• Humans have evolved the ability to evaluate faces in a matter of milliseconds, which compounds the pressure of posting the best headshots to professional networking sites and the cutest pictures to your dating profile.
  • People can make judgments about your attractiveness and personality based on elements like facial symmetry, the yellowness in your skin, and the direction of your gaze.
  • But humans aren’t as smart about faces as they think they are. Their visual fluency can be impaired by facial recognition disorders as well as the other race effect.
  • If you want to use neuroscience to enhance your profile pictures, you can avoid selfies and sunglasses, and let a friend select your most flattering images.

The story of your cute profile picture begins with the dinosaurs, specifically with the giant meteor that wiped them out and enabled mammals to start filling the population void. Before the giant lizards disappeared, mammals had to live underground or adapt to a nocturnal lifestyle for hundreds of millions of years. Thus vision wasn’t as important as the senses of hearing and smell.

But since then, some modern mammals like primates and humans have evolved spectacular visual perception. Humans, for example, can extract information about another person’s identity, age, emotional state, sex, race, and direction of attention within milliseconds of glancing at their face. According to neuroscientists, facial perception is “the pinnacle of human visual performance.”

Unfortunately, this puts a lot of pressure on your professional headshot and the profile pictures you use on social media and dating apps. Recruiters and potential mates will make near-instantaneous judgments about you based on your online photo, enlisting specialized neural structures like the fusiform gyrus to do it. So how can you put your best face forward? Let’s take a look. 

A Thousands Words in 100 Milliseconds

When your fellow humans scroll by an image of your face, they judge you on a number of parameters. Social animals benefit from this kind of shorthand in the wild so they know who to mate with and who to fight. Photos of your face can provide people with immediate information (whether valid or not) about two key social dimensions, attractiveness and personality.

1. Attractiveness. People like looking at attractive faces. Beauty is exciting and pleasurable. We think that attractive people must have other positive qualities as well, like intelligence (called the halo effect). Attraction to human faces is based on three main components

  • Symmetry, or bilateral sameness in the face
  • Averageness, or proximity to an average face 
  • Sexual dimorphism, or feminine traits in women’s faces and male traits in male faces 

Some neuroscientists also include adiposity (plumpness) and carotenoid-based skin color (yellowness in the skin) as important attraction criteria. Evolutionary psychologists seem torn about whether people are attracted to these facial characteristics because they indicate reproductive health (as in the case of smoothly textured, evenly colored skin that says “disease-free!”), or because our preferences are natural byproducts of the way our brains work. 

2. Personality. People make snap judgments about personality traits based on face photos. Your levels of trustworthiness, competence, aggression, extraversion, dominance, and even mental health are all potentially contained in your profile picture, at least according to an average viewer. But these judgments don’t necessarily have any basis in reality. (Though judgements about a person’s aggression based on face alone have been shown to be mostly accurate.)  

The Limits of Perception

People tend to assume that photographs directly reflect reality, but as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For example, women gauge other peoples’ attractiveness differently based on where they are in their menstrual cycle. Perception of a photo can also be influenced by what the viewer saw immediately before, a phenomenon called face aftereffects. For instance, a person will perceive an androgynous face as more feminine if they’ve just come from viewing masculine faces. And though humans are exceptional at sizing up a single image, they have a harder time determining whether multiple face photos belong to the same person. 

Lastly, facial recognition skills exist on a spectrum. Some people are “super-recognizers” and other people, like those with prosopagnosia (face blindness), can’t recognize familiar faces at all. Facial perception can also be impaired by neurodevelopmental conditions like autism. And people fed a limited “face diet” as children, where they’re not exposed to people of different races, may experience the other race effect (ORE). This is a perceptual narrowing that makes it difficult for people to evaluate faces that aren’t of their own race. 

Profile Pic, Headshot, and Dating Photo Wisdom

I know what you’re thinking: How do I use research in the neuroscience of facial perception to upgrade my headshot? I’m glad you asked! Here are some tips based on recent studies.

  • Don’t wear sunglasses. According to one analysis, your eyes have the biggest effect on perceived traits. Eye contact offers abundant information about your levels of engagement and your intentions. 
  • Post in color. Don’t use black and white images in headshot photography. Subtle changes in skin color can transmit emotion.
  • Smooth your skin to convey health. You can use makeup or one of those wildly popular photo filters to even out your skin texture and color. 
  • Don’t use selfies. People tend to view these photos as “impression management” so you might be rated as less trustworthy and more narcissistic in a selfie. 
  • Let a friend choose your pictures. People select more flattering photos for other people than they do for themselves. 
  • Men, consider downplaying your masculine jawline in your dating app profile if you’re looking for a long-term relationship. 

Reminder: You’re More Than Your Photo

Profile pictures tap into some deep human cognition skills, making them a powerful tool for attracting mates (via Tinder) and prestige (via LinkedIn direct messages). Some evolutionary psychologists even go so far as to call photography a “new universal” for humanity. And different personalities exhibit somewhat predictable poses and behaviors in their profile pics. For instance, extraverts tend to post photos of themselves smiling, in group shots. 

But a photograph can only capture a single freeze frame in your vast facial repertoire, not your whole self. Face recognition and face processing are valuable, but they’ll never paint the whole picture. So don’t spend too much time manipulating your image. Eventually people will have to see and accept you for who you are.