What People Think of You Based on Your Photo

A new study pinpoints the facial features that contribute to others' snap judgments.
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In his recent story on the analysis paralysis of online dating, New York Observer reporter Matthew Kassel wrote, "I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent swiping through Tinder, in a state of confused arousal, to find matches—in the bathroom, at work, walking down the street, even on Tinder dates—a sea of names and faces and random pornbots sloshing around in my brain."

Like many who have dipped their toes into Tinder's balmy waters, Kassel found it hard to predict what a woman would be like as a girlfriend based purely on a "mildly pornographic" photo, as he puts it. 

It's impossible to deduce personality traits from a quick glance at a duckface iPhone photo. But a new study finds that, when it comes to first impressions, certain facial features do tend to convey specific personality characteristics to others with shocking consistency. You may not be an approachable-yet-dominant sexpot, but you sure look like one in your Facebook photo.

Points for marking facial measurements (PNAS) 

For the experiment, a group of researchers from the University of York in the United Kingdom gathered a set of 1,000 images of peoples' faces from around the web, all taken in different lighting and angles and depicting varying expressions. They marked 65 points around each face and measured the distances between them in order to determine things like the length of the eyebrows, the shape of the jaw, and the size of the eyes.

They then asked people to rate the photos across three traits: approachability ("Will this person help me or harm me?"), dominance ("Are they capable of carrying out those intentions?"), and attractiveness ("Would this person be a good romantic partner?")

What they found was that a combination of different facial features could predict the subjects' first impressions of the person in the photo with surprising accuracy. A model that combined the different feature measurements could explain 58 percent of the variance in the subjects' appraisals of the photos.

The physical features that were the most strongly correlated with specific impressions were the size of the person's smile (with approachability), large eyes (with youthfulness and attractiveness), and a more masculine appearance (with dominance).

Using the correlations between facial measurements and perceived attributes, the researchers then constructed cartoon faces that were supposed to represent a given personality trait. A more approachable avatar, for example, would wear a big smile and have a slightly wider nose:

A series of avatars modified to look more approachable, youthful/attractive, and dominant (PNAS)

They then presented the cartoon faces to a new panel of judges, who, once again, picked up on the personality traits the faces were "programmed" to have.

The big caveat here is that, as job-seekers, daters, and readers of Pride and Prejudice know, first impressions are often inaccurate.

Still, these findings could be useful for situations in which a lot rides on just one photo—which, for everyone's sanity, are hopefully few and far between.

"If you're attaching an image to an online dating profile, you should give thought to the way that the visual cues in your photo are producing social impressions on the part of the receiver," Tom Hartley, a University of York psychologist and one of the study authors, told me.

Hartley said his line of work has made him a bit more self-conscious about how others see him.

"I have a somewhat babyfaced appearance—if you imagine, say, like Leonardo DiCaprio," he says (This is a photo of Hartley). "People might form the impression that I might be a bit of a lightweight. But now I've grown facial hair so maybe people will take me more seriously."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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