This is truly amazing: the latest neuroscience research reveal that our decisions are made 7 seconds before we become aware of them. We already know that within 7 seconds of meeting people decide all sorts of things about them, from status to intelligence to promiscuity. But this new research questions the very notion of free will.
When you meet a new business acquaintance for the first time you do some quick brain references and heuristics (short cuts). It could be when you first meet your new boss, a recent addition to your team, or a potential client you want to sign up. There are lots non verbal clues that your brain scans for to make these decisions. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say. The moment that someone sees you, his or her brain is asking as a hard wired survival mechanism:
- Are you different?
- Are you someone to approach or to avoid?
- Are you friend or foe?
- Do you have status and authority?
- Are you trustworthy, competent, likeable, confident?
Indeed people decide on your trustworthiness is judged in a tenth of a second, or less based on your facial appearance. The Princeton researchers found this out by giving one group of university students 100 milliseconds to rate the attractiveness, competence, like-ability, aggressiveness, and trustworthiness of actors’ faces. Members of another group were able to take as long as they wanted. While other traits differed depending on time spent looking, trustworthiness was basically the same.
Psychologists call it thin slicing, the ability to find patterns in events based only on narrow windows, of experience.The term seems to have been coined in 1992 by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal in a paper in the Psychological Bulletin. One of the most popular books on thin-slicing is Blink written by Malcolm Gladwell. In this book, the author goes through and describes interesting examples and research which exploit the idea of thin-slicing. John Gottman, a well-known marital expert, describes how within an hour of observing a couple, he can gather with 95% accuracy if the couple will be together within 15 years. His accuracy goes down to 90% if he observes the couples for 15 minutes, supporting the phenomenon of thin-slicing.
Even more intriguingly, neuroscientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain found that decisions are made before you know. In the experiment participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their right or left hand. Using fMRI, researchers would scan the brains of the participants while all of this was going on in order to find out if they could in fact predict which hand the participants would use before they were consciously aware of the decision. By monitoring the micro patterns of activity in the front polar cortex, the researchers could predict which hand the participant would choose 7 seconds before the participant was aware of the decision.What might this mean, then, for the nebulous concept of free will? “We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg,” says John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, who led the study.
What does this mean for you? Well, be aware that people pick up your attitude instantly (less than a second). Before you turn to greet someone, or enter the boardroom, or step onstage to make a presentation, think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embody. I encourage people to use their eyes first. Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. While you do this slowly raise your eyebrows. Open your eyes slightly more than normal to simulate the eyebrow flash that is the universal signal of recognition and acknowledgement.
There a universal truth about the power of the smile. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome. Condition yourself to stand tall and move slowly. Status and power are nonverbally conveyed by height and space. Standing tall, pulling your shoulders back, and holding your head straight are all signals of confidence and competence. Leaning forward shows you’re engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person’s space. That means, in most business situations, staying about two feet away.
Some people believe that thin slicing causes the phenomenon known as déjà vu as they happen within the same time frame of thin-slicing and might also have a direct correlation. So even if you think you have heard this all before, every encounter, from conferences to meetings to training sessions to business lunches, presents an opportunity to meet people, network, and expand your professional contacts by making a positive first impression.
You’ve got just seven seconds, but if you handle it well, seven seconds are all you need. But, I do find it a bit disconcerting that decisions are made by unconscious me 7 seconds before conscious me. Better still read my card below: