In most cases, your profile picture on Facebook tells viewers all they need to know to form an impression of you. The exception is when a photo is out of the ordinary or shows someone in a negative light; in that case, people use profile text to help interpret what kind of person is being shown.
The new findings come from two studies conducted at Ohio State University. Brandon Van Der Heide, lead author of both, teamed up with Jonathan D'Angelo and Erin Schumaker, graduate students in communication at the university. The results of their study appear in a recent issue of the Journal of Communication.
In the first study, 195 college students viewed a mock Facebook profile of a person who was supposedly a fellow student. The profile included a photo and a written "about me" statement. Participants were asked to rate how extraverted they thought the student in the profile was, on a scale of 1 (least extraverted) to 7 (most extraverted) based on the photo and text.
The participants viewed one of four profiles: the photo (a person shown socializing with friends) and the text ("I'm happiest hanging out with a big group of friends") both suggest an extrovert, the photo (a person alone on a park bench) and text ("I'm happiest curled up in my room with a good book") both suggest an introvert, and mixed profiles with the other two possibilities.
Researchers found the photo mattered more than the text in deciding whether the person was an extrovert or an introvert. When the extraverted photo was shown, it barely mattered whether the text suggested the person was an introvert or extrovert – most participants rated the person as an extravert. If the photograph suggested an introvert, however, people really did pay attention to the text; if the text also suggested an introvert, participants rated the person as such, but if it suggested an extravert, participants rated them as slightly less introverted.
In the second study, 84 college students looked at one of the photos or read one of the text profiles used in the other experiment, and then rated the person's extraversion or introversion. The results showed that participants who read the introverted descriptions rated the person as significantly more introverted than did those who saw the introverted photos, while there was no significant difference between photo and text for extraversion.
The results support a theory that people generally pay closer attention to information that could be viewed as negative or abnormal: on social networks like Facebook, users expect people to showcase themselves as happy, successful, and sociable. Van Der Heide believes the results apply beyond Facebook to dating websites and other social networking sites, as well as to other traits beyond extraversion and introversion, such as social desirability and even political orientation. The key is that people have certain expectations of the photos they view on social networks. If a profile picture fits what they expect, they are unlikely to dig for more information before forming an impression.