Most people have a ton of pictures on social media: profile pictures, headshots and selfies. You might intend for that hysterical drunk selfie you took to only be visible to friends and family, but inevitably your potential new employer will see it.
We have to be extra careful that the images we put out into the world convey what we want them to. You don't want a picture where you look shady to be the one your future in-laws see. But it isn't just when we're acting out or playing the fool that people judge us; you don't even have to be doing anything crazy for someone to decide that you look untrustworthy and incompetent.
People are making snap judgments about us all the time based on things we can change like our facial expressions, to things we can't such as our facial bone structure.
A study published by Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin highlights both the limitations and the potential we have in the way we visually represent ourselves, from dating and career-networking sites to social media and blog posts.
"Our findings show that facial cues conveying trustworthiness are malleable, while facial cues conveying competence and ability are significantly less so," said Jonathan Freeman, the study's lead author. "The results suggest you can influence to an extent how trustworthy others perceive you to be in a facial photo, but perceptions of your competence or ability are considerably less able to be changed."
The study reinforced the importance of facial expression to our impressions character traits like trustworthiness and friendliness, and it had the unexpected finding that perceptions of abilities (such as strength) isn't dependent on facial expressions; rather, on the facial bone structure which can't be changed.
For one of the experiments, participants looked at five unique photos of 10 adult males of different ethnicities. The participant's perception of dependability of those pictures varied significantly, with happier-looking faces seen as more trustworthy and angrier-looking faces seen as untrustworthy.
The subjects' perceptions of ability or competence remained unchanged — interpretations were the same no matter which photo of the individual was being considered.
After a series of experiments were completed, the findings suggest that facial expressions strongly influence the perception of traits such as trustworthiness, friendliness or warmth, but not ability (strength). However, facial structure influences the way that we perceive physical ability, but not intentions (like friendliness and trustworthiness).
Most interestingly, the researchers found that decisions that involve guessing at the possible intentions of a person (such as someone wanting to invest your money for you) are more strongly influenced by facial expression, while those based on physical ability (such as who you'd bet on for a boxing match) are more strongly influenced by facial structure.
If you want to appear trustworthy and friendly, it's a good idea to have a happy expression. But if you want someone to believe that you have the strength to take down your opponent in a fight, you better hope your facial bone structure says you can.