I recently joined LinkedIn. My understanding is that LinkedIn exists to help people present their professional selves to others who may find mutual benefit in connection. So my assumption going in was that this is a service that helps people portray their individual, professional sense of identity

Somewhat curiously, as my network begin to populate, it struck me as interesting that some people on LinkedIn post profile pictures that are clearly cropped from a picture of themselves with someone standing just next to them. The same is often true on Facebook. People often select profile pictures that show a glimpse of the arm of another person around their shoulders. This makes me wonder, "Why would people choose a picture that is so obviously not just a nice face shot of themselves, alone, with no extra appendages in the frame?" (Surely with the ease of taking selfies these days, we can all find an acceptable head shot with no one else in the frame?)

I'm not judging here - in fact, my personal Facebook profile picture includes my infant daughter as well as myself. Thinking about this phenomenon led me to generate a theory.

Here's my theory - we perceive ourselves (and may in fact be perceived by others) as most beautiful when our countenance directly reflects the love or esteem of someone else we hold dear. 

And here is where my theory maps onto some interesting research. Paul Ekman pioneered the study of emotional expression and perception. In his body of work, he identified something called the Duchenne smile. The Duchenne smile was an important discovery because it is the kind of smile that is hard to fake. When we express a Duchenne smile, our eyes light up and the area just next to our eye sockets wrinkles up in an adorable way. We radiate happiness in an involuntary manner. The Duchenne smile is distinct from type of smile you might generate for social reasons (in other words "the polite smile") that does not indicate authentic happiness. In this kind of smile our mouth smiles, but the top of our face is not congruent with happiness. 

To return to my theory, perhaps the presence or sideways hug of someone we love, trust, or admire elicits the Duchenne smile that expresses authentic happiness? In other words, perhaps the proximal presence of someone we value literally lights us up in a radiant way? And perhaps conversely it is more challenging for us to access authentic joy when we are photographed alone. A solitary headshot might look professional, but something of our best essence is missing in these shots. 

As I reflected on this theory, I realized with a start that I am a good example of this phenomenon. Let's zoom out on the profile picture I chose for my psychology today blog work.

And here below is the full image, panned out. In the zoomed out version, you see that I am flanked by my closest college friends, standing by the statue of John Harvard in a place that has held deep joy for me.

What do others of you think about this phenomenon? Agree? Disagree? Want to propose an alternative theory that explains this observation? As always, respectful discussion and commentary are welcome.


Ekman P1, Davidson RJ, Friesen WV. (1990). The Duchenne smile: emotional expression and brain physiology. II. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2):342-53.


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