Your online attractiveness falls on the fingertips of friends

Thursday, October 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 18, 2012
A study took a look at how Facebook users judge attractiveness based on profile photos. Shown in the collage are photos courtesy of Amy Lenk, Baylee Henderson, Cat Newhouse, Catherine DiPietre, Charesse James, Colleen Armstrong, Diane McCartney, Donna Moessner, Elizabeth Graff, Emily Hancock, Gary Gasperino, Jean Faulk, Jessica Meyer, Jill Deutsch, Joe Stark, Kate Canterbury, Linda Waterborg, Marin Devine, Mary J. Renneckar, Mary Jo Creech, Matt Beach, Melissa David, Michael Lipnick, Shantelle Louise Miller, Susan Gill, Susan Gronberg and Teresa Schmedding.

COLUMBIA — As Facebook users, you have the opportunity to share all kinds of things about yourself, whether it's your love for a famous Pomeranian or your fluency in sarcasm.

But most likely, the thing that other people are going to look at first is your profile picture.

"The first instinct when you go on Facebook is to look at pictures," MU journalism freshman Jill Deutsch said.

The pictures you place most prominently have been shown to have an effect on what people think of you. A study by MU researchers says profile pictures and your friends' comments on them can influence people's perceptions of how popular and socially attractive you are.

What researchers explored

We talked to MU students about what their profile pictures and the comments on them mean.

Colleen Armstrong, a sophomore environmental science major, said she thinks negative comments on profile pictures attract more attention than positive ones.

"People look for negative things, and that's what stands out to people," she said.

Before we hear from other students, though, here's more about the research:

Journalism doctoral student Seoyeon Hong conducted the study with the help of other doctoral students. Kevin Wise, an associate professor in the School of Journalism, sponsored the study.

The research used two concepts related to social media to inform their research: social cues and the warranting principle.

Social cues give people a better idea of who a person in a picture is. For example, if a musician uses a picture of herself playing an instrument as a profile picture, she is sending out a social cue to everyone who sees it.

Conversely, a self portrait, or "selfie" as they’re commonly known, would contain no social cues because it gives no additional identifying traits about the person.

Wise said social cues can be congruent or incongruent. If a friend's comment backs up the information presented in a picture, it's a congruent social cue. Incongruent social cues happen when someone’s profile picture is telling you one thing and a friend’s comment is telling you another.

According to the study, the warranting principle states that people tend to trust what others say about a person more than what a person says about himself or herself.

Wise said information people present about themselves online is especially suspect because it can be easily manipulated by the person.

How the study was done

The researchers surveyed 104 college students using a mock Facebook profile. The mockup showed a profile picture and friends' comments about the photo.

Participants were shown profile pictures with or without social cues paired with comments from friends about the pictures. The number of comments was the same for every picture, and they were either completely positive or completely negative.

After viewing the profiles, participants were asked whether they would add the person as a Facebook friend, whether they would accept the person's friend request and how many friends they thought the person had.

They were asked these questions to measure the person's social attractiveness and popularity.

What makes someone socially attractive

People who had social cues in their profile pictures and correspondingly positive comments about their pictures were given high ratings of social attractiveness and popularity by participants.

People without social cues in their pictures were given low ratings of popularity and social attractiveness.

If the comments were incongruent with the picture shown — regardless of whether they were positive or negative — the person in the picture was rated as less socially attractive and popular.

What students say

As anyone who has ever been in the back of a lecture hall during a class can attest, MU students are avid Facebook users. Given this extensive knowledge of the site, students have their own take on what profile pictures and the comments posted about them mean.

Michael Lipnick, a freshman pre-journalism major, said he chose his latest profile picture because it was his "first Mizzou picture." The picture of him and his mom during parents' weekend got 17 likes on Facebook, which Lipnick said surprised him.

Lipnick said that in a college environment like MU, alcohol use is expected, but he wouldn't recommend putting it in your profile picture.

"Even if you do it, it's not good to put it out there," he said. "There's no reason to go around flaunting it."

Seeing a beer in someone's hand in their profile picture won't necessarily give a bad impression of someone to Sarah White, a junior majoring in physical therapy. She said if the person looked "sloppy" or "obnoxious" and was also drinking, that would be a different story.

White said when she chooses her profile pictures, she makes sure there's nothing in them she wouldn't want her mom to see.

"I don't want anything negative because it's the main picture they see," she said.

Rachel Stuck, a sophomore biological engineering major, had a simple reason for why she picked her current profile picture.

"It has my cat in it, and I love my cat," she said.

Stuck said she thinks comments that friends leave on profile pictures don't really tell you much about the person.

"I feel like your friends are almost obligated to say 'Oh, you look cute' or something," she said.

Sophomore Gary Gasperino, a double-major in physics and mathematics, said he tries to make his profile pictures easily identifiable. He said that when he sees seven or eight people in one profile picture, he thinks, "Which one of those people is it supposed to be?"

People's profile pictures don't matter much to him when he is already friends with them, Gasperino said.

"If I knew them well, I wouldn't necessarily judge them on their profile picture," he said.

Eric Nold's current profile picture is of him and his daughter. The senior, majoring in biochemistry, said he hopes people will think he's a good husband and father when they look through his profile pictures.

Nold said that profile pictures of people on vacation are particularly impressive to him.

"It's like, 'Oh wow, you have money, and you do cooler stuff than me,'" he said with a laugh.

Jessica Meyer, a freshman international business major, said she didn't think her friends' comments on her profile pictures made much of a difference in what people thought of her. She said most of the time she will receive likes but not many comments.

She said she tries to leave anything that would give a bad impression of her, or her sorority, Alpha Phi, out of her profile pictures.

"I'm friends with, like, my grandparents and pastors, so nothing bad can be on there," she said.

What can you do?

According to students, there are lots of circumstances, such as how well you know someone, that can influence judgments of people online. But it's clear that people are still making a judgment of some sort.

There are reasons, such as wanting to appear professional to potential employers, that would make a person want to control these judgments.

Hong said if you want your online profile to give a positive impression, you should pay attention to the comments friends are leaving and moderate them if necessary.

She said to avoid incongruent social cues, simply don't try too hard.

"Wearing Chanel sunglasses, wearing a Louis Vuitton bag, sitting in a Mercedes, it all looks like too much," she said.

If the study is any indication, you're better off resisting the urge to embellish your online image and just be yourself.

And if you choose not to, remember there could always be a well-meaning friend more than happy to set the record straight.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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