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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.

Naumann gauged the accuracy of those judgments against an aggregate profile based on how the subjects viewed themselves as well as corroborating input of three close friends.

She said she was particularly intrigued by how much we convey through nonverbal cues, such as smiling and posture. Also, people who had a more unique style of dress were accurately judged as more open.

So what can people take away from the research?

You can, said Naumann, manipulate how you want people to see you simply by how you dress, pose and smile in your online photo. If it?s a job you?re looking for or a first date, careful photo selection can, she said, get your foot in the door.

?For those people who always have an angry face or appear mean, it?s wise to fake it a little bit,? she said. ?But eventually, your true personality will reveal itself.?

At 28, Naumann herself has grown up in the MySpace age. She?s chosen to use the same photo on both her Facebook and her SSU home page ? a professionally posed black-and-white side shot, in which she?s wearing a casual sleeveless shirt and a broad smile.

She said she was looking to project a professional look that also reflected the culture of the university where she is working.

?People know me as a professor. I?m trying to clean up my Facebook and not have any crazy photos with a lampshade on my head,? she said with a laugh. ?I wanted to have a slightly more professional, yet approachable photo on both my Web site and Facebook.?

To study how Facebook profiles convey personality, Gosling and a team of researchers collected 236 profiles of college-age people from the U.S. and Germany. They used questionnaires to assess each subject?s personality as well as their ideal personality traits ? the way they would like to be.

Observers rated the profiles of people they did not know. Those ratings were then compared to the subject?s actual personality and their ideal personality.

Gosling said the impressions gleaned from details about a person?s range of hobbies, interests, music and number of friends proved to be the most accurate for determining how extroverted a person is. It was least effective in determining how neurotic a person is. Those findings, he said, were consistent with previous research showing that neuroticism is difficult to detect without meeting someone in person.

One interesting finding is that the diversity of a person?s likes and interests is a strong clue to their openness. If someone lists 500 songs they like, but they?re all of the same genre, it?s a good bet they?re not very open.

?These findings suggest that online social networks are not so much about providing positive spin for the profile owners,? he said, ?but are instead just another medium for engaging in genuine social interactions, much like the telephone.?

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.