What Your Profile Picture Says (and Doesn’t Say) About You

online dating profile photo tips

Nice smile: check. Sunglasses off: check.

You know the basics. No pictures of exes with heads cut out. No shots of you ten years younger or twenty pounds thinner. And guys, please keep your shirts on.

But two recent studies published in the journal Psychological Science shows that the act of choosing the right profile picture isn’t always so intuitive.

A study conducted by Alexander Todorov of Princeton University and Jenny M. Porter of Columbia University found that participants judged photos of the same people very differently depending on their facial expression.

In one experiment, 800 participants looked at pictures of men and woman and judged the individuals on attractiveness, competence, creativity, cunning, extroversion, meanness, trustworthiness or intelligence.

They discovered that even slight changes in facial expression had a big impact on how participants rated photographs of the same people. For instance, an image of a frowning mustached man was judged lower in extroversion than a clean-shaven man with a very slight smile. But the results between these same two men were flipped when Mustache had a look of surprise and Clean Shave a mild grimace.

So if you want to be seen as trustworthy and extroverted, smiling appears to help.

In another experiment, these researches asked participants to choose the best image for a particular scenario like online dating, resume, political campaign or an audition for the role of a villain in a film. Participants consistently chose different photos depending on the context—a favorite resume shot didn’t necessarily make the best online dating pic. Translation: That LinkedIn photo you are so proud of may not be the right shot for your dating profile!

The researchers also noted that the importance of certain characteristics varied according to the situation. When asked to choose the best resume headshot the pictures that rated high in competence, intelligence and trustworthiness were most often selected. For an online dating profile shot, trustworthiness, extroversion and meanness (this last one being a negative predictor) mattered the most.

“The face is not a still image frozen in time but rather a constantly shifting stream of expressions that convey different mental states,” said the authors. “To the extent that these mental states lead to different personality inferences, single snapshots captured in still images of faces may be a poor source of accurate personality inferences.”

In other words, when in doubt just meet the person for coffee.

And you might want to bring a few friends. In another study, researchers found evidence that suggests we look hotter in a group. College students were asked to rate the attractiveness of group photographs and individual faces cropped from those photographs. Both male and female faces were considered better looking when they appeared in group shots.

“Having a few wingmen—or wing-women—may indeed be a good dating strategy, particularly if their facial features complement, and average out, one’s unattractive idiosyncrasies,” said authors Drew Walker and Edward Vul of the University of California, San Diego.

Of course, bringing along cute friends can be a hazard, especially if they are also single and looking. That’s why it’s important to use your best judgment. The process of finding love is still more art than science.

What bugs you most about dating profile photos?

More: 4 Photos You Need in Your Online Dating Profile

About the Author:

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook

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