Why You Should Freak Out More, Not Less, Over Your Profile Photos


We've all spent too much time obsessing over our profile pictures on Facebook, dating websites, and everywhere else. It would be nice to think we're being neurotic, that it doesn't actually matter whether you use that photo where you look coy-happy or the one where you're a bit more mischievous-happy. But a new study in Psychological Science suggests otherwise: Even subtle differences between photos of the same person can greatly alter others' first impressions of them.

Look at the images above. Researchers were able to get subjects to change their minds about which of each of the two individuals pictured is more extroverted or trustworthy simply by using slightly different photos. The differences are subtle, and yet they still led participants in the experiment to make very different judgements about the subjects of the photos.

In another one of the study's experiments, subjects were told they were choosing a photo to be used on a résumé for a high-salary position, a dating website, Facebook, a mayoral campaign poster, or a headshot for the role of a villain in a film. They were then given five photos of the same individual and asked which one would be best for the task at hand. Here are the results for one of the photo subjects:

Look at Image 2 and Image 4. They're almost identical, and yet just about everyone saw the former and said, "Yep, villain," while hardly anyone said that of the latter.

When you meet someone in the real world, of course, your first impression of them can be reversed once you get to know them a bit. It's not uncommon to get an initially bad vibe from someone only to find out they're wonderful. But when it comes to situations like online dating or trying to quickly get a feel for a political candidate, these photos matter. A lot.

So what should you keep in mind when you're choosing which photos to use for your various social-media personalities? The researchers didn't really get into it in this study, but on the dating-site front, at least, there's some surprisingly substantive (and entertaining) data-mining research on the subject over at OKCupid.