The 4 Big Myths of Profile Pictures

January 20th, 2010 by Christian Rudder

Hello, old friends. I am back from dark months of data mining, here now to present my ores. To write this piece, we cataloged over 7,000 photographs on OkCupid.com, analyzing three primary things:

  • Facial Attitude. Is the person smiling? Staring straight ahead? Doing that flirty lip-pursing thing?
  • Photo Context. Is there alcohol? Is there a pet? Is the photo outdoors? Is it in a bedroom?
  • Skin. How much skin is the person showing? How much face? How much breasts? How much ripped abs?

In looking closely at the astonishingly wide variety of ways our users have chosen to represent themselves, we discovered much of the collective wisdom about profile pictures was wrong. For interested readers, I explain our measurement process, and how we collected our data, at the end of the post. All my bar charts are zeroed on the average picture. Now to the data.

MYTH 1
It’s better to smile

One of the first things we noticed when diving into our pool of photos is that men and women have very different approaches to the camera.

Women smile about 50% more than men do and make that flirty-face four times as often.

Now, you’re always told to look happy and make eye contact in social situations, but at least for your online dating photo, that’s just not optimal advice. For women, a smile isn’t strictly better: she actually gets the most messages by flirting directly into the camera, like the center and right-hand subjects above.

Notice that, however, that flirting away from the camera is the single worst attitude a woman can take. Certain social etiquettes apply even online: if you’re going to be making eyes at someone, it should be with the person looking at your picture.

Men’s photos are most effective when they look away from the camera and don’t smile:

Maybe women want a little mystery. What is he looking at? Slashdot? Or Engadget?

It’s interesting that while making flirty eye contact is relatively okay for men, flirting away from the camera is the worst thing they, too, can do.

MYTH 2
The MySpace Angle Is Busted

The universally-maligned MySpace angle is achieved by holding your camera above your head and being just so darn coy.

We were sure these pictures were lame; in fact, the prospect of producing hard data on just how lame got us all excited. But we were so wrong.

In terms of getting new messages, the MySpace shot is the single most effective photo type for women. We at first thought this was just because, typically, you can kind of see down the girl’s shirt with the camera at that angle&#8212indeed, that seems to be the point of shot in the first place—so we excluded all cleavage-showing shots from the pool and ran the numbers again. No change: it’s still the best shot; better, in fact, than straight-up boob pics (more on those later).

Weird.

MYTH 3
Guys should keep their shirts on

The male “Ab Shot” has the same reputation as the MySpace Shot—it’s an Internet cliché that supposedly everyone thinks is only for bozos. To wit: a journalist was visiting our office recently, and when we told her we were researching user photos, the first thing she said was “please tell me people hate it when guys show off their abs.” We hadn’t finished running the numbers yet, so we confidently reassured her that people did. The data contradicted us.

Of course, there is some self-selection here: the guys showing off their abs are the ones with abs worth showing, and naturally the best bodies get lots of messages. So we can’t recommend this photo tactic to every man. But, contrary to everything you read about profile pictures, if you’re a guy with a nice body, it’s actually better to take off your shirt than to leave it on. We would never suggest to a Fitzgerald or a Dave Eggers to limit his profile to 100 words, and so why should guys with great bodies keep their best asset under wraps?

Dating, both online and off is about playing to your strengths, and it should be no different for men with muscles, even if the classic pose is kinda hard to take:

After weeks of sorting through pictures, I started calling these guys headless horsemen.

An interesting caveat here is that a six-pack does seem to have a short shelf life: the effectiveness of the “abs pic” decreases sharply with age.

A 19 year-old showing his abs meets just under 1.4 women for every women he reaches out to, meaning that not only are females responding to his messages, but many are actually contacting him first. For a 31 year-old ab shower, that ratio has regressed to much closer to the average.

Because of our restricted data set for this post, we can only make confident claims for 19 to 31 year-olds right now, but it’s our strong suspicion that this downward trend continues with age. In the future perhaps we can investigate what’s behind the decline: is it because older guys and their older abs are inherently less attractive, or because women as they age find body shots less interesting?

One final point, vis à vis men, their torsos, and the clothing thereupon: if you’re not the type of guy who can show off your muscles, don’t veer off in the opposite direction and get all dressed up. Outfits more sophisticated than a simple collared shirt fare poorly:

The Cleavage Shot

There are no clear myths associated with showing cleavage in your picture. Most “experts” recommend you don’t, but everyone knows that breasts get attention, so to treat that recommendation as a “myth” would be disingenuous. But since the Cleavage Shot is the feminine analogue of the Ab Shot, and an undisputed online dating archetype, we thought we should discuss it.

