7 seconds - why that's all you may have to succeed or fail at interview

By David Hunt, PE

Two animals meet – in a diorama played out countless times across hundreds of millions of years. Within seconds, each must size the other up. Is this a friend or foe, predator or prey? And if of the same species, an ally, a rival, or a potential mate? Each animal must make an instinctive judgment about the other based on sight, sound, and smell with three drivers that are axiomatic:

1. Speed of decision. When an animal meets another for whom they might be on the menu, they need to decide quickly whether it’s “fight or flight”. Similarly, an animal looking for a meal needs to decide quickly to pounce before the other reacts. In either case, animals that take their time risk being lunch, or missing it.

2. Even if of the same species, while cannibalism is exceedingly rare in most cases, strangers are often rivals – for food or for mates, likely both; never mind other possible same-species threats. Again, this drives the need for a speedy judgment about the other to evaluate them against multiple possibilities, the majority of which aren’t good.

3. A bias towards fear and dislike. Any animal that gives another the benefit of the doubt risks not living to pass its genes along.

So making snap judgments about another is hardwired into us with a bias towards being distrusting. This is backed up by research – most communication is non-verbal as is routinely cited in innumerable places. How we appear, how we move, and sound, and smell. Many people in the job search business coach that a good first impression is the key to a successful interview, and in my own efforts to help others I tell people that most interviews are over in the first few minutes, with the remainder of the time being dedicated to the interviewer looking for things to justify the decision they made.

By pure coincidence several articles have come across my computer’s screen right as I was writing this article.

The first, Why Qualified Candidates Don’t Get Hired, cites several factors that can make or break a good first impression, to wit: your clothing, your handshake, your breath, your general enthusiasm. He cites William Knegendorf, who is a consultant, speaker, and author on hiring strategies for individuals and organizations:

While surveying 327 Hiring Mangers on how long it takes (on average) for them to decide NO to hiring an applicant after the beginning of an interview, [Knegendorf’s] data showed an average time to rejection of 4 to less than 10 seconds. And what did the hiring managers he surveyed say was the cause of their rush to judgment? “I didn’t like them.” Skills or talent was never mentioned.

Reread that quotation and mull it over a little. Less than ten seconds and the interview might be over. The door is still open, or it has closed in the time that you, the job seeker, have smiled, shaken their hand, and said “So nice to meet you.”

The second article, 7 seconds to a stronger first impression, seconds this fleetingly-fast time. Pulling from research done at New York University’s Stern Graduate School of Business, the article states that people make decisions about others in seven seconds. The article then goes on to highlight things to do to improve how others perceive you in those critical first moments.

Yet another article, Dressing to Impress and How That Can Have a Huge Impact on Your Professional Career, discusses research from the University of Oregon:

Dr. Frank Bernieri, an associate professor of psychology at Oregon State University, recently conducted just such a study in which he probed employers about the traits they deem most favorable of prospective applicants. Conservative, polished dress and a well groomed appearance was at the top of the list. Dr. Bernieri also found most employers make a decision in an interview about an applicant’s rightness for the job within 10-30 seconds of a first meeting.

The article goes on to state that appearance has been found to be so critical in interviews that the University of Illinois Extension has a mini-course and series of online tutorials about the importance of appearance, style, grooming, etc.

As skilled professionals, however, let alone as sentient beings we should rightfully take umbrage at the idea that it is on superficial aspects like how we dress, how we groom, etc., that take precedence in an interview over what we know and what problems we can solve. After all, a great American man once said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Yet we will be so judged – on innumerable things having absolutely nothing to do with our ability to do the work.

Weight and how you move / carry yourself will be used as a proxy for your energy level, drive, health, and stamina. (I again will take the liberty to brag about the fact I’ve lost almost 50 pounds after reading the book Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and taking his recommendations… with, hopefully, another 20 to go.)

Appearance – clothing, accessories, grooming, tattoos, and piercings – will be taken as a proxies for your attention to detail, respect for the positions of the people you are meeting, and your judgment in thinking about the long-term consequences of your decisions.

