Your Online Dating Profile Picture Affects Whether People Trust You

Attractiveness is linked to trust, but the responses are very different between men and women

A person looks at profile photos on the messaging app Momo in Shanghai. Imaginechina/Corbis

When it comes to dating apps like Tinder, a profile picture is worth way more than 1,000 words. Users quickly connect with people whose photos pique their interest—but they risk being “catfished” by someone whose pic doesn't match up to the real thing. So how does an online romantic decide whom to trust? Well, it's complicated.

In a recent study of about 300 heterosexual volunteers, researchers found that men and women place very different levels of trust in an attractive profile picture. Men shown images of “beautified” women—with enhanced lighting, hair and makeup—rated them to be hotter but less trustworthy than regular pictures of the same people. However, women shown enhanced pictures of men said they seemed both more attractive and more trustworthy than their unenhanced counterparts.

“It seems that the women were placing faith in the attractiveness of the males. It's almost hopeful, as opposed to the fellas who may have taken a more kind of realistic approach,” says co-author Rory McGloin of the University of Connecticut. McGloin and colleagues Amanda Denes and Olivia Kamisher will present their findings this month at the 65th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The team decided to study the phenomenon after observing the huge impact a single photo had in apps like Tinder. The app finds potential matches near you and shows you their picture, name and age. A swipe on a picture indicates you like someone. If they swipe you back, then you're a match and can start messaging. “You look at a picture of someone and all of a sudden you're making judgments about what their personality is like, what their values are, whether or you want to go on a date with them or even maybe spend the rest of your life with them,” says McGloin. “And it's all based on one picture.”

To set up a controlled test of how people react to such photos, the group asked their volunteers to look at randomly chosen profile pictures. Some saw an enhanced picture of an opposite-sex individual, while others looked at a normal photo of the same person—participants did not compare the two versions. They were then asked to rate attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. The team found that both males and females rated the enhanced images as far more attractive than the normal ones. That may not be surprising, but it is telling, says McGloin.

“The fact that we had the exact same person but could manipulate their attractiveness the way we wanted to by just showing a single picture really reinforces how important that profile picture is and what it does to the entire attitude you adopt when you look at someone's profile,” he says. This kind of image manipulation may seem unfair, but most app users actually expect it. Many previous studies by other groups show that people are willing to accept a certain amount of deception in how others present themselves online and even adopt those strategies themselves.

“The people that were interviewed in these studies—and we've also seen this during our own research—basically admit, 'Yeah of course I try to make myself look good—everybody else is doing it.'”

Despite the ubiquitous knowledge that all isn't what it seems online, men and women still reacted quite differently to attractive images. When asked to rate trustworthiness on a 1-to-10 scale, men that saw an enhanced picture of a woman rated her lower than the score given to the normal photo of the exact same woman. However, women rated the enhanced men as more trustworthy than the regular men.

In addition, while males were less trusting of attractive women, good looks seemed to trump their suspicions. They still reported a higher desire to date the woman in an enhanced photo than the one in her normal picture.“ I don't know what it says about us, but it's interesting that the guys were basically acknowledging, 'Hey look, I see this picture of a really attractive woman online and I don't trust that it's actually her. But I still want to date her,"' says McGloin. "Maybe they are thinking, 'I know she probably doesn't look quite like this, but if she's close, we're good.'”

Previous work suggests that evolution focuses our attention on certain aspects of attractiveness, such as clear skin, which are tied to choosing a healthy mate. It could be that males value these attributes over trustworthiness. Another factor could be the long-studied concept that people prefer to date and mate with those who are much like themselves. Similarity has become a key strategy for far more elaborate online matching systems that collect and compare all kinds of personal information. So does a desire for sameness influence the level of trust we bestow on an attractive partner?

“Similarity is obviously a part of the puzzle of attractiveness, but is it really the piece that drives it?" says McGloin. "Or at times can we sell that idea of similarity to ourselves because we simply see a person we find attractive?” 

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