Aside from simply being the best candidate for a job or being irresistibly charming to a person you’re meeting for the first time, there are many psychological hacks one can use to make a good first impression. Some are simple, like smile and make eye contact, whereas others are subtler, such as mirroring the other person’s body language.
Of course, the key component of getting hiring managers and new dates to like you is to convey, modestly of course, that you are good at what you do. As such, many how-to-ace-your-interview-type listicles are dedicated to providing tips about effective and creative ways of highlighting your talents.
But a new study by psychologist Janina Steinmetz suggests that we have been going about it all wrong. Following a series of three experiments, Steinmetz concluded that people who emphasize how hard work and determination played into their accomplishments came off as more desirable than those who attributed their accomplishments to innate ability.
"A success story isn't complete without the hard work and explanation of why we were successful,” she said in a statement. “Did the success come easy, thanks to one's talents, or was it attained through hard work? Both of these attributions can be part of successful self-promotion, but my research shows that emphasizing effort is more likely to garner a positive impression and people really want to know the story behind your success.”
A lecturer at the Cass Business School, Steinmetz’s research focuses on the different tactics of "impression management", ie the conscious and unconscious actions we take to portray ourselves in the best possible way in different scenarios. Past work in the field, including an earlier pilot experiment by Steinmetz, has shown that people associate dedication and effort in others with personal warmth and relatability, and therefore expressing these qualities will help one earn favor. On the other hand, highlighting talent is commonly seen as the most effective way to demonstrate one’s competence. The current investigation, published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, was undertaken to explore how people feel about striking this balance.
The first experiment involved 200 Dutch undergraduate students assigned to pretend to be part of a job interview. Using a written survey, half the volunteers were asked to imagine that an interviewer asked them to share a story about a personal or professional success. They were then asked: “What would be your strategy for how to share and describe this success, in a way that would make them think very positively about you?"
On a scale of 1 to 7, the interviewees responded to the comments “I would mention my struggles and efforts” and “I would mention my talent and abilities”.
The other half were assigned to be mock interviewers, and were given the same questions, but switched to reflect how they would prefer to hear someone share a story rather than how they would do it themselves.
The next experiment – an online survey – used the same questions but adapted them to a hypothetical a dating situation (the best way to tell the story to get a second date) for a group of 201 US adults. Finally, the third experiment largely replicated the first, but in a group of 202 US adults, recruited online.
Across all three experiments, participants assigned to hear a hypothetical story reported a desire to hear about the sharer’s effort and work, yet those who were assigned to share chose instead to emphasize their talents, "seem[ing] not to fully anticipate" the importance of what they have left out.
Steinmetz writes that future work will investigate how different cultures – like non-Western nations without the Protestant work ethic – prefer to portray success.