By Irada Yunusova
“First impressions count.” “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Both of these seemingly reasonable, yet somewhat conflicting, sayings instruct us on how to evaluate others. With the widespread use of social media and dating websites, our first impressions of others are often formed from a small two by two photograph, which we often assume tells us the whole story. Are we wrong?
Psychology researchers recently considered the impact of a profile photograph’s impression on the way individuals are evaluated. Alexander Todorov’s research team at Princeton University presented participants with an online survey to view headshots of individuals and then rate them on personality characteristics, including attractiveness, competence, creativity, cunning, extraversion, meanness, trustworthiness, and intelligence. The photographs were all taken in similar lighting, but some dimensions of the headshots were varied, such as facial expressions. Researchers found that the participants’ personality ratings changed as drastically for virtually any changes in photos of the same person as much as if it were a photograph of a completely different person.
In another study with a similar interest, participants rated headshots of individuals with different contexts. Scenarios varied vastly, with some photos claimed to be used for an online dating profile, while others were auditions to play a movie villain, and some were of people allegedly running for political office. Preference for pictures of the same individual varied based on the context, further demonstrating the fault in our impressions of profile photos.
Both studies also considered the time it took for individuals to make a personality judgment based on a profile picture. Shockingly, preferences for specific images developed after a fraction of a second. Perhaps the saying “first impressions count” should be revised to account for the immediacy of our decision-making.
Although the ability to make decisions quickly is a vital biological advantage, it is important to remember that not all quickly drawn conclusions are accurate. Often times, the conclusions people draw of others are barely based in reality. Facial expressions, context, and various other dimensions of a photograph can color our perception of the individual’s personality. Instead of basing assumptions solely on a headshot, it is important to try to see the whole picture.