Man and woman sitting across a wooden table from one another in a coffee shop

The importance of first impressions: New study looks at 3 factors being judged on a first date

Kate Martin

Whether you are in a long-term relationship or still looking for love, most people agree the key moment in any match is the first impression.

But, according to a study by a team including U of T Mississauga psychology professor Emily Impett, by that first meeting, you may already be too late – the judgment begins before you’ve even met.

“We found that the factors that mattered the most in predicting romantic interest were the extent to which people agreed that certain partners had desirable traits,” she says.

In other words, potential mates already had to present a good ‘resume’ of qualities considered important by society – such as physical attractiveness – just to get to that first face-to-face. This factor is known as ‘partner effects’ or ‘mate value.’

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for which Impett and her research partners drew data from more than 6,600 speed dates.

Right behind the importance of the ‘partner effect’ was the ‘relationship effect’ or “the extent to which people uniquely desired each other,” says Impett, who earned her PhD at University of California. Known more plainly as compatibility, the ‘relationship effect,’ is the elusive quality that turns dates into relationships.

“Compatibility has been very hard to predict before people first interact – despite the popularity of dating apps which would make us believe that it's possible to predict compatibility before two people interact with each other,” says Impett, who is also the director of U of T’s Relationships and Well-Being Laboratory.

“But, we thought that once people have had an initial interaction with another person, compatibility would matter. And in fact, across our studies, we found that it did – it predicted how interested people were in another person and who they reached out to.”

The researchers organized three four-minute dating events featuring university students of various gender identities: Two sessions were held at Northwestern University in Illinois, while the third was at the Toronto 2015 Anime North comic book convention. Surveys issued immediately after the speed dates, and again 24 hours later, asked participants to rate initial desire and interest in further interaction.

The third factor the study considered was the ‘actor effect’, which examines if the grader tended towards high or low ratings overall.

Impett says the researchers believe there is a very good reason why humans put so much stock in first impressions: It’s good for our evolution.

“The mating of humans evolved in the context of monogamous pair-bonded relationships,” she says. “When choosing a potential mate or partner, humans needed to consider not just whether a potential mate had attractive qualities – had good genes, was fertile – but also whether that person would make a suitable partner to raise offspring and that they could have a lasting relationship with that person in the long term.”