Study Shows that Even Subtle Changes In Portraits Drastically Alter Our Perception

05-misleading-first-impressions-1.w1120.h1382-542x670A fascinating new study on the perception of profile photos reveals some very interesting (and perhaps a bit nerve-wracking) results: even the slightest of changes from one portrait to another can dramatically alter how people perceive you in that photo.

Conducted by Psychological Science, the study suggests that even minor changes in body language and facial expressions can twist the perception that is given off by a particular person’s profile image.

To see for yourself, reference the above collection of images. Researchers managed to change subjects minds about which of the two people pictured were more extroverted or trustworthy using nothing more than subtle changes in facial expressions.

The infographic below is a single set of results from another test that was given. Subjects were told they were to choose a photo to be used on a résumé for a high-paying job, a dating website, Facebook, a political campaign poster, and a headshot for the role of a villain in a film. They were then given five photos of the same individual to divide up into the five categories.


The most interesting correlation you might be able to pick out has to do with the answers given for pictures 2 and 4. While the photographs are almost identical, picture number two was overwhelmingly labeled as the choice for villain while picture four hardly ever made it into that category.

In a world as dependent on social media as we are living in, studies such as this are extremely intriguing. We often pour over every detail of the images we decide to brand ourselves with online, but it’s difficult to comprehend how dramatic of an effect even the smallest of details can have on how people perceive us.

Of course, these perceptions are usually tweaked or completely changed upon meeting an individual in person, but when we live and die by first impressions, the devil is in the details.

(via DIY Photography)

  • Amando Filipe

    I must be crazy, but these all look the same to me.

  • OtterMatt

    And people think I’m weird because I’d occasionally practice smiling. It’s important, okay, mom?!

  • David Liang

    Interesting about the results between 2 and 4. It makes me wonder if it is in fact futile to tray and quantify and measure subjective taste. The two images are so similar yet give such varied results it could be the method of study is ineffective.

  • markz

    subtle but anyone who’s photographed a Noh mask or seen one demonstrated will know (sorry pun unintended) the effect of a slight change of head position or lighting can make on the perceived emotion.

  • markz

    yeh the difference is very subtle, #4 has the the head lifted and tilted back (and slightly to the side) ever so slightly which probably give a less engaging appearance (probably why it rated low in everything).
    the sample size of 110 participants (I have access to, and have read, the full article) is not too bad a size to draw a conclusion but I’d probably want to see it repeated in different cultures/subcultures to see if it varies from what Princeton university students perceive

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  • ibid17

    The pupils are smaller in 2 compared to 4, I think.

  • Chillywilson

    I’m calling BS on this. When animating characters, or taking a photo, face says it all. Of course if someone or a photo gives you the creeper stare your not going to have trust especially if you give them something to compare and contrast with.

  • genotypewriter

    It’s more obvious when kept side by side and labeled.

  • Mark Wheadon

    I think what this mostly shows is that a photograph freezes one moment in time, sometimes to great effect. People get all hot under the collar about manipulation of a photo after its taken, but don’t think how unrepresentative a fleeting expression can be, or an athlete hanging in mid air, or a politician’s transient gesture, or…

  • Peter “Pots”

    In some ways, I think the judges of these photos are influenced by the categories they have to “fit” the image…supposedly, there is no right or wrong, but wow!

  • markz

    actually there was the option of not putting them in a category which is why image 4 in the experiment 2 score low for all options (and high for the implied “none of the above” option)

  • Peter “Pots”

    I do understand that; however, there is a certain pressure on the testee to try and fit the “square peg” in some sort of hole. I would like to know how and who they selected to rate the pics.

  • Vin Weathermon

    #2 thin narrow villain face; #4 bloated not particularly attractive for anything. Got it.

  • introvert

    I just love how extraversion isn’t considered trustworthy… So funny. Big up to the introverts in the house! wo0oot. We are trustworthy by definition according to this really in depth psychological study…… :/