impression is formed – in terms of gender, ethnicity, and the color red. The EMG and the descriptions of one’s feelings and moods are intended to capture the subject’s emotions. Since the focus is on heterosexual constellations, the subjects are initially asked about their sexual orientation and relationship status. “When we are in a committed relationship, we rate an attractive person of the opposite sex as less attractive,” explains Niesta Kayser. “We indirectly protect our partnership so as not to get into ‘mischief’."
In collaboration with the  University of Vienna, Daniela Niesta Kayser investigated as part of the DFG project the role of ethnicity in a person's first impression. It specifically focused on the emotions of male subjects. The results are not terribly pleasing, because they confirm the influence of stereotypes and discrimination. “With no additional information, the subjects indicated that they were less likely to meet  someone from the same in comparison with other ethnic groups. Moreover, the subjects’ brain areas responsible for negative emotion, threat and rivalry were more activated when they saw a man of the same ethnicity displayed on a red versus a green background. ,” Niesta Kayser explains. In the competition for resources, the participants perceived men of the same ethnicity  as competition. Both in terms of career opportunities and choice of a partner, there is a stronger rivalry within one’s own ethnic group. The psychologist assumes that other ethnic groups are seen as having a lower socioeconomic status and, thus, less access to social and financial resources.

As far as gender issues are concerned, the psychologist's earlier research shows the amazing effect of the color red. It reinforces our first impression of same-sex rivalry and opposite-sex appeal. If men look at other men, red can, on the one hand, have a negative effect: it makes them appear threatening. Niesta Kayser explains that this is a result of evolutionary biology. Increased levels of testosterone in the blood redden facial skin. This unconsciously indicates a person’s level of aggression. On the other hand, the psychologist explains the status-increasing effect of red from a cultural-historical perspective. For centuries, textile dye was derived from murex snails. “An extremely complex and expensive process,” says Niesta Kayser. Mainly aristocrats or clerics – those with high social status – were able to afford red clothing.

In a heterosexual context, the color has also a “romantic effect”: red makes the other sex look more attractive. The psychologist explains this from a biological perspective. During ovulation, a woman’s facial skin and neckline are reddened. Women see themselves as more attractively during this phase of their cycle and are also perceived as such. Red nail polish, lipstick, or dresses increase this effect. “Evolutionary biological and socio-historical arguments are not mutually exclusive,” says Niesta Kayser. “We assume that culture uses what is biologically inherent.”
The researchers hope that the current study will answer whether people of other ethnicities are perceived even more negatively when presented in a red frame — i.e. as having a lower status and as less attractive.

I leave the lab with a disturbing realization: We sometimes discriminate our vis-à-vis in seconds, without being aware of it. With this in mind, I will more closely reflect on my first impression of photos on Facebook or Instagram – and will hopefully try to give a second impression a chance more often.

The project
The socio-psychological study is part of the DFG project “Romantic red? The domain specificity of the color-red effect in the context of affiliation and social status” at the University of Potsdam. The researchers examine the influence of ethnicity, gender, and the color red on the first impression.

The researchers
PD Dr. Daniela Niesta Kayser studied political sciences and social psychology at Ludwig- Maximilians-Universität München. Since 2014, she has been head of the DFG project “Romantic red? The domain specificity of the color-red effect in the context of affiliation and social status” at the University of Potsdam.

Universität Potsdam
Strukturbereich Kognitionswissenschaften
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
Nadine Wenzel studies psychology at the University of Potsdam. She is conducting the experiment on first impressions as part of her diploma thesis.
E-Mail: nwenzeluni-potsdamde

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde