woman on zoom call in furnished room

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DURHAM, United Kingdom — The background you choose for your Zoom call can significantly impact first impressions, and it turns out that the busier it is, the better! A new study finds that observers show a preference for settings featuring bookcases and houseplants.

Researchers from Durham University discovered that to convey an aura of trustworthiness and competence, users should consider displaying their books or plants in their background — and, importantly, they should smile. Interestingly, men benefited more from these particular backgrounds in terms of first impressions.

The study aimed to gauge perceptions based on different backdrops: a living space, a blurred living space, houseplants, a bookcase, a blank wall, and a whimsical image of a walrus on an iceberg. The experiment utilized images of a male and a female participant, each either smiling or maintaining a neutral expression, set against the various backgrounds.

Participants in the study then had to assess how competent and trustworthy they perceived each individual to be. The results reveal that individuals positioned in front of a bookcase or houseplants were generally perceived as more trustworthy and competent. In contrast, those against a living space or the novelty image were deemed less competent and trustworthy. Additionally, smiling individuals were consistently judged to be more trustworthy and competent than those with neutral expressions.

Sample Stimuli: A) Happy female on plants background B) Happy male on bookcase background C) Happy female on home background D) Neutral male on blurred home background E Neutral female on blank background F) Neutral male on novelty background.
Sample Stimuli: A) Happy female on plants background B) Happy male on bookcase background C) Happy female on home background D) Neutral male on blurred home background E Neutral female on blank background F) Neutral male on novelty background. (credit: Cook et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/))

When comparing genders, women generally received higher scores in trustworthiness and competence across most backgrounds. However, the study indicated that women set against a living space were perceived as equally trustworthy as those with houseplants or bookcases, suggesting that the backdrop of a living space influenced perceptions of male participants more negatively.

“This research shows how our Zoom backgrounds can affect the first impressions we make,” says Professor Paddy Ross, a co-author of the study from Durham’s Department of Psychology, in a media release. “If you want to come across as trustworthy and competent there are some backgrounds you should use and some you should definitely avoid.”

The team notes the need for additional studies to validate their results. They also expressed interest in exploring the impact of these backgrounds across diverse cultural contexts. It’s worth noting that the study primarily used images of White individuals.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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