Why people judge books by their covers—and what it means for your work

Illustration by Justin Tran

Our brains are constantly processing a barrage of information. To handle all of this input efficiently, our minds relegate a fair amount of thinking to our “adaptive unconscious,” a concept made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell likened the adaptive unconscious to a “giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.”

We may profess to evaluate people and products in a thoughtful manner, but most of the time we all fall far short. In other words, as useful as the adaptive unconscious may be, it also causes us to constantly commit the proverbial sin of judging a book by its cover. When you’re the book that’s about to be judged, how do you make sure that your cover projects the right message? With a little understanding of how snap judgments are formed, you can manage these reflexive reactions and create a positive first impression.

Presentation matters

Marketing professionals have long banked on our unconscious biases, and a growing body of research backs up the notion that presentation may initially matter more than the quality of the actual product or service. In a study on how marketing affects our experience, participants rated wines that were poured from bottles with expensive price tags as superior to those with cheaper price tags. This held true when they unknowingly compared the same wine poured from different bottles.

These reflexive judgments extend to people, too. Even when we consciously commit to evaluating someone based on their talent, our unconscious still has a knack for getting in the way. In one psychological study, professional musicians and amateurs evaluated performances from classical music competitions. Study participants either listened to an audio recording, watched a silent video, or watched a video with sound. Researchers then asked them to guess which musicians won. Both the experts and novices were significantly better at identifying the winners when they could only see the performers. Although you’d think sound would be the determining factor, the research suggests that the original judges were swayed by their unconscious reliance on visual cues.

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Our quick, intuitive judgments often align surprisingly well with evaluations that we think are more thought out. Foundational research in this field has discovered that people are remarkably good at predicting which politician will win an election based on only 10 seconds of a debate or determining how effective a professor is from a six-second video clip. And once an initial impression is formed, it can be very hard to change.

What this means for your work

When it comes to selling your own ideas, you can’t fall back on “my work speaks for itself.” Like it or not, how you present yourself and your work may be more important than your skills and vision in the beginning. So what can you do to make sure that you make the best first impression?

  1. Smile: Turns out Louis Armstrong was being scientifically accurate when he sang, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.” People think you’re more attractive, reliable, relaxed, sincere, and competent when you greet them with a grin. And you feel better, too. Smiling causes your brain to release feel-good neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, which relax your body and lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Thanks to mirror neurons, this effect is contagious. When others see you smile, the same positive chemicals get released in their brains as well.

    If you’re walking into a meeting with an intimidating CEO or a new client, you might be feeling more nervous than happy. Don’t worry. Turns out that fake smiles lower stress levels, too.

  2. Make eye contact: Like smiling, making eye contact seems so simple, it’s easy to overlook just how important it is. According to research by Nora A. Murphy, an associate professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University, it’s one of the strongest ways to project intelligence. Other cues that people use to size up IQs include good posture; relaxed and confident countenance; a pleasant, expressive voice; and engagement and responsiveness in conversations.
  3. Dress the part: It might sound superficial, but your outfit can make a big difference in how others initially perceive you. In a study on the influence of clothing on first impressions, people were shown photos of a man dressed in business or casual attire. The participants predicted that the man in formal attire would make more money and get promoted sooner. Even relatively minor changes in clothing can telegraph different messages. In another study on the power of attire, participants rated men in bespoke suits as more successful than men in ready-to-wear suits.

    This doesn’t mean you should always don a tailored suit before a big meeting. Consider your audience and the message you’re trying to communicate, and then match your attire accordingly.

  4. Invest in good design: Just as people form opinions about others nearly instantaneously, we also assess the appeal of things like web pages in as little as 50 milliseconds. So whether you’re sharing your portfolio with a potential client or presenting a creative brief, you’ll want to convey your ideas in a visually compelling manner. And the better that first impression is, the more time people will spend on the site and the more likely they are to trust its contents.

In the long run, professional performance probably matters more than a professional look. The trick is that you have to nail that immediate first impression before you can have any chance of demonstrating your actual abilities. Luckily, with a little forethought, you can add shine to any presentation and hopefully win over your audience before they even realize that they’ve been swayed.

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