“I think it’s reasonable to think that many of the same strategies people use to evaluate avatars are probably used when evaluating something like a profile picture,” said Katrina Fong, a social psychology researcher at Toronto’s York University and the lead author of the avatar study. “Past research has shown that people tend to interact with virtual agents (e.g., avatars) as if they were human, so it’s possible that there would be some overlap between what cues are perceived to indicate friendliness both in avatars and in photographs.”
Let’s not go crazy here, Fong cautions: More research is needed to pin down exactly which “cues” carry over, and to what degree. Still, it’s an interesting glimpse into what cues people might get from your profile pictures — even accidentally.
In Fong’s study, for instance, subjects were way more interested in being friends with people whose avatars had open eyes, an oval face, a smiling expression, and — get this — brown hair. They also interpreted avatars wearing sweaters as being more approachable.
Meanwhile, people were much more judgey about avatars with a neutral or negative expression, black or short hair, and a hat or sunglasses. Those things were seen to signal traits like introversion, neuroticism and disagreeableness — which, Fong says, they actually seem to do pretty accurately.
“The findings from this study suggest that we can use virtual proxies such as avatars to accurately infer personality information about others,” her paper concludes. Even more important? “The impressions we make [of] others online may have an important impact on our real life, such as who becomes intrigued by the possibility of our friendship.”
Lest you think that’s overblown, it’s not: Prior research has shown that the picture is more or less the most important piece of your social profile. (Maybe the only important piece, actually!) Data from dating site OkCupid suggests that pictures account for more than 90 percent of a profile’s popularity. And a study last year out of Oregon State found that people take young women far less seriously if their profile pictures make them look “too sexy.”
That said, let’s not overthink your next selfie — all of these conclusions, at least as they relate to profile pictures, are still pretty theoretical and preliminary. You might want to don a cardigan the next time the camera comes out, though. And maybe lose the sunglasses. Now we’re talking.