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Researchers find photos, online profiles lead to accurate conclusions about people

  • Sonoma University Psych Professor Laura Naumann, Thursday Dec. 3, 2009 at Stevenson Hall on the SSU campus in Rohnert Park. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2009

First impressions do count ? even when the impression we?re giving off is through a mere picture on our Facebook page.

We?ve always known intuitively that we make snap judgments about people we meet based on appearance ? the first bit of information available. But new research by a Sonoma State University professor and a colleague with the University of Texas shows that those conclusions can be surprisingly accurate in a photograph, depending on how one poses.

?In an age dominated by social media, where personal photographs are ubiquitous, it becomes important to understand the ways personality is communicated via our appearance,? said Laura Naumann, who earned her doctorate from UC Berkeley in May and joined the SSU faculty this fall, teaching social and personality psychology.

The assistant professor began the research as part of her undergraduate senior honors thesis at the University of Texas six years ago. That was just before online social networking burst out into the mainstream. But her conclusions, published this month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, resonate at a time when so many first impressions are being made not face to face, but with a photograph viewable to potentially millions of strangers.

?It?s really much more relevant now. Until the past five or 10 years, it wouldn?t have been that frequent that a photograph would be the first impression we get of somebody that we plan to have important interactions with, whether professional interactions or personal interactions or romantic interactions,? said Sam Gosling, Naumann?s adviser at the University of Texas and co-author on the study.

Gosling, whose area of expertise is exploring how personality is expressed in everyday life, has also recently completed additional research that seems to show that people?s personal profiles on social networking sites in fact provide a true rather than an idealized picture of who they really are.

?I was surprised by the findings, because the widely held assumption is that people are using their profiles to promote an enhanced impression of themselves,? he said of the more than 700 million people worldwide who have online profiles. ?In fact, our findings suggest that online social networking profiles convey rather accurate images of the profile owners, either because people aren?t trying to look good or because they are trying and failing to pull it off.?

Both studies were conducted in a similar way.

For her research, Naumann assembled a panel of observers to view two full-body photographs of 123 different people they had never met before. In one picture, the subject was snapped in a full-frontal pose and wore a neutral facial expression. In the second photograph, they were free to smile and pose more naturally.

Even with controlled poses, observers accurately picked up on several traits, she said, including extroversion and self-esteem. But when observers looked at the same person in a more relaxed pose, their judgments were accurate for nine out of 10 major personality traits. Those traits were not just whether they were outgoing or introverted, or had high or low self-esteem, but whether they were agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, open, likable, lonely, religious and what kind of politics they related to.


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