Why Profile Photos Are Liars

New research shows the weakness of our snap judgments.

Posted Jul 21, 2014

Be honest: Do you draw conclusions about someone based on his or her online profile photo?

Whether it’s on a dating website, Facebook, or any other social-media venue, the power of that single photo is immense. Looking at a person’s profile picture, we develop first impressions that frame the rest of what we see and read.

But psychology researchers want us to know something about our profile photo-centrism—it’s a lie, and it’s leading us to draw conclusions that have virtually zero basis in reality.

"Our findings suggest that impressions from still photos of individuals could be deeply misleading," says Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, author of a new study on the personality dynamics underlying first impressions.

Todorov and his team conducted a series of experiments to demonstrate how easily swayed we are by profile photos, and how even slight variations in such photos can significantly change our opinions of a person’s personality.

Researchers asked participants in an online survey to view and rate headshots on personality characteristics including attractiveness, competence, creativity, cunning, extraversion, meanness, trustworthiness, and intelligence. The photos were all taken in similar lighting, but some of the headshots were varied to show slightly different facial expressions.

The results showed that participants’ personality ratings of these slightly changed profile photos varied just as much as their ratings of different people. In other words, virtually any change in photos of the same person altered participants' impressions of their personality just as as much as viewing photos of different people altogether.

In another study, the researchers asked participants to rate headshots shown in different contexts. The results in this case showed that participants’ ratings changed solely based on which context the photo appeared in. According to the team, participants "tended to prefer one shot of an individual when they were told the photo was for an online dating profile, but they preferred another shot when they were told the individual was auditioning to play a movie villain, and yet another shot when they were told he was running for political office.”

The studies also examined how long it took for someone to make a personality judgment based on a profile photo, and found that strong preferences for specific images developed even when photos were shown for a fraction of a second—a result that underscores just how sure we are that a profile photo tells a true story.

The takeaway from these studies: The impressions we form by looking at profile photos are extremely malleable, no matter how sure we are that the photos are telling us something accurate about someone’s personality.

That's worth keeping in mind, especially on dating sites where we're tempted to draw sweeping personality conclusions based on a passing glance at a single photo.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.


You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.

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