July 10, 2023

We're terrible at choosing photos for ourselves

There’s a profile photo on my LinkedIn profile and my Instagram profile. Facebook has a whole history of profile photos archived in an embarrassing album going back to my teenage years. Twitter still has one, as do my many profiles on the apps trying to take its place. There’s a photo on my bio here and one in the about-the-author section of my new book. Uber and Lyft have my picture, which makes some sense – but so do Venmo, PayPal, and my old insurance company.

Second only to tapping out new usernames, selecting a profile photo is one of the most common chores in our life of a thousand services. The problem is, we’re terrible at it.

These little thumbnails of our faces can influence others’ perceptions of us a great deal. Among other effects, just a brief exposure to somebody’s photo can predict a number of outcomes:

  • People can predict company profits by analyzing the CEO’s face.
  • Mock witnesses will select people out of a lineup who “look like” a criminal.
  • Politicians with faces judged as appearing more competent are more likely to win elections.
  • More trustworthy-looking hosts on Airbnb make more money on their rental listings.
  • West Point cadets with greater “facial dominance” were more likely to be promoted later in their careers.

(Many of these instances work off of previously-held biases that can stem from contemporary and historical inequality. It’s not what should be, but it’s how things are – though the effects can be tempered. One way orchestras have fought this same bias is through “blind” auditions, where prospective members play their instruments behind a screen to avoid triggering these preconceptions.)

So yes, photos matter. Doubly so if you’re pitching yourself to prospective employers or romantic partners. However, the way to put our best face forward might not be what you think it is.

In a 2017 study, researchers showed that we tend to select less favorable photos for ourselves than strangers would pick. The more familiar we are with a face, the worse we can see how it looks to everybody else. And the face we’re most familiar with is our own.

In the research, 432 participants rated volunteer images on attractiveness, trustworthiness, and competence and selected which photo would be best for Facebook, a dating profile, and a professional profile. Across the board, self-selected photos performed worse on each measure – and strangers selected different pictures that were judged higher.

Study volunteers we likely to choose photos of themselves rated as less attractive, trustworthy, and competent than strangers would.

Part of this is counterintuitive: we would assume that in our vanity, we’re likely to pick more flattering photos of ourselves than others. But part of this makes a lot of sense: most people are strangers, and most people who see and cast judgment on your photo are (as I call them in my book) Enlightened Idiots – outsiders unclouded by previous knowledge.

We’re better off when we ask people who don’t know us well to pick our photos, but it can be awkward to act upon this insight. Running a survey with hundreds of responses isn’t in the cards for many of us, but maybe we could wander over to another side of the office to ask an acquaintance their take or quiz a couple of friends of friends at the next party you go to. If you’re brave enough, you can submit yourself to the whims of the internet on Reddit, LinkedIn, or the like. Though that’s probably even scarier than using a bad photo.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, has a book coming out this fall, and works with some cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my book, it's coming out this fall.

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