Skip to main content

Your Online Profile Photos Aren’t as Flattering as You Think

New research suggests we’re not the best judges of the impression that images of ourselves convey.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Planning to upload a photograph of yourself onto the Internet any time soon? Presuming you want to make a positive impression, here’s a tip: Don’t choose the image yourself.

Rather, outsource the job to a stranger.

“People make suboptimal choices when selecting their own profile pictures,” writes a research team led by Australian psychologist David White. To their surprise, he and his colleagues found participants in a new study “selected images of themselves that cast less-favorable first impressions than images selected by strangers.”

Apparently, it is hard to be objective when judging your own face.

For the study, which was published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 102 undergraduates each contributed 12 images of themselves, which were cropped to frame their face. They were then asked to choose which of them they were most likely to use as a profile image for three online sites: Facebook, LinkedIn, and

In general, they did a good job. Photos that made the person look more attractive were chosen for the dating site, while those chosen for the professional networking site LinkedIn tended to convey competence and trustworthiness.

Next, 178 people recruited online compared those same photos and made their own choices. Finally, 432 people looked at both sets of photos and determined which best conveyed the desired qualities of attractiveness, trustworthiness, or competence.

To the researchers’ surprise, they found “self-selected profile images conveyed less favorable impressions” than those picked by strangers.

White and his colleagues aren’t sure how to explain this. The issue may be one of positivity bias; if you’re convinced all of the photos of you look great, how do you decide? Or perhaps “familiarity for any face — not only our own — causes difficulty in discriminating between different images of that face,” the researchers write.

Either way, this is a not a trivial issue. “People’s first impressions from profile photos shape important decisions, such as choices of whom to date, befriend, or employ,” the researchers write. A photo that conveys certain desired qualities can be an important first step toward achieving any number of goals.

In other words, it’s too important a task to leave to your own skewed judgment. As White and his colleagues put it, people overestimate their ability to put their best face forward.