Like the Ab Shot, the Cleavage Shot is very successful, drawing 12.9 new contacts per month, or 49% more than average. But unlike the Abs Shot, this positive effect actually trends against the effects of age.

As you would expect, women get fewer and fewer new messages as they age (which is a topic for another whole post!), but this decrease in new contacts is substantially slower for women with cleavage pics. A 32 year-old woman showing her body gets only 1 less message a month than the equivalent 18 year-old; an older woman not showing off gets 4 messages less, a large relative fall-off in popularity. The older the woman, the more relatively successful she is showing off her body

We find this anti-aging trend surprising. When we look further into the data, we can see that as women get older, they are more hesitant to emphasize their bodies, despite its still being a good strategy (at least in terms of message volume). Instead, they increasingly choose to show themselves in non-sexual contexts, like being outdoors:

For women in their late teens and early twenties, body pictures are the most popular type of shot; outdoor pictures are second. This ordering is reversed by the mid-twenties.

To wrap up our cleavage discussion, let’s assess the kind of messages the cleavage-showers are getting. A message like “Hey nice rack” isn’t really gonna lead anywhere, and isn’t very valuable to the recipient. We looked a level deeper and analyzed what resulted from the incoming contacts. Did the messages go unanswered? Did they turn into legitimate conversations? We didn’t go through anyone’s inbox to do this; we mathematically modeled a “conversation,” based number of messages back and forth. And we discovered the following:

This chart gives excellent insight as to why to the subject of this picture:

gets many more meaningful messages than does the subject of this one:

even though the two women are basically the same age, spend the same amount of time on the site, have similar profile length and quality, and have the same “attractiveness” as rated by OkCupid’s male population. If you want worthwhile messages in your inbox, the value of being conversation-worthy, as opposed to merely sexy, cannot be overstated.

MYTH 4
Make sure your face is showing

We used to think that the one iron-clad rule of Internet dating photos was to at least show your face. In fact, we used to give this very advice on OkCupid’s own photo upload page:

That page reads differently now because we found that all other things being equal whether you show your face really doesn’t affect your messages at all.

When at first these results came back, we didn’t believe it. We installed all kinds of sophisticated photo analysis software libraries, ran scripts to measure the percentage of face in each of our photos, generated diabolically meaningless scatter plots:

But the facts were stubborn: your face doesn’t necessarily matter. In fact, not showing your face can in fact be a positive, as long as you substitute in something unusual, sexy, or mysterious enough to make people want to talk to you.

All of the above subjects get far more messages than average, and yet none of them have outstanding profiles. The pictures do all the work: in different ways, they pique the viewer’s curiosity and say a lot about who the subject is (or wants to be).

Of course, we wouldn’t recommend that you meet someone in person without first seeing a full photo of them, that still seems like a recipe for disaster. In the near future, we’re going to be arranging series of blind dates through the site, and profile photo accuracy vs. the success of the date will be a big part of the report. Thanks for reading.

How we collected and evaluated this data

Our data set was chosen at random from all users in big cities, with only one profile photograph, between the ages of 18 and 32. We then lopped the most and least attractive members of the pool, fearing that they would skew our results. So all the data in this post is for “average-looking people;” here’s a graphical representation of that concept for the female pool.

After a bit more sifting, we finalized our data pool at 7,140 users. Aside from running each picture through a variety of analysis scripts, we tagged, by hand, each picture for various contextual indicators. We double-checked the tags before generating our data.

To quantify “profile success” for women, we used new messages received per active month on the site.

We had to do something different than this for guys, because of the fundamentally different role they play in the online courtship process: they are the ones reaching out to new people; women send only a small fraction of the unsolicited “hellos” that men do. As you’ve seen, the metric we settled on is, “women met per attempt”, which is:

(new incoming messages + replies to outgoing first contacts)
/
outgoing first contacts

Basically, this is how many women a guy has a conversation with, per new woman he reaches out to, and we feel it’s the best way to measure his success per unit time on OkCupid. Note that if a guy has a particularly compelling photo, this ratio could exceed 1, as he’d be getting messages from the women who come across his profile, as well as the women he himself is reaching out to.

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