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Body Language

What People Really Think When They See Your Profile Picture

The digital impression depends on the message imparted by the profile pic.

In this world of ours, where social networks are entrenched as a central element of everyday life, people attach great importance to their choice of a profile picture — whether for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or dating sites. On each of the social platforms, a profile picture carries a different meaning and attempts to convey a different message.

Facebook is considered one of today’s most popular social networks, and not without reason. It offers a broad variety of tools, helping us build a suitable profile and enabling us to present ourselves in a particular way to acquaintances, friends, and family. Similarly, LinkedIn enables those who seek employment or business ties to attract potential employers and inform them of the strengths and abilities that may win the LinkedIn user a sought-after job.

Meteoric technological progress has created laws of its own, accompanied by new norms and new codes of behavior that pertain to a specific platform and not to others. The main feature common to all the platforms is that among the visual media that form the context of our behavior, there is a principal entry card that bears your picture. That picture is the first thing anyone sees, and the impression you make on others, whether conscious or unconscious, starts with it.

Human interaction rests mostly on nonverbal communication. When we enter interaction with others by computers or mobiles devices, we lack nonverbal signals such as facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, body language, eye contact, and even degrees of physical distance from one another. Those signals are all aids to understanding other people’s intent, as well as their degree of involvement in the interaction and whether they feel nervous, calm, attracted or repelled by us, etc.

In the virtual world, there is no relying on nonverbal communication for revelations about the person conversing with you. Therefore, the impression depends, to start with, on the message imparted by the profile — and by the picture in particular. Because people spend an increasing amount of time on computers or mobile devices, they have developed a way of quickly and automatically forming impressions of one another from profiles. Such impressions are based on open and hidden hints and, surprisingly, are quite accurate for the most part.

What Your Photos Say

The profile picture provides both open and hidden hints. Classed as “open” are the messages that you deliberately chose to communicate in the picture — in other words, your efforts at “impression management.” For example, if you chose a photo with a hat, or with another person, those who see your picture will understand that you deliberately included those additions, and corresponding conclusions will be reached about you.

A second level of messages is classed as “hidden.” For example, if you chose to be seen at a distance, your photo hints at insecurity. If you are tilting your head and smiling, you project dependence. Such hints tacitly provide indications and information about the interlocutor. When there is no other nonverbal communication to rely on, all those hints influence our success in making the desired impression with our photos.

A study published in Psychological Science in June 2014 found that even small changes in the same person’s picture could result in a dramatically different impression, with an instant’s glance showing us a person we would like to spend time with or a person we unconsciously find repellent.

A picture with family or with children, for example, indicates a person who is close to his or her family and who sees them as a strong support. It also indicates that the important thing in the person’s life is children and family. An “active” picture showing the user on a nature trip shows a desire to be considered not as someone who sits all day at the computer but rather as someone on the move outdoors.

A wedding picture hints that the user wants to be seen by everyone as grown up and moving forward in life. Moreover, people with wedding pictures want it known immediately that they are no longer available as mates and that they attach top importance to their spouses. Generally, they are recently married.

Narcissists, being self-centered, post profile pictures that seem to be taken from a fashion magazine. And it was found that not only do narcissists express self-worship in their profiles, but they also post many updates about themselves, are very active in social media, and change their profile picture frequently.

First Impressions

Most people will admit neither to the significant impression that a picture makes on them, nor to the real factors that lead them to conclusions. They prefer not to be considered shallow, so they claim that a person’s picture makes no difference to the opinion they form. But reality shows quite a different situation.

Recently, a trend toward professionally photographed profile pictures for social media has appeared. But even professional photography requires caution. It is effective to a point, but there is a limit. On the one hand, appearing well-dressed in a photograph of high quality does contribute to making the proper impression, but care must be taken, because on the other hand, people manage to perceive more than the photo ostensibly shows. After all, the ability to reach conclusions on the basis of visual evidence is inborn—it is important to our survival.

To the extent that the photo appears to be staged, the desired impression will be weakened. If the photo appears too polished, the reaction may be contemptuous. Under the dominion of the digital age, distanced from all authenticity, people value a photo that, conversely, looks natural and shows the reality of the person. Such pictures make the strongest impression. Thus, even if you’ve chosen to be photographed professionally, it’s worth the extra effort of finding a photographer who will produce believability from you rather than excessive slickness.

In addition, it is important to suit the picture to the platform, with understanding of the prevailing code of behavior—for example, not to post a swimsuit photo on LinkedIn or a lectern shot on Facebook. The Facebook example may be less harmful than the LinkedIn example, but it still demonstrates poor social understanding, and thus it still counts against the user.

More from Liraz Margalit Ph.D.
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