psychology of first impressions

Antonios Tsatsakis viewing a two-bedroom unit in downtown Toronto. Photos: James Bombales 

During a viewing appointment in late July, Antonios Tsatsakis cracked open the door of a two-bedroom suite in Toronto, and was greeted by a young man clad in only a towel. Empty beer bottles were strewn on the breakfast bar, emitting a stale scent, and mismatched furniture reminiscent of an off-campus student house occupied one corner of the apartment. Tsatsakis didn’t even bother viewing the bedrooms. In the first two or three seconds, he knew the space wasn’t for him.

The cluttered unit was a direct contrast to the condo tower’s imposing black exterior and double-height lobby with sandy-hued marble walls and pop-art inspired paintings.

This wasn’t Tsatsakis’ first apartment viewing experience. The 30-something manager at a global technology company has been looking to purchase a condo in the city’s core for the past few months, but has yet to set foot in one that’s left a mark (unless referring to the units with dark scuffs on the walls). His vision: a bright open space that greets him when he enters, with a large breakfast island and spacious balcony.

Ralph Fox, Tsatsakis’ agent, said if the two-bedroom suite was staged properly, his client would have naturally given it more thought.

“The number one thing I’ve learned in sales is that people buy on emotion and justify with logic afterward,” Fox said. “That’s why when it comes to making first impressions with sales, it’s very important to have that emotional connection with a space.”

Fox compares it to dating. If a person fails to make a positive first impression in the first few seconds of meeting someone, chances are the pair won’t develop a strong relationship. The same can be said about apartment hunting.

“If someone disconnects with a space right off the bat, they’re going to have a tough time getting their emotions around it after the fact,” he said.

A BMO study published in 2013 backs up Fox’s observation. It found that 80 per cent of potential buyers know if a home is right for them as soon as they step inside. But even though being attracted to someone can be compared to connecting with a space, little has been written about the psychology behind first impressions for objects and places. This begs the question: does the science that supports initial encounters in social settings extend to first impressions in home buying?

“If someone disconnects with a space right off the bat, they’re going to have a tough time getting their emotions around it after the fact.”

Pascal Van Lieshout, an experimental psychology professor at the University of Toronto, has studied emotion in speech, and emphasizes its impact on decision making.

“Often certain stimuli, let’s say verbal content or words that have certain meaning, have emotional context subconsciously,” he said. “That means that if I hear the word ‘kill’ in a sentence, that word raises certain emotional responses in my brain… emotion is a very powerful drive that influences a lot of the things that we do, whether it’s in sports or people’s buying behaviour.”

Van Lieshout, who specializes in speech-language pathology, links the power of emotion to first impressions. While noticing a deficiency in a living space may not be an immediate deal breaker, he says it will often raise emotional suspicions.

“If I notice a crack and the builder didn’t see it or fix it, what does it tell me about the overall quality of the building and the developer’s attitude in the first place?” he asked. “It will certainly make me as a buyer more likely to inspect everything more closely afterward.”

the psychology of first impressions

Out of the handful of studies that have looked into the psychology of home buying more generally, a 2006 research paper on a new theory related to human thought, termed Unconscious Thought Theory, has been one of the most influential. Although the paper doesn’t address first impressions head on, it does provide insight into how people make decisions, and why complicated choices (such as buying a home) are best left to the unconscious.

Its authors, Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran Nordgren, discovered that contrary to previous research findings, conscious thought is better at solving simple tasks (like choosing which towels to buy) and unconscious thought, described as thought without attention, is better at solving complex tasks that involve more variables.

In other words, people are incapable of consciously considering many factors at once, which leads them to put a disproportionate amount of weight on certain elements (like the really fancy laundry room that caught a buyer’s eye) and not enough weight on other factors. In the study, the authors went a step further to say that people place more emphasis on the attributes that are most plausible and easiest to verbalize.

“Because of its limited capacity, conscious thought is like shining a flashlight in a perfectly dark room. It illuminates one aspect of a room but never reveals the whole picture,” said Nordgren, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois.

In conducting their research, Dijksterhuis and Nordgren asked a group of participants to review information based on four apartment units and then choose the best one. One unit was made to sound the most appealing, with attractive qualities like a spacious layout and nice neighbourhood. They discovered that those given time to think while being distracted by other simple tasks, and therefore unable to use conscious thought, selected the most desirable unit. The opposite occurred for those who deliberated without being distracted.

“Because of its limited capacity, conscious thought is like shining a flashlight in a perfectly dark room.”

That said, people shouldn’t disregard initial impressions when making complex decisions. When it comes to home buying, Nordgren said it’s important to have a conscious goal in mind and develop a set of criteria, like a spending limit. This logical, rule-based way of thinking is where conscious thought thrives. Then people should give themselves time, allowing the unconscious to form a decision.

“Ideally sleep on it and check back with yourself to see if an emotional evaluation has formed,” Nordgren said.

But how significant a role does the furniture placement or dated bathroom wallpaper play in a home buyer’s decision making progress?

According to Julie Dana, an interior designer in Western New York, people often underestimate the power of home staging. Dana, who co-authored “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Staging Your Home to Sell”, says a space must appeal to a wide range of buyers, whether that means decluttering the house to draw attention toward the architectural features or removing family photographs.

“They’re trying to imagine their family in the space and not the family that already lives there,” she said.

In 2013, the Real Estate Staging Association (RESA) released statistics on how staging influences sales. The organization studied 63 unstaged homes and found the properties sat on the market for an average of 143 days. Once those same houses received a facelift, the average selling time decreased to 40 days.

As Tsatsakis left the disorderly Toronto apartment on that July afternoon, trying to wipe the image of the half-dressed man in the musty beer-scented unit from his mind, he acknowledged the importance of weighing the logical points against his natural instincts. “Now that I’ve figured out what I want and need in a space, I’m able to tell if [a unit] is worth considering within the first few seconds of entering,” he said.

Fox refers to this reflection as a teeter totter, a delicate balance between lifestyle and investment.

“Sometimes when you start out, what you think you want isn’t really what’s best for you,” he said. “You need to get to the point where you know what you want and are confident that it’s a good decision.”

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