Online profile pictures leave lasting impressions, researchers say

The photo you choose for your online profile can make a lasting difference in what people think of you.

1st impressions based on someone's image carry over into the offline world

It's hard to shake a first impression, even if it's made made online with a profile image.

We're often told, "Don't judge a book by its cover." But we do it all the time, especially online. New research from Cornell University suggests that the photo you choose as your profile picture can make a long-lasting impression.

There's already a lot of research into how we form impressions of people based on facial features alone. We see a picture of someone and almost immediately make an assessment of that person. As much as we know we shouldn't, we judge books by their covers.

The researchers at Cornell wanted to find out how our initial impressions of someone, based only on seeing a photo of them, carry over if and when we meet that person one-on-one.

Researchers found that even after real world meetings between subjects in their experiment, impressions made by a profile image persisted. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Vivian Zayas, a researcher at Cornell University, said dating apps like Tinder are a prime example of how a profile photo plays an important role in assessing if you want to get to know someone better.

"Do I like this person? Is this person for me? And then we make a number of other impressions about what that individual might be like and, based on those gut reactions, we then make a decision about: 'I'm going to read about this person's profile. I'm going to glean more information about what their interests are, and so on. But that initial reaction is based on their photograph." 

Digital first impressions don't just affect your social life, but your work life, too. If you're going to do an interview with someone, you'll probably look them up online first. There are lots of situations where we're likely to know what someone looks like before we meet them.

Your profile picture could also affect your work life. (Shutterstock/Marcos Mesa Sam W)

Beyond a 1st impression

The researchers recruited about 600 participants for the study. Each participant was shown portraits of four different strangers.

Based only on those photos, they were asked to judge each stranger for likability, attractiveness and personality. On a scale from 1 to 7, they were asked, how much would you like to be friends with this person?

Then, at least one month later, the researchers arranged one-on-one, in-person meetings between the study participants and the people who appeared in the portraits. After the meeting, each participant was asked to rate the person on the same criteria: likability, attractiveness and personality. By doing this, the researchers were able to measure if the participants' impressions changed as a result of actually spending time with someone.

1st impressions endure

The study found that our first impressions are sticky — very sticky. When it comes to likability, we don't tend to change our minds, even after meeting someone. Researcher Vivian Zayas said, "When you like someone based on the photograph, that is a strong predictor of whether you are going to like that person after a 20-minute interaction with them in which part of that interaction involves getting to know that person."

Researchers asked participants to judge strangers' likability, attractiveness and personality based on their profile pictures. (iStock)

We also judge people's personalities based on their photos, and the study suggests those judgments also stay remarkably consistent, even after we've met them. When we see a portrait of someone online, Zayas said, we set up a self-fulfilling prophesy about whether we'll like that person or not. We project our first impressions onto people.

Expect to be judged

The Cornell research isn't so much about the qualities of your profile picture. It's more about how people perceive you through your profile picture. And what the study suggests is that how other people judge your photo is unique to them and idiosyncratic. Different people could see exactly the same profile picture and have completely different judgments about the person in it.

People form lasting impressions about your personality based on your profile picture. (Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press)

The research suggests, however, that when you choose a profile picture, you should expect that people will judge you based on it. And their judgments can be difficult to shake, even if you meet them in person.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.