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What Science Can Tell Us About Picking the Perfect Profile Photo

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, photo & video

best user photo

Photo: Shawn Ahmed via Flickr

Whether it’s the Facebook account for your small business, your personal brand’s Twitter account, or your online dating profile, the fact is that creating an online presence that perfectly encapsulates your brand, your services, your message, your goals, or even just your personality is extremely difficult. We labor over ever word, every description, trying to ensure that a casual observer will be able to immediately identify all of our best qualities. And while the language of your social media marketing — both personal and professional — clearly matters (just as Harvard Business Review contributor Dorie Clark, who can help you perfect your story), it’s your user photo that actually provides the first, and perhaps most important, impression. Unfortunately, it’s not always the right one.

If people perusing your profile get to the actual words, statistically, your user photo has done something right. Because according to a study published in Psychological Science, viewers draw their first conclusion about a person in just 40 milliseconds, which isn’t even enough time to read those carefully-chosen words. In under a second, a potential client, date, or employer will decide what they think about you, based almost completely on the appearance of your user photo.

“Our findings suggest that impressions from still photos of individuals could be deeply misleading,” explained author Alexander Todorov of Princeton University, “[they] suggest that the images we post online can affect us in unexpected, and undesired, ways, subtly biasing other people’s decision.”

The Perfect Profile Photo Infographic

Micro-expressions, eye-obstruction, photo editing and filtering, and even the size of the area shown all impact first impressions, found a study conducted by PhotoFeeler. Smiling, dressing nicely, and cropping a photo to show the subject’s entire head (but not whole body) all had noticeable impacts on viewers’ feelings about the perceived likability and competence of the person in the photos. Did you go a little crazy with the VSCO filter so as to obstruct your face? That reads as untrustworthy — but opting for black-and-white, meanwhile, has no effect.

Interestingly, PhotoFeeler also specifically studied an element that CreativeLive instructor and portraiture photographer to the stars Peter Hurley has basically made his trademark: the squinch. Used by models and regular people alike to help them look more natural in photos, this move improved first impressions dramatically. Another one of Peter’s favorite tricks, which involves creating a more defined jawline, also positively impacted first impressions.

If looking like you’re smart and good at your job is one of your top priorities, your body and style of dress definitely matter. In her CreativeLive course on body language, Science of People founder Vanessa Van Edwards laid out a few poses which tend to read as flirty, rather than professional. Touching of the hair or arms, and a sidelong, indirect gaze, for example, both add an element of subtle flirtation or friendliness.

However, it’s probably wise to steer clear of overtly revealing images on your social media profiles — at least, if you believe one study from Oregon State University researchers, which found that the subjects of racier photos tended to be viewed as less competent. Though, as Daily Dot writer S.E. Smith points out, this could be more of a cultural bias than anything else.

profile picture tips

Luckily, user photos are easier to change than a pair of socks, which means that if you want to get really technical about it, you could do what Moz’s Cyrus Shepard did — he conducted an A/B test of various user photos with Google Analytics, to see which garnered more clicks.

“I experimented with different colors and backgrounds. I changed the amount of whitespace visible around my head. I tried glasses and no glasses. (If I owned a wig I would have tested myself with more hair.)” he wrote on the Moz blog about the experiment, noting that, after quite a bit of Photoshop fine-tuning, “the results started to show a definite improvement in click-through rates.”

Cyrus’s findings seemed to echo those of PhotoFeeler’s — the image which got the most clicks showed his full head and neck, but wasn’t overly color-corrected or edited, and showed him in a button-down shirt.

Of course, there’s no one trick for the perfect user photo, and every social media platform and situation calls for a slightly different level of consideration (what message are you trying to send? Who’s your target audience? Is this professional or personal?). But if you’re looking for some guidance from the scientific community, the key elements seem to be a smile, a nice outfit, and a squinch in whatever setting you best think defines you.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.