Having a stranger pick your profile picture might get you more compliments, study finds

SYDNEY — Having a perfect profile picture is pushing  plenty of social media users to extremes in recent years, with reports of many tossing away wads of money for makeovers and even going as far as undergoing cosmetic surgery. When it comes to that all-important profile pic though, a new study finds that people don’t often choose the most flattering photo, and are actually better off having a complete stranger pick which image should be their main profile shot.

Researchers at the University of New South Wales determined that an “inbuilt bias” leads people to believe they look more favorable than they actually do, causing profile picture selection choices to not always be the best one — if winning over the first impressions of others is the goal.

Woman taking a selfie
Having a complete stranger decide which photo you should use as your profile pic on social media is more likely a better choice than your own, a new study finds.

“Selecting profile pictures for social, romantic and professional sites is a common task in the digital age, and choosing the right image can be critical,” says study first author and UNSW psychologist Dr David White in a university news release.

White and his team conducted several experiments that included more than 600 people. In one experiment, participants were tasked with rating 12 different photos of 12 different people. They were told to rate each photo by how attractive, trustworthy, dominant, confident, and competent they believed the person in the image was. Those ratings were then compared to how the actual people in the photos rated themselves on each trait per photo.

In another experiment, 102 college undergrads were given 12 photos of themselves taken from social media accounts and asked to choose which ones they thought to be the best for a profile picture and the worst on a social networking site like Facebook, a dating site like Match.com, and a professional site like LinkedIn.

The researchers then turned to 482 people recruited from an online crowdsourcing site and asked them to rate the photos selected by the undergrads on attractiveness, trustworthiness, and competence of the person in the photo.

The authors found that people do in fact choose profile photos based on how favorable others will view them for the particular site, but that their own choices don’t match what complete strangers find to be their strongest photos for a favorable first impression.

“Our study shows for the first time that people select more flattering profile images for complete strangers than they do for themselves. This surprising result has clear practical implications. If you want to put your best face forward, get someone else to choose your picture,” says White. “One explanation could be that we perceive ourselves more positively than others do, in general. This may interfere with our ability to discriminate when trying to select the specific photo that gives the most positive impression.”

The study was published Friday in the open access journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications.