What’s in a profile picture? Just about everything, actually.


A promotional screenshot from the OkCupid app. (OkCupid)

Love is definitely not blind, according to new statistics from the dating site OkCupid. In fact, not much online is: Facebook-friending, Twitter-sending — even professional networking is dictated, to an alarmingly huge degree, by the attractiveness of your profile picture.

On Monday, Christian Rudder — OkCupid’s data guru, and the author of a forthcoming book about Big Data — published a blog post that claimed (among many other things) that pictures account for more than 90 percent of a profile’s popularity, far more than minor details like personality or shared interests.

A graph that shows how OkCupid users rate other users' profiles, with and without text. They're essentially rating just on pictures. (OkCupid)
A graph that shows how OkCupid users rate other users’ profiles, with and without text. The text essentially makes no difference. (OkCupid)

Meanwhile, recent research from the University of York confirmed that people make deeply personal, snap judgments based on profile pictures. And that’s right on the heels of research out of Oregon State, which found young women who posted “sexy” images online were taken less seriously by their peers.

It all adds up to a lot of pressure to find that perfect selfie, wherever you live online. And it’s also, on its face (har har), a damning indictment of Internet superficiality: But of course image is everything in this appalling selfie age, where phones come equipped with front-facing cameras, people are actually “brands,” and general rules of human civility are subsumed by the narcissism of the social web.

“Conclusion: People are simultaneously both better and worse than you’d hope,” wrote Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan, in a characteristically glib write-up of OkCupid’s findings. “Secondary conclusion: get off the internet and walk around outside.”

All these “conclusions” are convenient, because they flatter prevalent, welp-y insecurities about the Internet and online dating. (See: “50,000 first dates” and “How online ruined dating … forever.”) But they also miss a pretty critical detail about human nature: namely, that the tendency to judge people based on appearance has absolutely nothing to do with the Internet. In fact, it probably predates ye olde World Wide Web by tens of thousands of years.

Research has previously shown that we make an astounding number of unconscious judgments based on appearance alone: whether a person is confident and emotionally stable, whether she’s religious, whether she votes Democrat or Republican, whether she’s gay or straight. The University of York study, published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that infinitesimal facial differences (like the exact size of a person’s eyes) could accurately predict how people would answer questions like “would this person be a good romantic partner?” (Big eyes = yes; small eyes = no.)

More striking, these impressions are formed almost instantaneously. One Harvard Medical School study pegged the time it takes to accurately judge someone’s appearance at 39 milliseconds — about 180th the time it took you to read this sentence.


An illustration showing which facial features people consider most approachable, attractive and dominant. Attractiveness (etc) goes up from left to right. (University of York/PNAS)

That suggests, to many researchers and neuroscientists, that we’re programmed to judge people based on their looks — that, in a nutshell, the ability to quickly evaluate potential enemies and potential partners was critical to early man’s personal safety/existence, and thus evolved with us today. That makes superficial judgments less an outcome of the Internet age, and more a fundamental, necessary facet of human nature.

“One could argue that it would defy the basic logic of evolutionary biology if people didn’t form immediate impressions of others,” wrote the University of British Columbia’s Mark Schaller, in a 2008 book on the subject.

Does that mean humanity is inherently superficial? That we’re all slaves to our amygdalae, online and off?

Sure, in a matter of speaking — under a very narrow definition of what shallowness entails. But perhaps it’s more constructive to view the facts in a more pro-Internet light. Yes, people are constantly and unconsciously judging our appearances in a process that we can neither see nor control. But online, at least — where we pose for our own selfies, and choose which photos to post to Facebook, and carefully crop and/or filter our OkCupid avatars — we gain a modicum of control over that image. The social cues we give in person aren’t static, and they’re subject to outside factors we can’t predict.

You cannot always look attractive and friendly in person. You can, however, optimize and idealize your image online.

Perhaps this discrepancy explains why we tend to talk about the Internet in terms of “superficiality” and “shallowness,” or why we’re eager to characterize online dating as a miasma of flakiness and vacuity, devoid of any deeper meaning. But ultimately, it’s not the Internet that’s superficial.

It’s us.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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