Social Psychology and ELT: First Impressions ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) is an Academic Consultant with LEH (the representatives of the Pearson PTE G Exams in Greece).  In his years of active involvement in the field of ELT he has worked as a teacher, examiner and trainer for both teachers and Oral Examiners. His love of comedy led him to start the ‘Comedy for ELT’ project on YouTube. He has written numerous articles on Methodology, while others from the ‘Psychology and ELT’ series have appeared in many countries. He likes to think of himself as a ‘front-line teacher’ and is interested in one-to-one teaching and student motivation as well as Social and Evolutionary Psychology.  When he is not struggling with students, he likes to spend his time in a swimming pool or playing chess.  For articles or handouts of his, you can visit his site at  www.michelioudakis.org.  

Social Psychology and ELT: First Impressions
‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression’

How long does it take to form a first impression? More to the point perhaps, how important is this first impression? Doctoral student Nalini Ambady set herself the task of finding out.
Her study was simplicity itself. She showed students short videos of University Professors in action taken at the beginning of the academic year. Students had to evaluate the lecturers on a number of personality dimensions, e.g. on whether they came across as enthusiastic, friendly and warm. Each clip lasted 30 seconds. And the sound was off.

Undeterred by the absence of audio clues, the students fulfilled their task diligently. Then Ambady waited. At the end of the academic semester, she approached another group of students – students who had actually been taught by the Professors in the videos. She then gave these students a list of the same criteria and she asked them to evaluate the same lecturers on the basis of their experience. To her amazement, she found a huge overlap! Ambady was shocked – but her curiosity had been aroused. She began to wonder – just how quickly were these remarkably accurate judgments formed? So she run the study again. Just watch the amazing Paul Bloom describe the study:

Click here to watch the video

So what does all this mean for us, for Education and for ELT?
First impressions: They matter enormously! We think of them are just vague perceptions that we readily revise in the light of more substantial evidence, but this is rarely the case. Our mind is lazy and conservative. Once an idea has been formed, it acts as an ‘anchor’ with every new experience chiseling away at it – very slowly (McRaney 2012 – 138).
Halo Effects: Just because the ideas that we form remain consistent over time, that doesn’t mean that they are accurate. In fact, we tend to be swayed to a great extent by anything that stands out about another person. This can be their reputation (our expectations), their accent, or (in the case of this study) their body language and appearance.
Body Language: As teachers we spend most of our time teaching our students how to use language – how to be accurate and use a wide range of linguistic resources. Yet this study suggests that perhaps we should be spending more time focused on Body Language. The latter can often trump what is being said. In a classic study, subjects who listened to the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate on the radio thought that Nixon had come off better; yet the impression of people who watched it on video was the reverse! (‘Secrets of Body Language’ – 25:00) *
Appearance: Yes, as you may have guessed, this too matters – more than we would like to think. Time and again, studies have shown the same result and revealed all kinds of hidden advantages for the better-looking among us. In a study conducted in 4 Universities, students were asked to rate their professors’ attractiveness. These ratings were then compared with actual student evaluations. Good-looking lecturers had a 0.8 – 1.0 point advantage – on a 5-point scale!
Fortunately, other studies have shown that grooming and sartorial diligence can go a long way towards improving the way one comes across (Yeung, 2011 – p. 61). So there is hope for me yet… :-)

* For instance, another study revealed that there are four elements about Body Language that stand out: smiling, gesturing, body orientation and eye-contact (Burnett & Motowidlo 1998).

§  Ambady, N & Rosenthal, R. (1993) "Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations from Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behaviour and Physical Attractiveness" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 431-441.
§  Burnett, J. R. & Motowidlo, S. J. (1998) "Relations Between Different Sources of Information in the Structured Selection Interview" Personnel Psychology, 51, 963-983.
§  Riniolo, T. C., Johnson, K. C., Sherman, T. R., & Misso, J. A. (2006) "Hot or Not: Do Professors Perceivedd as Physically Attractive Receive Higher Student Evaluations?" Journal of General Psychology, 133, 19-35.
§  Yeung, R. “i is for Influence” Macmillan 2011
§  YouTube: “Secrets of Body Language”


  1. Surely, though, there is a first chance of making a second impression, in which case there is still some hope for those of us who, for one reason or another, could not possibly convince anyone on a 30-second silent video that we were enthusiastic, friendly and warm.

    1. My hunch is that you're probably right although it might be very difficult to overcome that first negative impression. However, the good news is, I think, that since we know more or less which factors influence how people perceive us when they meet us for the first time, we can emulate these characteristics and learn how to créate a better first impression.