The other day, I told my friend she has a knack for complimenting me when I think I look like shit. Funnily enough, she said she felt the exact same way about the timing of my compliments to her. “Maybe you have bad taste in you,” she laughed. Both of us found the notion that we didn’t know our own best angles a little unsettling and oddly comforting.
If you’ve ever been puzzled by someone’s choice of profile picture, you probably drew a similar conclusion. Most of us hope such a blind spot wouldn’t extend to own choices, but according to a new study, it probably does. Recently published in the journal Cognitive Research, it explores the kind of silly but not insignificant topic of profile picture selection. Namely, whether we are actually effective at picking our own best photos.
Per Well & Good’s headline about the study — “You Might Want to Tap Your Friends for Photo Advice Before Your Next Tinder Swipe Session” — this has implications in the dating world, if you’re app-inclined. And it’s certainly material vis-a-vis Instagram. But it’s also bigger than that. As the actual study notes, “We make inferences about an individual’s character and personality within a split second of exposure to a photograph of their face.” Photo selection has been proven to affect political elections, company profits and even Airbnb reviews.
The study was small (they tapped just over 100 college students), but researchers hoped to piggyback on their 2015 research that found people aren’t good at determining which photos most accurately reflect how they look. (I definitely feel that way.) This time, they asked participants to rank 12 photos of themselves and then compared their assessments against those of strangers.
The results? “Strikingly, we found that people selected images of themselves that cast less favorable first impressions than images selected by strangers,” reports the study. “At face value, this result appears to run contrary to a vast literature showing that people portray themselves more positively than other people.” Scientific proof that we don’t totally understand our own faces. How strange.
My curiosity and vanity lead me to immediately wonder if this was true for me (please don’t forget I’m a millennial). I took some quick selfies in the bathroom so I could quiz the team. I took care to make them decent enough to be pick-able, but I made two expressions I normally wouldn’t post online (#2, #3). I knew my preference (#1), and was curious if they’d agree it was the best one.
In a result that was good news for this story and less so for me in general, not a single person agreed with my choice. Not one! Most responses were split between #3 and #4. Said Leslie: “#3 is more ‘come hither.’ You look too tentative in #1 and too chipper in #4.” Harling, who also picked #3, said it was most pretty-at-first-glance. Weird, since I’d privately deemed that one too try-hard-with-the-head-tilt and was kind of embarrassed to show it. Leandra picked #4, noting that I looked the most relaxed and like myself. Amelia and Yvonne concurred independently. Shari was the lone chooser of #2, which features my most honest, toothy smile, an expression I very rarely post on social media.
It’s worth noting that I hate myself for even writing the above paragraph, but that’s probably only because most of the time, we don’t voice these kinds of inner monologues. But that doesn’t mean they don’t happen! David White, one of the lead researchers in the study, suspects we don’t choose our best photos because we’re too familiar with our own faces. “We find it difficult to see through the eyes of an unfamiliar person,” he says. “When it comes to choosing the best version of ourselves, it may be wise to let other people choose for us.”
Do you think or worry that you’re blind to yourself? Do you ask around before posting or selecting a photo to be made public? Have you spent time thinking about this or are you a superior being to me?
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.