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Source: Gamegfx/Shutterstock

It has long been established that physically attractive individuals are evaluated more positively than those who are unattractive and on an array of different factors, such as being more socially skilled, warmer, kinder, stronger etc (Dion, Berscheid & Walster, 1972).  Furthermore, Daniel Bar-Tal and Leonard Saxe back in 1976 reviewed findings which suggest even though attractive individuals are judged more positively, this effect is even more pronounced in the case of attractive women (Bar-Tal & Saxe, 1976). 

If attractive people (especially females) are evaluated more positively, then is it the case that we give these people more attention when viewed online?  This issue was investigated by Gwendolyn Seidman and Olivia Miller (2013) who sought to investigate whether gender and physical attractiveness influenced how a Facebook profiles are viewed and the amount of attention paid to them.  They employed 51 undergraduate student participants, over 90% of whom reported having a Facebook profile and also that they spent on average 1.84 hours per day viewing Facebook.  For the purpose of the study, the participants were asked to view Facebook profiles constructed by the researchers which featured four types of information.  A profile photograph in the upper left corner of the page, an about me section and likes and interests information positioned in the middle of the page taking up about 50% of the space on the page, and adverts similar to those which might be seen on Facebook which were positioned on the right hand side of the page and took up approximately 25% of the page space.  Eye-tracking equipment was utilized to collect data on the amount of time participants viewed different areas of the Facebook page.  The participants were informed that they would be required to view several Facebook profiles for a minute each, and that they should try to form an impression of the profile they viewed.  The profile photographs differed by featuring either: 

  • an attractive female
  • an unattractive female
  • an attractive male
  • an unattractive male

Although participants were asked to form an impression of the profile, the real purpose of the study was to examine the differences in attention paid to each depending on whether it depicted a male or female and whether they were attractive or unattractive.

How do we view people in social networking?

Consistent with previous findings that we evaluate attractive individuals more favourably, Seidman and Miller found that when their participants were viewing a Facebook profile featuring an attractive individual, they spent more time looking at the profile picture and less time looking at the adverts.  Conversely, when they were viewing a profile featuring an unattractive individual they spent less time looking at this and more time looking at the adverts.  They also found that there was no difference between male and female participants in this pattern of profile viewing.

In terms of the gender differences of the profile owners, the participants in this study spent slightly more time viewing the profile photographs of females compared to males.  The other gender difference was that slightly more time was spent looking at the likes and interests section of the male profiles compared to the female profiles.  This pattern of gender differences in viewing is consistent with what evolutionary psychology might predict.  However, the findings are a little different to those found in the study of Rajees Sritharan and colleagues, where females were asked to form impressions of potential male partners using physical attractiveness and self-described ambition (a cue to future success).  In this study female evaluations were based on facial attractiveness (Sritharan, Heilpern, Wilbur & Gawronski, 2010).

Finally, Seidman and Miller found that overall, their participants spent different amounts of time viewing each area of the Facebook profiles they were asked to view.  They viewed the likes and interests section for longest, followed by the about me section.  The area next longest viewed was the profile photograph, with the adverts viewed for the least time.  This is in contrast to previous research which has suggested that when viewing web pages, people look more at pictures than text.  Seidman and Miller speculate the reason for this may be because in their study the task of the participants was to form an impression of the person in the profile.  Therefore, reading the information in the text was essential to the task.  Interestingly however in a separate analysis, the researchers report that most of the participants viewed the profile picture first and then moved on to look at other areas of the profile. 

Other factors in impression formation

In the study described here, the task of participants was simply to form impressions of the profiles they were viewing.  If however the participants had been required to make any kind of romantic judgement, then the results may have been different.  Furthermore, Haferkamp, Eimler, Papadakis and Kruck (2011) point out on social networking sites, females tend to prefer to use portraits as profile pictures, whereas males are more likely to choose to use photos of their whole body.  Therefore the different types of photos might also influence the types of impression we form. 

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References

Bar-Tal, D., & Saxe, L. (1976) ‘Physical attractiveness and its relationship to sex-role stereotyping’. Sex Roles, 2, 123–133.

Dion, K. K., Berscheid, E., & Walster , E. (1972).’What is beautiful is good’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 285-290.

Haferkamp, N., Eimler, S. C., Papadakis, A., & Kruck, J. V. (2012) ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? Examining gender differences in self-presentation on social networking sites’. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15, 91–98.

Seidman, G., & Miller, O. S. (2013) ‘Effects of Gender and Physical Attractiveness on Visual Attention to Facebook Profiles’ Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, 16(1), 20-24.

Sritharan, R.,  Heilpern, K., Wilbur C. J., & Gawronski, B. (2010) ‘I think I like you: Spontaneous and deliberate evaluations of potential romantic partners in an online dating context’ European Journal of Social Psychology, 40. 1062-1077. 

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