Hold before you swipe: why 1st impressions are misleading

Kristen Berman
The Social Alchemists
4 min readFeb 12, 2016


We spend large portions of our waking hours communicating with others. While the possibilities for conversation are seemingly endless, how often do we chat about life goals or start conversations with our fears or formative childhood memories? Instead our topic choices dance around the perils of commuting, whining about the weather or wondering about weekend plans.

While our intuition says we should stick to this safe small talk with strangers, anecdotal and academic research suggests that this is absolutely the wrong approach.

Anecdotal evidence has arisen after hosting many No Small Talk Parties. At these conversation events people cannot talk about things they could find on a Facebook wall and instead must restrict themselves to more intimate topics. The qualitative result? Late evenings, new friends, and sometimes the passionate lip lock.

Academic research affirms this — it suggests that after 45 minutes of intimate conversation people will feel better about each other and want to see each other again.

We should be elated — throwing our hands in the air for joy! We now have this incredibly simple recipe for making friends. And yet…it seems almost too simple. Does it really hold up when we randomly pair strangers and force them to talk about deep things?

To figure this out, we decided to push the boundaries of the experiment.

We invited 70 people and told them we would pair them with a stranger for a 45 minute, 36 questions* soul searching conversation. The catch? Instead of immediately pairing them when they walked in, we had them mingle together for about 30 minutes. They strolled around and schmoozed with random strangers while the heavy anticipation built. Everyone knew they would soon be paired with one of these people for the intimate conversation.

Then we made the pairing announcements. And it happened. After shouting with a megaphone who each person was paired with and shepherding them together, we saw participant faces change to either pure joy or unfortunate dread.


After roaming around for 30 minutes each person had eyed their ideal match. They evaluated each person as relative to the person standing next to them and when their pairing wasn’t up to the attractive standard that they had just created, the disappointment was painfully obvious.

But what was done was done.

After the session ended, each person answered questions about the interaction and how close they felt to the person they were paired with. As a comparison, before the event, we asked the same set of questions about other people they know — including an acquaintance they see once in awhile (barista or neighbor) and a family member.

What happened?

As the closeness research would predict, a surprising bond was formed in only 45 minutes.

In 45 minutes they gained enough trust for each other that they would take their partner’s “event recommendation” almost as much as their own family member’s. And they gained compassion for each other. People said they would drive 2x more out of their way to give their their new partner a ride compared to that acquaintance they see once in awhile.

See the video here.

We also asked people to reflect on how attractive they thought their partner was. While attractiveness is a known predictive variable in speed dating or online dating type encounters, after 45 minutes of deep conversation, someone’s attractiveness had no effect on how close pairs got to each other.

This is an important finding

It is of course nice to proclaim that looks don’t matter as much as we think they do. But it is also revealing that our intuitions (as evidenced by the visible reaction during the pairings) about what might foster connection can be wrong.

In many instances of mobile and online dating we rely purely on our intuition to choose which way we swipe or who to strike up a conversation with. While many times this could be correct, we should also realize that we can’t always trust our first instinct.

Instead it may be wise to engage in more a vulnerable Hinge banter, say YES to a 2nd date or just push ourselves out of the“1st date comfort zone” by engaging in non normative conversation. First impressions, whether online or in person, don’t have to be regulated to first glances…they can be expanded to the first 45 minutes.

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*Aron, A. The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. Retrieved from http://psp.sagepub.com/content/23/4/363.full.pdf+html



Kristen Berman
The Social Alchemists

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.