Body and breath odor will be taken as a proxy, again, for your attention to detail, your physical health, as well as your consideration for others.

And so on. Body language is a strange thing. Some aspects of reading and using body language can be taught, and I’ve found the book How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less quite helpful. Another book I’ve read is Contact: The First Four Minutes, and while this is more intended for those courting a mate, many of the principles apply.

A good friend of mine, Greg Chenevert (side plug: check out his dog treats and other pet/animal related products) once gave a very interesting and informative seminar on the psychology of interviewing and decision-making. Anyone who knows Greg will smile and nod in total agreement if told Greg is so persuasive he can talk a hungry dog off a meat truck. He knows his stuff. (In full disclosure, I’ve written a recommendation for him on LinkedIn, and vice versa.)

'WOW - I want THAT one!'
In his seminar I learned just how emotional decision-making really is. Most people, per his seminar, make decisions emotionally – and then seek out facts and information to rationalize this emotional decision. Having been in the automotive industry, specifically,Ford Motor Company and its components-and-subsystems spinoff Visteon Corporation, the adage is that “style sells cars.” Yes, things like impact resistance, gas mileage, etc., are all important – but what’s critical is the WOW! factor. Companies want people to walk into the showroom and go WOW I want that one! Gas mileage, safety, etc., will be used to rationalize the emotional WOW! decision after-the-fact; things that don’t meet the predetermined desires will be rationalized away. (As an example, I cite automotive lighting in which I spent four years of my career. Lights with the optics in the lens, as opposed to in the reflector, are significantly cheaper to make. But clear lenses showing shiny, reflective light interiors are much more glitzy and attractive. The WOW! factor of clear lenses trumps the added cost… something accounted for in their on-going use.)

Personal experience verifies this. My wife and I own a minivan – brand-spanking new. Why? Because my wife felt instantly comfortable in it. Looking at used ones, as was the original plan for cost purposes? Never happened. My wife – then mid-way through her pregnancy – felt comfortable and safe. That settled it.

So is this seven-seconds-to-judgment fair? No.

But fair or not, it is what it is. This is reality: making snap judgments about others as people meet is hardwired into us as a survival trait, a trait selected-for over millions upon millions of years. And while effort and time can overcome an initial bad impression, you as a job seeker may not be given the chance. Making decisions emotionally based on sight, sound, and smell is hardwired into the limbic system, the seat of emotion and memory in our brain – and probably the oldest structure in the brain (I’d like to definitively say the oldest, but apparently this is the subject of some debate these days).

So what can people do?

The first thing is to know what’s costing you that good first impression. Sit your friends and family down for a real, honest feedback session. Solicit trusted networking contacts the same way. Tell them you want them to pull no punches. You need to know. You’re unemployed. And if you are a skilled professional – and odds are you are one! – you are watching the calendar tick over day after week after month with, if you’re lucky, interviews. But still no offers.

So get that feedback. Read up on how to polish your first impression, and then reinforce it with non-verbal communication like body language. One article I just found comes from Britain: First impressions count: how can you overcome interviewer bias?

And then take action. Skills, knowledge, a good resume, references… all will help get you in the door to meet people. But your next job depends on the visceral, instinctive reaction you provoke in your potential new boss in the first few seconds of your introduction. The sooner you truly grasp that, the sooner you’ll land.

(c) 2013, David Hunt, PE

David Hunt is a Mechanical Design Engineer in southern New Hampshire looking for his "next opportunity" that allows him to design new products and shepherd them to stable production. His LinkedIn profile is: www.linkedin.com/in/davidhuntmecheng/; he blogs at davidhuntpe.wordpress.com and tweets at @davidhuntpe.


  1. How can you let a guy that can't find a job be giving advice on 40pluscareerguru????????????

    1. Because having a job isn't the qualification to comment on hiring practices and experiences. In fact an active job seeker has a lot more experience of what goes on than someone who has not been out of work recently. And we all learn (or should do) a lot more from failure than success.