Without using any words, your Facebook profile photo tells others a lot about you.
Whether you're smiling, goofing off, holding a beer bottle or wine glass, sitting alone or pictured with others, your profile photo is enough for viewers to form an instant impression of you, according to researchers from The Ohio State University in Columbus.
What's more, your profile photo is so powerful that it will actually negate descriptions you have posted about your personality. For example, if your photo shows you at a party having a great time in a large crowd, viewers will think of you as an extrovert--even if you post online that you're not a big people-person.
"Photos seem to be the primary way we make impressions of people on social networking sites," said lead author Brandon Van Der Heide, an assistant professor of communication at OSU.
The exception is when a photo is out of the ordinary or shows someone in a negative light. In that case, people do use profile text to help interpret what kind of person is shown in the profile.
"People will accept a positive photo of you as showing how you really are. But if the photo is odd or negative in any way, people want to find out more before forming an impression," he explained.
The study: Almost 200 college students viewed a mock Facebook profile of a person who was supposedly a fellow student. The profile included a photo and a written "about me" statement. Based on the photo and text, the students were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 (least to greatest) how extroverted the student appeared to be.
The participants viewed one of four profiles:
- In the first profile, both the photo (a person shown socializing with friends) and the text ("I'm happiest hanging out with a big group of friends") suggested an extrovert.
- A second profile had both a photo (a person alone on a park bench) and text ("I'm happiest curled up in my room with a good book") that suggested an introvert.
- In the third profile, the photo suggested an extrovert, but the text suggested an introvert.
- In the fourth profile, the photo suggested an introvert, but the text suggested an extrovert.
The question the researchers wanted to answer was which mattered more-- the photo or the text--in deciding whether the person was an extrovert or an introvert.
The results: The photo was generally more important. When the extroverted photo was shown, it barely mattered whether the text suggested the person was an introvert or extrovert. Most participants rated the person as an extrovert. "It didn't matter what the profile text said. What mattered was the photograph," Van Der Heide said.
But if the photograph suggested an introvert, people really did pay attention to the text. If the text also suggested an introvert, participants rated the person as such; however, if the text suggested the person was an extrovert, participants rated them as slightly less introverted.
"They were still seen as introverted, because of their photo showing them alone on the park bench. But they got a little bump up in their extroversion rating because of their profile text suggesting they were extroverted."
On social networking sites such as Facebook, users expect people to showcase themselves as happy, successful and sociable. "If the photograph fits that image, people have little reason to question his or her judgments about this person's characteristics," he said. "But if the photo shows something we didn't expect--someone who is more introverted, for example--viewers want to read the text and do a little more interpretation."
Van Der Heide said he believes the results apply beyond Facebook to dating Web sites and other social networking sites. It should also apply to other traits beyond extroversion and introversion, such as social desirability and even political orientation. It all depends on what is shown in the photographs and what clues viewers can glean from them.
The key is that people have certain expectations of the photos they view on social networking Web sites. "If your profile photo fits what they expect, observers may be unlikely to look very closely at the rest of your profile--they have already decided how they feel about you," Van Der Heide explained. "But if your photo is not quite normal--either positively or negatively--people are going to pay a lot more attention to what you wrote."
The study findings were published in the Journal of Communication.
--From the Editors at Netscape