The best way to choose a profile picture, new research shows, is to let someone else do it.
A team at Australia’s University of New South Wales asked 102 first-year undergraduate students to submit 12 images of their own face taken from their Facebook accounts. The students were then asked to choose the ones they’d be most and least likely to use as profile photos in each of the following contexts: Facebook, a professional networking site, and a dating site. Then they rated each of their photos for attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, competence, and confidence. The researchers also asked each student to do the same for photos of another subject in the study, so that each person ended up with a set of images selected by themselves and another by a stranger.
When the researchers showed the photos to a new group of test subjects, the images chosen by strangers made a better first impression than those people picked themselves.
When evaluating our own images, we tend to favor shots that emphasize our physical attractiveness, lead author David White says. The problem is that attractiveness isn’t the only quality people on social networks are looking for. On LinkedIn, for example, appearing competent and confident can be a lot more important than simply looking good. Many potential mates will pass over a Match.com profile of a pretty face that doesn’t come off as trustworthy (and the ones that don’t probably aren’t great catches anyway). We can pick up the subtleties conveying those traits in other people’s faces. We just aren’t good at spotting them in our own.
The researchers didn’t examine whether people who know us choose photos as well as people who don’t, White said, but are studying that question now. So whose opinion should you trust when it’s time to update your LinkedIn profile picture? The only certain answer for the moment is: not yours.