Summary: If you want a flattering social network profile pic, ask someone else to select it for you, researchers suggest.

Source: BioMed Central.

For the most appropriate profile picture on social media channels; ask someone else to choose, argues a study in Cognitive Research. Here, Dan Caley (who selects his own profile pictures) discusses this research and its implications in an age of so many different digital personalities.

Are you one of the 1.8 billion people who use Facebook at least once a month? Maybe you’re using dating apps like Grindr/Tinder to find a partner, or browsing LinkedIn for job vacancies? If so, you probably have a profile picture on these networks, and people likely infer something about you from this.

For example, a third of employers use the internet to find information on job candidates, so jobseekers should try to appear professional on their LinkedIn profile.

Sociologist Erving Goffman’s concept of the ‘face’, a deliberately planned and performed image for others, can be applied to the practise of profile picture selection. We present ourselves in order to give the impression that we are social on Facebook, employable on LinkedIn and attractive on dating apps.

But, are we choosing the right photos for our profile images?

A study in the journal Cognitive Research attempted to answer this question. The authors focused on the process of selecting a profile picture for different social networks, comparing ‘self-selected’ profile picture with those selected by others.

Participants were asked to select images of themselves that they were most, and least, likely to use for Facebook, professional and dating sites. They then rated these images for attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, competence and confidence.

After this, the participants did the same thing with photographs of another participant who was a complete stranger to them. This was done in order to capture the ‘other-selection’ profile image preferences. Finally, unfamiliar viewers were recruited online to rate the images using the same scale.

The ‘self-selected’ images came out less favourably than those selected by others – i.e. participants selected more flattering profile images when they were choosing them for someone else.

One explanation for this lies in the biases that we have for pictures of our own face. We are likely to look at our faces favourably, which may hinder our ability to effectively select one image to use as a profile picture. However, the mechanism behind this selection is not clear.

Image shows different peoples' profile pics.

One limitation of this study should be mentioned – the images viewed by participants were taken from Facebook, and had therefore likely gone through some sort of selection process already. Clearly, there is opportunity for further research to investigate the profile picture selection phenomenon.

The implications of these results are straightforward, and immediately applicable. We may all benefit from the input of others when fine-tuning our online presence.

The authors put it neatly in their discussion: ‘When it comes to choosing the best version of ourselves, it may be wise to let other people choose [our profile pictures] for us’.


Source: Daniel Caley – BioMed Central
Image Source: image is adapted from the BioMed Central news release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Choosing face: The curse of self in profile image selection” by David White, Clare A. M. Sutherland and Amy L. Burton in Cognitive Research. Published online April 14 2017 doi:10.1186/s41235-017-0058-3

BioMed Central “What’s the Best Way to Choose Your Profile Pic? Ask Someone Else to Do It.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 14 April 2017.


Choosing face: The curse of self in profile image selection

People draw automatic social inferences from photos of unfamiliar faces and these first impressions are associated with important real-world outcomes. Here we examine the effect of selecting online profile images on first impressions. We model the process of profile image selection by asking participants to indicate the likelihood that images of their own face (“self-selection”) and of an unfamiliar face (“other-selection”) would be used as profile images on key social networking sites. Across two large Internet-based studies (n = 610), in line with predictions, image selections accentuated favorable social impressions and these impressions were aligned to the social context of the networking sites. However, contrary to predictions based on people’s general expertise in self-presentation, other-selected images conferred more favorable impressions than self-selected images. We conclude that people make suboptimal choices when selecting their own profile pictures, such that self-perception places important limits on facial first impressions formed by others. These results underscore the dynamic nature of person perception in real-world contexts.

“Choosing face: The curse of self in profile image selection” by David White, Clare A. M. Sutherland and Amy L. Burton in Cognitive Research. Published online April 14 2017 doi:10.1186/s41235-017-0058-3