Say you wanted your Facebook pic or Twitter avatar to convey to the world that you have a particular personality type, different from how you really are, would you be able to pose in a such a way to achieve this?
A new Finnish study led by Sointu Leikas has explored this idea by asking 60 participants (average age 27; 30 men) to pose for 11 photographs, from waist up, against a white background. The first photo was simply taken as they posed freely. Next, they posed the extremes of each of the Big Five personality traits, described to them as: stable and calm (low neuroticism); anxious and distressed (high neuroticism); extraverted and enthusiastic (high extraversion); reserved and quiet (low extraversion); intellectually curious / daydreamer (high openness); conventional / does not like change (low openness); empathic and warm (high agreeableness); critical and quarrelsome (low agreeableness); dependable and self-disciplined (high conscientiousness); and unorganised and careless (low conscientiousness). The participants weren’t allowed to change their clothing or hair to create these various impressions.
The photos were subsequently shown to 401 observer participants (average age 26, 343 women). Each observer rated the personality of the person depicted in 11 photos, each showing a different posing participant in one of the various posing conditions. Attractiveness of the posers was controlled for in the analysis, given that attractiveness is known to influence perceptions of personality.
In many cases the participants succeeded in conveying specific personality impressions, even when different from their true personality scores, but this varied with the particular personality traits in question. They were most effective at portraying either high or low extraversion. Openness was also conveyed quite successfully. Past research has shown that high-scorers on Openness tend to look away from the camera, so it’s possible the posing participants in the current study realised this, perhaps subconsciously.
The posers also had partial success with neuroticism and conscientiousness: they were rated as less conscientiousness when attempting to appear as unorganised, compared with their neutral photo; and they were rated as more neurotic when they attempted to appear anxious, as compared with their neutral photo. Attempts to appear stable or dependable and self-disciplined did not work so well. Another striking finding was the posers’ complete failure to convey reliably either high or low agreeableness. Observer ratings were all over the place for this trait, perhaps due to a reluctance to score strangers on this dimension on the basis of such limited evidence. “From an applied perspective, this can be considered fortunate,” the researchers said, “because it suggests that it is difficult to convey a false image of high Agreeableness.”
Past research has largely focused on how much surprisingly accurate information we’re able to garner from the briefest glimpses of other people’s appearance. This new study is an interesting departure, turning the focus to how much we can control the perceptions we create. “With everyone a Google search away, first impressions of potentially important others are increasingly likely to be be based on impressions of personality in photographs,” Leikas and her colleagues said. “The results suggested that it is possible to control the impressions of personality in photographs. However, success … depends on the particular trait in question.”
A weakness of the study is the fact the posing participants were unable to modify their clothing or hairstyle, or use props or backgrounds. In real life, people hoping to look friendly on a Facebook profile, or entrepreneurial on LinkedIn, would surely alter their clothes and backdrop to help achieve their desired image.
Leikas, S., Verkasalo, M., and Lönnqvist, J. (2013). Posing personality: Is it possible to enact the Big Five traits in photographs? Journal of Research in Personality, 47 (1), 15-21 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2012.10.012
Further reading: What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background.