ORIGINAL AR TICL E Open Access
Choosing face: The curse of self in profile
, Clare A. M. Sutherland
and Amy L. Burton
People draw automatic social inferences from photos of unfamiliar faces and these first impressions are associated
with important real-world outcomes. Here we examine the effect of selecting online profile images on first impressions.
We model the process of profile image selection by asking participants to indicate the likelihood that images of their
own face (“self-selection”) and of an unfamiliar face (“other-selection”) would be used as profile images on key social
networking sites. Across two large Internet-based studies (n = 610), in line with predictions, image selections accentuated
favorable social impressions and these impressions were aligned to the social context of the networking sites. However,
contrary to predictions based on people’s general expertise in self-presentation, other-selected images conferred more
ownprofilepictures,suchthatself-perception places important limits on facial first impressions formed by others. These
results underscore the dynamic nature of personperceptioninreal-worldcontexts.
Keywords: Face perception, Self perception, Impression formation, Interpersonal accuracy, Online social networks, Visual
Selecting profile pictures is a common task in the digital
age. Research suggests that choosing the right image
may be critical – people’s first impressions from profile
photos shape important decisions, such as choices of
whom to date, befriend, or employ. Surprisingly, the
process of image selection has not yet been studied dir-
ectly. Here, we show that people select profile pictures
that produce positive impressions on unfamiliar viewers.
These impressions are tailored to fit specific networking
contexts: dating images appear more attractive and pro-
fessional images appear more competent. Strikingly, we
show for the first time that participants select more flat-
tering profile images when selecting pictures for other
people compared with when selecting for themselves.
This phenomenon has clear practical significance: should
people wish to “put their best face forward,” they should
ask someone else to choose it.
Key events in our professional, social, and romantic lives
unfold on the Internet. Approximately one-third of em-
ployers search online for information on job candidates
(Acquisti & Fong, 2015), half of British adults that are
currently searching for a relationship have used online
dating (YouGov, 2014), and 1.79 billion people world-
wide have an active Facebook account (Facebook, 2016).
As a result, we are continually forming first impressions
of unfamiliar people in professional, romantic, and social
contexts via social networking sites. Pictures that are
chosen to represent us in these online environment-
s—“profile images”—establish a critical link between an
individual’s online and offline personas.
Profile image choices are likely to have a significant
impact on the way people are perceived by others. We
make inferences about an individual’s character and
personality within a split second of exposure to a photo-
graph of their face (Willis & Todorov, 2006). These
impressions have been shown to predict important and di-
verse real-world outcomes—both online and offline—in-
cluding the number of votes received by political
candidates (Olivola, Funk, & Todorov, 2014), company
profits generated during a CEO’stenure(Rule&Ambady,
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
School of Psychology, University of New South Wales Sydney, Sydney,
ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie
University, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
Cognitive Research: Principles
© The Author(s). 2017 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to
the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
White et al. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (2017) 2:23