You're Bad at Choosing Good Pictures of Yourself — But Strangers Aren't

Whether it's a social network like Facebook or a job-seeker site like LinkedIn, most of us are guilty of overthinking our profile picture selection from time to time. It makes sense: The idea that the first impression can make or break the chance for a friendship, romantic connection, or new job is understandably nerve-wracking. Knowing that you shouldn't be making that decision yourself, then, could come as a relief. According to a 2017 study, a stranger should be picking the photo for you.

Confidence Is in the Eye of the Beholder

For the study, which was conducted by the University of South Wales, the University of Western Australia, and the University of Sydney, researchers selected 102 students and collected a dozen pictures from each of their Facebook accounts. The students then rated each of their own pictures from a scale of one to 10 in the following categories: attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, confidence, and competence, all based solely on the specific picture. Then, 160 strangers rated the same pictures in the same categories. The rankings did not match. The pictures that the students thought were the best ones of themselves actually ranked less favorably among strangers, and vice versa. The researchers were surprised. "This result is contrary to the prediction based on self-presentation literature," they wrote, "that participants would select more flattering images of themselves than of other people."

Interestingly, several dating sites have already figured this out. Famously data-friendly company OKCupid once had a service called My Best Face that let strangers anonymously rate users' dating-profile pictures. In 2016, the dating app Tinder began using an algorithm to choose users' profile pictures for them based on which ones got the most right-swipes.

The top row of images are those selected by the person in the picture; those in the bottom row were selected by strangers.

You See What Strangers Don't Know

We each have a lifetime of experience looking at pictures of ourselves, so why are we so bad at choosing the best ones? The researchers have some ideas. For one, they say, what we know about ourselves creates a bias when interpreting our own facial expressions. You know you're trustworthy, for example, so you automatically see a trustworthy person in the photo.

It's also a possible result of the better-than-average effect, or the way you tend to rate yourself more positively than other people — thinking you're the hottest thing on legs is likely to bias your own picture selection. Even more fascinating is that you perceive yourself a certain way before you even look at the pictures, making it difficult to differentiate the quality of one over the other. To you, it's 12 different photos of the same person. To strangers, 12 pictures tell 12 different stories.

Looking for tips like this to improve your online dating game? Dr. Eli Finkel, a relationship expert, discussed the past, present, and future of dating on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

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Want more tips on making a great profile — especially for online dating? Check out "You Probably Shouldn't Write That: Tips and Tricks for Creating an Online Dating Profile That Doesn't Suck" by Lisa Hoehn. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mike Epifani May 5, 2017

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