The ubiquity of various social media sites and apps means that we often see a person’s photograph long before we meet them in person. But whether you glance through the profiles of potential partners on Tinder, stalk new workmates on LinkedIn before you begin a job, or peek at an ex’s new girlfriend on Instagram, how much should you trust the impressions you form based solely on a person’s profile picture?
Numerous psychological studies have shown that people reflexively evaluate faces and form impressions of others based on facial appearance alone—regardless of whether that first glimpse is online or in real life. Although in-person interactions provide much more information than simply viewing a portrait photograph, your impressions based on a person’s profile picture may provide reliable information about how you’ll feel about them in person.
To test this possibility, in a recent study at Cornell University, we presented participants with photographs of women and asked them to judge the extent to which they thought they might like them. A few months later, perceivers had the opportunity to have a 20-minute, in-person interaction with one of the women they had judged earlier. During this live interaction, they played a trivia game and were encouraged to get to know the woman as best they could. Afterward, they again judged the extent to which they liked her.
Despite the wealth of new information available in the live interaction, perceivers’ judgments based on the photograph they had seen months earlier strongly predicted their judgments following the live interaction. If perceivers had formed a favorable impression of the woman based simply on her portrait, they continued to hold a favorable impression of her following the interaction. If perceivers had initially formed an unfavorable impression, then they continued to hold these unfavorable impressions, even after meeting her.
Cooper and colleagues at Princeton found similar results in a study that was focused on romantic attraction. Participants viewed photographs of potential partners and made judgments about how much they would like to date the person. A few days later, participants met these individuals in a real-life speed-dating context and were asked to indicate whether they wanted to pursue or reject each person. Based on the original photograph they were shown, participants were astoundingly good at forecasting whom they eventually decided to pursue or reject in the live speed-dating interaction.
How do pre-impressions based on facial appearance come to affect how much you like someone during an actual interaction? In our study, we found that impressions based on photographs led to different behaviors once the participants met. For example, if perceivers had formed a favorable impression of a woman based on her photograph, then when they had the opportunity to meet her in a live interaction, they were warmer and more engaged. They smiled more, leaned in, and generally signaled enjoyment of the interaction. Their behaviors, in turn, led the woman to be more engaged, warmer, and more likable, which ultimately confirmed the perceiver’s initial favorable impressions. This is a demonstration of the classic self-fulfilling prophecy phenomenon.
In our study, we also asked perceivers to make judgments of personality based off photographs. We found that judgments of conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and openness to new experiences based on the portrait alone predicted these same personality judgments following a live interaction.
But these findings don’t reflect that perceivers accurately assessed someone’s personality. Instead, it shows that first impressions are as much based on our personal projections as to who that person really is.
For example, two different perceivers might form drastically different impressions of the same person based on a photograph. Then, after having an opportunity to interact with them, they continued to hold on to their drastically different impressions of the subject’s personality. For example, if after viewing a woman’s portrait, perceivers judged her to be highly conscientious, then they were more likely to judge her as conscientious after interacting with her. However, if after viewing the portrait of the same woman, perceivers had judged her to be impulsive, then they were more likely to judge her as impulsive after the interaction. The woman is still the same person—it’s the personal projections of the perceivers that are different.
Thus, when it came to making more objective judgments of personality, perceivers were woefully inept. Instead of forming an accurate impression, perceivers’ personality judgments illustrate the well-established “halo effect,” in which we assume that people whom we like also possess a number of other positive attributes. In our study, when perceivers liked the woman based on facial appearance alone, they also spontaneously inferred that the woman possessed a number of other desirable personality traits, such as being agreeable and open to new experiences. Because judgments based on a live interaction are also heavily influenced by facial appearance, the halo effect continued to color personality judgments even during an interaction containing a wealth of other information about the woman’s personality.
What does this mean for those of us who turn to social media sites and apps to get a sense of someone we have yet to actually meet? One implication is that initial impressions based solely on facial appearance may signal important information about how we might feel about the person when we eventually meet them. If we like them based on what we see online, then there is a good chance that we will like them when we see them during an in-person meeting.
But, that said, the second implication is that feeling that you like someone based on a picture or a short interaction doesn’t mean that you know that person. Initially liking someone colors our impressions of their characteristics, and it will take more than a 20-minute interaction to discover what a person is truly like.