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The Big Picture

The snap judgments we make based on people's online photographs may predict how we act toward them in person.

At this very moment, someone may be looking at you—a photo of you, that is. He may be swiping right on Tinder, browsing your LinkedIn profile, or scrolling through your Facebook page. She could be your future spouse, your next boss, a budding client, or a soon-to-be friend. And whether you like it or not, this person is almost certainly making flash judgments about you based on that picture.

The formation of instant assessments about people based on glances of their faces is deeply embedded in human cognition. Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov, the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, contends that the need to make snap judgments arose as we went from living in small clans, when it was possible to glean direct information about the character of everyone in our sphere, to larger and more complex societies. The quick evaluation of strangers became instrumental to survival. Indeed, trustworthiness is one of the judgments that we gauge most rapidly in encountering new people. "Trustworthiness impressions are our attempt to figure out the intentions of a person, here and now," says Todorov.

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Nowadays, our first look at another person is likely to occur via online photograph rather than in person. But evidence suggests that the hardwired impulse to form social judgments is deployed just the same—and lightning fast. In one series of experiments, Todorov found that personality judgments made after glancing at a photo for one-tenth of a second are the same as those made without any time constraints.

New research shows that the assessments we make of someone in a picture are remarkably consistent with how we eventually view and interact with him or her in real life. In a study published last fall, researchers at Cornell University showed 55 participants photographs of four women who were alternately smiling or not smiling and asked them to rate qualities such as likeability, extraversion, emotional stability, trustworthiness, and openness to new experiences.

Between one and six months later, the participants were invited back and paired with a woman they had previously seen in one of the photographs (though most did not remember that they had seen the woman before). The participants were asked to complete a 10-minute trivia game with the woman and to get to know her for another 10 minutes. Afterward, they provided impressions of the woman's likeability, attractiveness, and personality. The results were closely aligned with how participants had first judged the women in the photographs.

"Different perceivers will interact with the same person and come away with drastically different views of that person," says Vivian Zayas, one of the Cornell researchers, but the perceptions are durable whether they started as positive or negative. The study indicates that first impressions aren't just transient judgments that we later revise in real life but are in some ways self-fulfilling prophecies.

The Cornell study adds to a growing understanding of the impressions we form based on photos. One factor may have less to do with the image itself than with the person who snapped it: In a paper published earlier this year in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that people in selfies are considered to be less trustworthy, less open to new experiences, and more narcissistic than people in pictures taken by others—and that the negative perception is stronger if the selfie taker is a man rather than a woman.

Body posture also affects how a photo subject is assessed. In a study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, participants looking at photos on an online dating platform deemed people with an expansive posture—think arms spread wide and stretched out torsos—more romantically desirable than those with contractive postures.

Expression matters, too, in highly nuanced ways. A University of Central Florida study found that smile intensity influences judgments of warmth and competence: A broader smile led participants to rate a marketer as warmer but less competent than a slighter smile. And at the University of York, pictures of over 1,000 people were appraised for dozens of facial attributes, including head tilt, eyebrow position, nose flare, and skin hue. The five features found to be most strongly correlated with a sense of a person's approachability have to do with mouth shape—specifically elements such as bottom lip curvature and mouth gap, which are affected by open smiling.

The cumulative research on online photos suggests ways anyone can appear more trustworthy and likeable in pictures. Making tweaks to create a positive first impression may indeed pay dividends in terms of more positive in-person interactions. Viewing someone as trustworthy and open encourages us to act warrmly toward them, which is reciprocated. Zayas explains, "We know that our assumptions guide our behaviors and that people are affected by our behaviors. Then we elicit from other people behaviors that confirm those initial impressions."

Yet it's important to keep in mind that in assessing faces in photographs, as in real life, impression formation primarily addresses the question: Does this person look like people I am used to seeing? Todorov's research shows that the most trustworthy faces are the ones we view as "typical"—meaning those we normally encounter. His results suggest that "typicality is related to what is familiar and what we have experienced in the past," Todorov says. "Under most circumstances, what we perceive as typical will be strongly related to in-groups and out-groups." Rather than giving us accurate information about a person's personality or character, first impressions largely reflect our own biases and stereotypes.

What does this mean for your profile picture? Smiling and displaying open body language may help you game the impression-formation system, but ultimately, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye.

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