Research suggests we should let strangers choose our Facebook profile picture
We spend a lot of time in our quest for the right profile picture on Facebook - but it turns out we might do better if we turn the choice over to strangers.
A new study from the University of New South Wales suggests our inbuilt bias means we choose pictures of ourselves that are less flattering than those others would choose.
It says strangers do a much better job of selecting images that give the most favourable first impression.
Study author and psychologist Dr David White said choosing the right picture can be critical for social, romantic and professional sites.
"We make inferences about an individual's character and personality within a split second of seeing a photograph of their face," he said.
"These first impressions can influence important decisions such as whether someone wants to befriend you, date you or employ you."
The study involved more than 600 people who took part in a range of experiments.
In one trial, participants were asked to indicate the likelihood that pictures of themselves, and pictures of strangers, would be used on various sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn.
Other people then assessed the photos for social traits such as attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, competence, and confidence.
The self-selected images were rated as giving less favourable first impressions chosen by strangers.
"This surprising result has clear practical implications," White said.
"If you want to put your best face forward, get someone else to choose your picture."
White says one explanation for the result could be that we perceive ourselves more positively than others do.
"This may interfere with our ability to discriminate when trying to select the specific photo that gives the most positive impression."
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
Given the important implications of this research, we decided to put it to the test on the streets of Ponsonby in Auckland.
Together with my colleague Nicole Lawton, we built photo boards that each displayed five pictures from our social media profiles.
We then asked strangers on the street to choose which picture they thought worked best as a profile image on Facebook.
There were some clear trends.
People unanimously agreed they didn't like profile pictures that included other people - because it's hard to work out who to focus on.
A good smile is important, and anything that looks staged is a no-go.
On my photo board most strangers selected a picture that shows me posing in the garden with my prized tomatoes.
The picture was shot professionally for a Stuff assignment, but has a more casual look with a sloucher hat and a mischievous grin.
(I told my boss he could make me take part in the project, but he couldn't make me take it seriously.)
It's my current Facebook profile picture - which I like to think suggests I'm relatively in tune with how I'm perceived by others.
(And as an aside and totally not bragging I would like to add it's also the picture that got the most "likes" when posted on Facebook.)
The public vote on Nicole's pictures swung overwhelmingly toward a relaxed shot that shows her sitting on the steps of her flat.
It's not the picture she'd choose to represent herself online.
"My personal favourite is my selfie in the bush, because that's my happy place," she said.
"So it's interesting to see that strangers have a different view on how I should come across."
Nicole's taking some valuable social media tips from the project.
"I learnt that you shouldn't use a picture that's too close up, and it turns out people are actually pretty fussy about good lighting.
"And people really don't like duck-face selfies."