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Why You Should Always Let Somebody Else Pick Your Profile Picture

According to new research, you’ll look more honest and competent–but sadly, not more attractive.

Why You Should Always Let Somebody Else Pick Your Profile Picture
[Photo: Bernhard Lang/Getty Images]

LinkedIn. Facebook. Match. They’re all meat markets in their own way, which is why we work hard to choose the most professional, fun, and generally flattering photos to represent ourselves online. But according to research out of The University of New South Wales Sydney, we’re doing it all wrong. We shouldn’t be picking these photos ourselves. We should let other people do it for us.

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In a study just published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 102 students were presented with 12 of their own photos that they had posted on Facebook. They were then told to choose the best shots to use on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Match. Then right after, they were tasked with doing the same rankings for a stranger in the study.

[Infographic: David White]

When a totally new group of people came in to critique all of the picks, without knowing who chose what, they favored the stranger-chosen photos pretty much across the board. Measurements of “trust” and “competence” were all significantly higher on the stranger-chosen photos than the self-selected ones, on all services. Attractiveness was neither better nor worse–it lacked any statistically significant difference for reasons researchers couldn’t explain–but even on the dating platform Match, profile photos selected by a stranger still made the person look more competent and trustworthy.

“Our findings suggest that people make poor choices when selecting flattering images of themselves for online profile pictures, which affects other people’s perception of them,” said lead author Dr David White in a press release. “This effect is likely to have a substantial impact on online interactions, the impressions people form and the decisions they base on them, including whether to employ, date, befriend or even vote for someone.”

In the design world, we generally frown on crowdsourcing opinion. But in this case, researchers believe it could be key to overcoming implicit biases. We tend to view our own familiar faces more favorably than those of strangers–we tend to believe we’re more trustworthy and attractive than other people do.

In terms of getting out the door on a bad hair day while attempting to ace that job interview, that over-inflated ego can be good thing. But as researchers explain in the paper, “one apparently plausible account of our findings is that, somewhat paradoxically, these self-enhancing biases in perception may in fact interfere with a person’s ability to discriminate between images when selecting one to portray a positive impression.”

We might be so in love with ourselves that we can’t tell which photos objectively put our best faces forward.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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