Portrait Mode as Mating Deception

Modern technology is allowing us to come across as ideal, but at what price?

Posted Nov 13, 2019

mjps / pixabay
Source: mjps / pixabay

I’ve heard of people using “portrait mode” for photos, but have never really thought too much about what that even means. Yesterday, I gave a talk as part of our on-campus video series called Hawk Talks. These talks, a loose parallel to Ted talks, are produced by students and are really well-conceptualized and implemented. I was honored to be asked to be part of it.

After the taping, I asked a student to take a photo with the cool HawkTalk background. The studio looked great and I figured it’d be a nice photo op—especially as I had my new book on hand. One of our students was happy to oblige. She mentioned that she was going to use “portrait mode.” I don’t think I’d ever had my photo taken with portrait mode before, so I figured this was kind of cool.

I have to say, I think the photo came out pretty good. But I’ll also say this: I feel like that photo doesn’t really look like a genuine version of me. It feels a bit amplified, almost doctored, like a Photoshopped version of me. I like the photo, but, honestly, it feels a little fake.*

Being the evolutionary behavioral scientist that I am, I got to wondering: What exactly is portrait mode anyway?

According to this post, portrait mode allows us to “take stunning portraits” by blurring the background, throwing a strong spotlight on one’s face, amplifying contours, and more. In short, portrait mode pretty much makes just about anyone look like a movie star.

People have been using modern technologies, from fashion tricks (such as dresses that visually reduce a woman’s apparent waist-to-hip ratio), to the presentations of one’s bio on Tinder, to present themselves in a mating-relevant context as perhaps having higher mate value than is actually the case. Such mating-relevant deception (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013) may be thought of as a form of mating intelligence and variants have been around for a long time. And it makes evolutionary sense that people would use any and all technologies to present themselves in idealized ways in mating contexts. 

If you spend time on Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, and other platforms, I’d say keep an eye out for portrait mode. Sure, it’s fine to find a nice photo of yourself and post it. But I’d say that technologies such as portrait mode are changing the playing field a bit when it comes to the modern world of human mating. Portrait mode provides a technology that, in a very literal way, makes us look better than we really do. On social media and on modern dating sites, pretty much everyone looks great, partly due to the large-scale use of portrait mode.

Bottom Line

When it comes to human mating psychology, people have been using deceptive tactics for eons, trying to make themselves appear stronger, more socially connected, kinder, more intelligent, and better-looking than might actually be the case. For centuries, humans have harnessed state-of-the-art technologies in efforts to bolster their mate value. I’d say that the newest such technology is portrait mode. And, as is the case with technologies in general, I’d say there’s no going back. Something to keep in mind if you’re in the dating game.

*Awkward footnote: In my communication with one of the students after the shoot, I came to find out that the photo actually was not taken with portrait mode - apparently, with all the studio lighting, etc., portrait mode wasn't functioning well. So I've still never had my pic taken with portrait mode on an iPhone I guess!

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher