When Choosing Profile Pictures, Ask A Total Stranger

Looking for the image that will show you off best and not look like cultural appropriation? Don't choose it yourself. Elnur/Shutterstock

Whether for your dating profile or a website advertising your work, choosing your best picture is too important to leave to just anyone. This is why, according to new research, you should ask a total stranger.

Psychologists have been demonstrating the importance of first impressions for decades, including in the form of photographs. More recently, they have shown that “ratings of attractiveness and character traits can vary more across different images of the same person's face, than they do across faces of different people,” according to a paper in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. In other words, picking the right photograph for the circumstances can be just as important as winning the genetic lottery when it comes to being considered to have an appealing face.

Logic suggests that since the person in the photograph is most invested in getting the picture right, they will do the best job of choosing the image to represent them. The abundance of tiger selfies on Tinder says otherwise.

Dr David White of the University of New South Wales had 102 university students provide him with 12 photos from their Facebook accounts. Images where the face was obscured or too small were excluded. The students then chose which they were most and least likely to use as their profile for three different platforms: Facebook, LinkedIn and Match.com. The students were then asked to rate each image based on attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, competence, and confidence.

White then had them perform the same task using 12 photographs of a random stranger of the same gender. Finally, new participants were recruited to rate these images using the same five criteria.

Unsurprisingly for a group of digital natives, the students understood the contexts and chose photographs that matched the platforms. Images subsequently rated more professional were chosen for LinkedIn and those deemed more attractive were used for the dating site.

More importantly, however, the strangers did a better job – much better in the case of the dating pics – than the person themselves, particularly on the trustworthiness and competence measures. In one sense, White notes, this is surprising. The students have had years of experience in selecting the best photos of themselves to show the world, yet were outdone by someone who had never met them and might not have been trying as hard.

On the other hand, we have plenty of evidence of the way personal biases interfere with our capacity to assess ourselves. White told IFLScience “the obvious next step” is testing out how well friends perform compared to strangers. “Our intuition is that familiarity will help, but our intuition was proven wrong with this study, so it is something we would like to look at.”

We can identify the images that present us favorably in different contexts over those that do not, but strangers do it better still.

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