Before you submit that headshot of yourself on LinkedIn or Facebook, you might want to consider — does it really show you in a good light?
A new study finds that people can glean wildly inaccurate first impressions of people based on slight variations in how a person's face is presented.
"The findings suggest that the images we post online can affect us in unexpected, and undesired, ways, subtly biasing other people's decisions," Alexander Todorov of Princeton University said in a press release.
Todorov and colleague Jenny Porter, of Columbia University, took an interest in how people interpret photos of others since so many people are perpetually adding to their online presence, whether on professional networking sites, dating sites, social networking sites or personal websites.
Other research has shown that people tend to form first impressions very quickly based on how a person looks. But when a person's face is presented in a static image, even small details can change that first impression dramatically.
"Our findings suggest that impressions from still photos of individuals could be deeply misleading," said Todorov.
For their study, the researchers presented subjects with headshots of different people. While the lighting and backgrounds of the photos remained the same, the images featured slight variations in facial expressions. The subjects were then asked to rate the images on various characteristics, including attractiveness, competence, creativity, cunning, extraversion, meanness, trustworthiness or intelligence.
The results showed that impressions of the same people presented in different photos varied as widely as impressions of photos of different people. In other words, how a person’s face was presented was everything.
"What we have shown here is something that people in the business of image manipulation have known for a long time," Todorov and Porter wrote.
So does this mean it might be wise to consult a professional when posting images of yourself on LinkIn, say, or a dating website? The authors argue, there's likely no way to present yourself in a full, true light when it comes to a photo. We are, after all, living, breathing humans whose expressions and body language and language change by the second.
"The face is not a still image frozen in time but rather a constantly shifting stream of expressions that convey different mental states," they note.
The key lesson, perhaps, is to never take too much stock in any person's single photo. Your best bet may be to just wait to meet them in person.
The research was published today in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Photo: Steve Carell as Brick Tamland in “Anchorman” Credit: https://www.facebook.com/anchormanmovie