A team of researchers from The University of Western Australia, University of New South Wales and University of Sydney has found that people tend to choose more flattering photos for complete strangers than they do for themselves when posting images on social networking sites.
Dr Clare Sutherland, from UWA’s School of Psychological Science, said the study set out to investigate whether people could choose good profile pictures, but the results were surprising.
“While we found that people were quite capable of choosing good profile pictures, strangers actually chose better photos of them than they did,” Dr Sutherland said. “This pattern suggests people may have an inbuilt bias about what they think they look like, which interferes with their ability to select photos that gave the most favourable first impression.”
The study, “Choosing face: The curse of self in profile image selection” was published today in the international journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.
About 1.8 billion people worldwide have an active Facebook account; about a third of employers search online for information about job candidates; and about half of the Australian population has tried online dating or would think about it in the right circumstances.
“Selecting profile images for social, romantic and professional sites is a common task in the digital age and the images that people choose can have surprisingly critical consequences,” Dr Sutherland said.
“We start making judgements about an individual’s character and personality within a split second of seeing a photograph of their face. These first impressions can influence important decisions such as whether someone wants to befriend you, date you or employ you.”
The new study involved more than 600 people and two experiments. In one experiment, participants were asked to indicate the likelihood that images of their own face, and images of a stranger’s face, would be used as profile pictures on social networking sites such as Facebook, dating sites such as Match.com, and a professional site such as LinkedIn.
Other people recruited via the internet then assessed these photos for their first impression of traits such as attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, competence and confidence.
The study showed that people were able to select images of themselves that accentuated the desired characteristic for a site, such as attractiveness for a dating site and competence for a work site.
However, the self-selected images were rated by the internet recruits as giving less favourable first impressions than the images chosen by strangers.
Dr Sutherland said the next step for researchers was to investigate why people chose better images for strangers.
“It could be because it’s easier for a stranger to choose an image without being biased,” she said. “We know that people often view themselves too positively; the ‘better-than-average effect’, so perhaps having ‘rose tinted glasses’ interferes with people’s ability to select a good image.
“We hope that our study inspires others to examine this process of profile image selection in future. Researchers looking at face perception have mainly used very controlled, passport-style images of people taken in the laboratory, but our findings also highlight the importance of using naturalistic images, like the kinds we see in everyday life.”
Dr Clare Sutherland (UWA School of Psychological Science) (+61 8) 6488 3240 / (+61 4) 52 434 266
David Stacey (UWA Media Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716