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Defining what makes the best virtual first impression

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Research by our Department of Psychology has defined what helps make the best first impressions in a virtual meeting space, such as Teams or Zoom.

Associate Professor Paddy Ross and colleagues investigated what is really contributing to best, and worst, first impressions in this online environment and found the answer could be in our background environments.  

Dialogue spoke to Dr Paddy Ross and here is what he told us.

Tell us about your latest research...

We performed a study in which we asked 167 participants to rate the trustworthiness and competence of various faces on a Zoom call. However, we manipulated the backgrounds to see if changing them would affect the ratings of trust and competence of the people in front of them.

Why did you decide to research virtual first impressions?

My Master's student and I were planning on looking at first impressions from faces, and then the Covid-19 pandemic hit us and everything moved online. This got us thinking that we should investigate first impressions in this relatively new and novel environment.

What did you find out about virtual first impressions and was there anything in particular that surprised you?

We found out that backgrounds of plants or bookcases caused ratings of trust and competence to significantly increase, while backgrounds of a living room or a novelty background significantly decreased trust and competence ratings. I was personally surprised that a blurred background turned out to be okay. In my experience I'm always curious what kind of mess people are hiding behind them with a blurred background!

When did you decide to study psychology?

I decided to study psychology back in my final years of school. My friends seemed to have their careers planned out as lawyers or doctors, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do jobs-wise. I did know however that I found psychology interesting and so I went to Glasgow to do an MA Honours in Psychology. I ended up loving it and staying for eight years, doing my MA undergraduate degree, MSc Masters and the PhD all up in Glasgow.

Who inspires you, personally and professionally? 

Personally, I'm always inspired by my dad’s work ethic and how he balances work and fun. He's a GP back in Northern Ireland and has never lost his passion for trying to make things better despite all the problems the Northern Ireland Health Service has gone through in the past 40 years. Professionally, I'm inspired every day by the work and research of my colleagues. They continue to give me an inferiority complex and imposter syndrome on a daily basis!

What does your perfect day off look like?

It would start off with a round of golf, then a massive lunch and an afternoon mucking around with my kids. Then try and get grandad on babysitting duty and head off to the pub with my wife for the evening. If there's an Irish rugby match on at some stage that day as well then that's really starting to look perfect!

The findings from this research offer practical tips for anyone preparing for a virtual audience, such as an online job interview or business meeting, and especially as many more people work from home and use virtual platforms on a daily basis.

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