Use Science to Take the Perfect Profile Picture

Think your profile picture doesn’t matter? Think again! Research has found that people make their first impression of you within 100ms of seeing your photo! Here’s what’s crazy:

Different photos of you send different messages.

Princeton University Researcher, Dr. Alexander Todorov found that different images of the same person can create drastically different first impressions. The researchers took slightly different pictures of the same person and asked participants to rate them for various characteristics, like intelligence, trustworthiness and attractiveness. Each pose got different ratings. The question is:

What is your profile picture saying?

We decided to do an experiment to figure out what makes a good profile picture. Using photos from the dating website, we coded hundreds of pictures looking for patterns between the highest rated and lowest rated photos.

8 Ways to Make Your Profile Picture More Attractive:

Our first impressions are essential, and more and more they are happening online. Your profile picture is your introduction to a new connection. Some of these results surprised us — things we thought mattered don’t really and others we don’t even think about do! And of course, we also confirmed some clichés.

Here’s how to put your best selfie forward.

#1: Skin or no skin?

Are you ready for this? Even though men get a bad rap for wanting to see skin, women actually were more interested in men who showed off! Yup, women like it hot and steamy! Cleavage, short skirts, lots of skin did not make a difference between low and high-ranking women. However, men really benefited from showing off their skin. High-ranking men tended to show off their chest and go shirtless more than low ranking men. Flexing didn’t hurt either.

#2: Don’t Hide

Want to show you’re available and open to a relationship? Then be open and show yourself. Photos with hats and glasses were a total buzz kill for the hot factor. Sunglasses were especially detrimental. This is most likely because we use eye gaze to build connection. When we make eye contact with someone (even in a picture) our body produces the hormone Oxytocin, which makes us feel connected to someone. When raters can’t see eyes, they don’t get the hormonal boost for connection.

  • Funny Note: While hats and glasses weren’t great, headphones didn’t seem to effect ratings at all.

Sunglasses cover the eyes

A hat blocks connection

#3: Front Me

Ever wonder how you should face the camera? The results are in — we find it more attractive when people fully face the camera. This is especially important for men. Why? Fronting is a nonverbal sign of respect. When you are really engaged with someone you align your entire body with theirs — head-to-head, torso-to-torso and toe-to-toe. In photos, when we are trying to gauge how attentive someone might be as a mate or how much they would respect us, fronting gives us a subconscious cue. Without realizing it, we think people who angle towards the camera are also angling towards us, this makes us see them as more in tune with us.

Angling away makes us feel ignored

We prefer full frontal

Bonus: In my book Captivate, I dive even deeper into body language, first impressions and how to project confidence in every interaction.

#4: Context Matters

Think your hotness is only about you? Think again! The hottest photos also tended to have some kind of background story — hiking, beach trip, travel, cooking, driving. Photos that included some kind of activity added to the hotness of both men and women.

  • Trophies: We also counted what we call ‘trophies’ these are objects that people put on display in their photo in addition to themselves. Men’s favorite objects were guitars, cars, motorcycles and guns. Although none of these impacted hotness scores. Sorry guys, not all women are impressed by a guitar.

Wishful Thinking: A guitar doesn’t help

#5: To Smile or Not to Smile?

The biggest question we get around profile pictures is to smile or not. The answer might surprise you:

  • For women closed mouth smiles were worst. The lowest ranking women used the closed mouth smile. High-ranking women had either a full smile or a neutral face. So, if you’re going to smile, go big.

The closed mouth smile doesn’t work

A neutral face is better than a closed smile

…or a full smile

  • For men, surprisingly, neutral faces tended to do best. High-ranking men had serious or still faces (often looking off into the sunset) and those seemed to do better than low-ranking men who smiled wide.

Neutral faces worked best for men

Bonus: Want to learn even more about smiles and other expressions? Check out my book Captivate where I explore how to decode anyone you meet.

#6: Get Handsy

Ever wondered if you should show your hands in your picture? If you’re a woman the answer is YES! Half of the high-ranking women had their hands visible in their photo, while only a third of low-ranking women did. Hands are our nonverbal trust indicators. It seems that when men are rating women on attractiveness they are also factoring in trustworthiness and visible hands is a positive indicator of trust.

Visible hands on women indicate trust

#7: The Monroe Gaze

Marilyn Monroe was famous for her flirty head tilt and sultry stare. Our coder noticed that many of the high-ranking women used the Monroe Gaze in their photos. This seems to be a hallmark of ‘hot’ women. A Monroe Gaze is when a woman tilts her head, looks up through her lashes, hoods her eyes, pouts her lips and sometimes exposes her neck. This is a very flirtatious gesture because it looks very similar to what a woman does when she is experiencing physical pleasure. Exposing her neck also releases pheromones.

Notice the slight neck exposure, pouty lips and hooded lashes

Remember Lola Bunny?

Notice how even in action she shows the Monroe Gaze — tilted head, low eyes, exposed neck:

Or how about Jessica Rabbit who almost rests in the Monroe Gaze during her scenes:

#8: What Color is Best?

What’s the best color to wear in your profile picture? Confidence is the best color in your closet. We looked at colors in both male and female shots and found no significant difference between high and low ranking women and men. However, confident poses were markedly different for both high and low ranking women. Attractiveness is as much about attitude as appearance.

I hope this fun research experiment has shed some light on what goes into attractive profile pictures. Luckily, our appeal is about attitude. In your photos you want to show trustworthiness, confidence and openness — this is what makes you truly attractive.


Vanessa Van Edwards is a behavioral investigator and published author. She figures out the science of what makes people tick at her human behavior research lab, the Science of People. As a geeky, modern-day Dale Carnegie, her innovative work has been featured on NPR, Business Week and CNN.

Jose Piña is a certified Body Language Trainer and researcher with the Science of People lab. One of his favorite topics is the face and microexpressions. Decoding the face is a fascinating task just like learning the cues that help your impression and personality. All experiments are executed with the ambition to find out how and why do humans function and how the results can benefit you.

This is just the start! If you want to learn more human behavior hacks check out my book Captivate

Ever wonder what makes people tick?

Want to know the hidden forces that drive our behavior? In Vanessa Van Edwards new book Captivate, she explains a simple blueprint for hacking human behavior. In this science packed, anti-boring guide you will learn:

  • The formula for fascinating conversation
  • How to walk into a room full of strangers and make a killer first impression
  • What to do to increase your impact and income using people skills
  • Our strategy for hacking the people code–we call it the matrix (Keanu Reeves not included with each book sale)
  • The art and science of understanding people

Learn the new–science based way for winning friends and influencing people.


Willis, J., and A. Todorov. “First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face.” Psychological Science 17.7 (2006): 592–98. Web.

Todorov, A., and J. M. Porter. “Misleading First Impressions: Different for Different Facial Images of the Same Person.” Psychological Science 25.7 (2014): 1404–417. Web.

Originally published at on April 5, 2017.