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First Impressions

Why You Should Smile in Your Online Photo

Viewers use photographs to separate the dangerous from the desirable.

There is a marked difference in how first impressions are made through photographs versus in person. Because of the lasting power of first impressions, it is necessary to strategize both.

Regarding virtual communication, people can spend time thinking through answers before hitting the keyboard, making undesirable characteristics easier to hide. Yet photographs communicate personality traits as well.

Although no substitute for in-person chemistry, good photographs are important communication enhancers during the initial information-gathering phase of a relationship. The first impression that is made in person can corroborate or contradict personality traits that are expressed through an online profile, so choose your photos carefully.

Online PhotoShopping: Visual Personality Display

Just like online shopping for consumer products, browsing dating sites involves forming impressions based not just on what you read, but on what you see. In fact when looking at photographs of faces, what you see can be the fastest way you form a first impression—without even realizing it. Sure, profile descriptions are helpful, but at first glance, research reveals that expressions matter.

Research by Bar et al. entitled “Very First Impressions” (2006) studied impression formation in a context without the benefit of emotional cues.[i] They examined how quickly threat judgments are formed by simply looking at a face. They presented participants with photographs of 90 Caucasian males with neutral expressions and measured the extent to which participants judged the faces as threatening. The study includes photographs of the four faces which were judged as most threatening.

One of the interesting aspects of this study is the finding that because the neutral expressions were devoid of emotional cues, resulting judgments related to personality rather than a temporary emotional state such as anger.

Another discovery was that first impressions can be formed within the first 39ms, based on whatever information is available. The researchers noted that when it came to judging intelligence, impressions were less consistent—suggesting that traits related to survival are made more quickly.

So when choosing pictures for an online profile, consider the impact of selecting photographs depicting a neutral expression, versus pictures showing positive emotion—such as smiling or laughing with family or friends. Apparently, your photo selection can quickly define your online desirability—or lack thereof. Even if you are incredibly handsome, a straight-faced photo might look more like a mug shot than a glamour shot.

Meeting On the Ground, Not in the Cloud: The Advantage of Emotional Cues

Obviously, you should exercise good judgment in deciding when and where to meet an online interest offline for the first time. Public place, well lit, cell phone charged, you have heard about all of the reasonable precautions to take. Having done so, you are now in a far better position to get an accurate read on your date in person rather than online.

In person, even when your date displays a neutral face, such as when they are listening to you talk, you have the advantage of behavioral and personality cues to guide your impression. Unlike the research by Bar et al. which involved looking at photographs, when you meet in person, you have the benefit of emotional information to inform your assessment of your partner´s suitability.

And because research reveals that emotional responsiveness is itself an attractive quality at first meeting,[ii] an endearing photo online combined with a warm demeanor offline appears to be a winning combination. Take advantage of the power of emotional expression both in the cloud and on the ground to increase the chances of a great first date leading to a great relationship.


[i] Moshe Bar, Maital Neta, and Heather Linz, ”Very First Impressions,” Emotion 6, no. 2 (2006): 269-278.

[ii] Gurit E. Birnbaum and Harry T. Reis, “When Does Responsiveness Pique Sexual Interest? Attachment and Sexual Desire in Initial Acquaintanceships,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38, no. 7 (2012): 946 – 958.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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