Nonverbal Communication

The Speed of Judgment: One Glance is Enough

Tachistoscopic studies in which subjects were shown portraits for fractions of a second have demonstrated that even barely perceptible images of human faces are enough to create in the viewer a firm opinion as to the personality traits of the person depicted. In one study, 16 application photos submitted by students of an acting school were shown to 19 appraisers for varying periods of time. The results demonstrated that a quarter of a second is fully sufficient to create in the viewer a highly nuanced ‘image of the other’ that determines whether someone is perceived as ‘domineering’, ‘pleasant’, ‘emotional’, ‘devious’, ‘intelligent’, or ‘boring’. With the same lightning speed, such visual impressions give rise to attitudes that determine whether or not one would like the person in question to be one’s ‘colleague’, ‘superior’, ‘partner’, or ‘acquaintance’.

Even more surprising is the finding that the judgmental processes cued by nonverbal stimuli are virtually complete within that quarter of a second. When the appraisers were given the opportunity to examine the portraits for as long as they wished, their verdicts remained almost entirely unchanged: the properties which the appraisers attributed to faces they had seen for no more than 250 milliseconds and the judgments voiced after unlimited exposure to the images showed a remarkable degree of correlation (on the average, r=.92). A replication study in which the appraisers were shown portraits of 45 public figures unknown to them yielded nearly the same results: the personality judgments pronounced after a quarter of a second and those voiced after an indefinite period of viewing showed an average correlation of r=.89.

A third finding, no less remarkable, concerns the effortlessness with which the viewers arrived at their verdicts. When the subjects who had been exposed to the portraits for merely 250 milliseconds were later asked whether they did not consider the viewing time too brief, more than 80 percent answered no, the time had been quite adequate. This result corroborates an aphoristic remark voiced by the American journalist Walter Lippmann in his 1922 classic ‘Public Opinion’, according to which image processing – in sharp contrast with language processing – does not require ‘more trouble than is needed to stay awake’ (Lippmann 1997:92).


  • Public Opinion. Lippmann, W. New York: Macmillan, 1922.