Making a Digital First Impression: Why You Can't Fake Your Facebook Profile

by Johannah Cornblatt

The photo showed a man in a T shirt and baseball cap standing on top of a mountain. Tien-Yi Lee, a Web-site designer who had joined's online dating service, says she felt an instant connection. "I saw his picture, and he had a very kind of friendly, sparkly vibe," she says. "He had a great smile." A few days later, Lee met the man at a bar in Cambridge, Mass. Lee remembers thinking that the photo on Nerve provided a "very accurate" reflection of her date's personality in real life. A year after marrying the man from the photo, Lee's first impressions of her future husband still largely hold true. "The picture was in sync with who he is," she says.

Lee's experience is common among those who meet on the Internet, according to a new study on the role of physical appearance in creating first impressions. The study, which will be published in next month's issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that you can actually learn a great deal about a stranger's personality from appearance alone.

More than 700 million people worldwide are now using online social networking sites that showcase personal photographs, but few realize just how accurate first impressions online can be. The findings from this study and other research on personality suggest that the photos you post online provide a wealth of information about who you are—whether you like it or not.

In the study, observers looked at full-body photos of 123 people they had never met. The observers viewed the people either in a controlled pose with a neutral facial expression or in a natural pose and then rated them on 10 personality characteristics. The authors of the study combined self-reported ratings from the people photographed with evaluations from close acquaintances to determine how well the observers were able to guess the traits. Even when people stood in the controlled pose, the observers accurately judged some major personality traits, including extroversion, self-esteem, and even religiosity. When people stood in a natural position, the judgments were accurate for nine of the 10 personality traits: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, likability, self-esteem, loneliness, religiosity, and political orientation.

"A lot of people don't like to admit that they make judgments based on appearance, but it's inherent in everything that we do," says Laura Naumann, director of the Personality Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of the study. "Anywhere you have a profile and pictures are being posted, people are using that information." (Accuracy was lowest for neuroticism, a finding consistent with research demonstrating that neuroticism is extremely difficult to detect on first impression in real life.)

How participants stood and whether or not they smiled provided the biggest clues about personality. Extroverts apparently smile more, stand in energetic and less tense poses, and appear healthy, neat, and stylish. While more obvious cues—like wearing a cross or a Star of David—gave viewers information about religiosity, there was also a strange correlation in this study between standing in a relaxed position and being more devout. "I think a lot of people forget that our posture says a lot of things about us," Naumann says. "Even if we were to put everyone in the same white jump suit, people's inherent personalities might still come through in how they stand."

Clothes and accessories can be misleading. While men who dressed more neatly and formally were accurately judged as more conscientious, assessing conscientiousness in women was much more difficult. "Some women might not do their homework on time or show up to a meeting on time but still have a conscientious appearance," Naumann says. The report suggests that this gender disparity might stem from the fact that society places more pressure on women to look their best.

Research has shown that people are often clueless about how they're viewed on the basis of their online profiles. "A lot of the time we think we come across a certain way, but we don't," says Simine Vazire, an assistant professor of psychology who runs Washington University's Personality and Self-Knowledge Lab and an author of the study. "On the Internet, that's multiplied by a million, so we should be careful about how we broadcast ourselves."

A forthcoming study on Facebook, which will be published in Psychological Science next year, found that online social networking sites are not effective for promoting "idealized" identity. Instead, such sites often portray personality quite accurately, a finding that might help explain their popularity. As with the study on personality based on physical appearance, the Facebook study found that accuracy was strongest for judging extroversion and openness.

While it's difficult to influence the way strangers judge you from a photograph, it's even harder to control your overall online persona when other features like friend lists and Facebook message walls come into play. "If I want to appear extroverted, I can't just suddenly create 450 friends and have them post on my wall and have photos of me yelling drunkenly at the camera at yet another party," says Samuel Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas and an author of both personality studies. "You can't just fabricate those."

Vazire says the research suggests that strangers can know as much about your personality as acquaintances just by looking you up on the Internet. "It's another example of how pervasive personality is," she says. "You can't outrun your personality. It's going to follow you everywhere."

Vazire warns against putting too much stock in a single profile photo, though. And Tien-Yi Lee should know. Although she instantly fell for her future husband's smile on, he was the fourth date she found on the Internet that week—and number 97 overall.