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, 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.

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.

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).


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.

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.

366 Responses to “The 4 Big Myths of Profile Pictures”

  1. Faithlynn Phillips says:

    i agree on what danny roberts said how online dating take you so far and that you should put recent true pics. of yourself instead of fake!

  2. Faithlynn Phillips says:

    hey, this is faithlynn again… what i meant to say was that online dating ONLY takes you so far… and you can ignore what i said about putting true recent pics. of your self and just do whatever you want becaue i realized that it goes as far as you want it to go plus the pictures are kinda cute… so any way just do whatever you wanna do

  3. Leslie Wilder says:

    I just wanted you guys to know, I am 58,but your tests say, mentally I am 45.(lol)…So, I wanted to let you know, throughout life as doing some modeling, being dropped by my 2 plain looking sisters in plans for a vacation together to Puerto Rico, and being sneakily invited out by “frienemies” to bar-hopping for about 10 years, I decided, good looks are sometimes a bad thing.
    The sisters wanted all the men for themselves(I am 5’8″,bl,bl), and girlfriends wanting my table scraps……jealousy, etc. , so I at first posted really bad, and still have a few up, pics.
    Now, age has helped me be normal. But, back then,and still now when I get made-up normal like other women my age, women tend to keep their husbands far away, and me now being single, I never get invites to couples anything, and singles almost never.Who wants to compete with what my 2 husbands used to call me the “christy brinkley” type of woman.
    Life has been very difficult for me, so now I pick and choose. Men,being visual,wonderful creatures, tend to look at the outside first. So, I choose to be picking my man…….but this time he gets only to see the “good girl” side of me, and the naughty side in the BR. I have lived this and known this to be true.
    My father told me the night before marriage,”Be a lady on the street, and a wh__ in the bedroom.” My mom fainted!!!
    So, believe me, I know men want sex, and I am very sensual and experimental, role-playing is my style and most men LOVE it……….
    But, I must admit, for a long term R., better get the head on straight, get a man with an interesting mind , without sex first please, and I will be thrilled and so will he in the bedroom.
    Oh, I can’t wait until I am a nurse, I can just hear the comments! I am gregarious, and humorous to boot, so this ensures women want me the farthest away from their boyfriends as possible. They have boring conversations at parties, and men don’t. Sorry ladies, I just like brainy men! To me, brains trump looks any, every day, and yes I actually salivate in my mouth over one, but keep it a secret. Only you guys know now. :) lol……..

  4. Oh my god says:

    This is so sad that this is what society has come to…

  5. Jorge Valentín (nuke_rod) says:

    I’m shocked to actually read the truth I was thinking about long ago. It makes me feel this mixture between anger and sadness of how much a woman’s breast can turn on so many men. Selfish, superficial people who thinks only on the size of the bra or the size of the wallet. This is so unfair. There are too many guys/gals who are really interesting… but the opposite sex (or the alike) makes a choice based in – and only in – whether you took your Phostoshop’d pic in extreme wealth or nude. To tel the truth, I’m sick of it, but I’m glad to know at least ONE person have read my thoughts. So thank you, ONE.

  6. Peter says:

    I love that tweet/digg/reddit/buzz/SU pop up that shows up just as you get into the comments, very slick!

    Love Ya Code!

  7. Helen says:

    Guys who look straight into the camera look more aggressive. However, if they’re looking into the camera, smiling, but have their face turning slightly away, it’s appealing– as if they just saw you out of the corner of their eye, not stalking you as prey.

  8. BW says:

    You’re a very entertaining read, Christian Rudder. Thanks for validating some of my anecdotal evidence on dating in the gay community. Totally awesome. Haha headless horsemen, that was good.

  9. Rho says:

    Poor “Oh My God” (citing “This is so sad that this is what society has come to…”) ;(

    Whoever told you that society ever was different?

  10. Just One More Opinion says:

    I hate to say it but I agree that breasts get attention. Unfortunately, being a bigger breasted woman, I can be wearing an ugly t-shirt and my breasts are still very noticeable. Don’t get me wrong, I like my boobs lol, but just don’t like it when that’s all men notice me for or like me for. I don’t have cleavage pics but I did start using full-body pictures. The reason being because I am a thick, curvy, voluptuous, chubby… (call it what you want to call it) girl but still proportioned and closer to an hourglass shape than an apple or a pear. Some men might think my body is appealing and some who only like skinny or athletic women will not so I thought it was necessary to accurately depict what I look like and give them room to decide for themselves.

    I thought it was important to put up a full body pic… wearing clothes of course because on dating websites I describe myself as full-figured or a few extra pounds (both true). Those descriptions however, are subjective. People may assume I am just ten pounds overweight or one hundred pounds overweight depending on what those descriptors alone mean to them. Thus, up goes the body shot. I am not/was not trying to show my breast off – they do all of that on their own ;). but the next thing I know, I am getting a lot more male attention and I have to say I think it’s because you can more easily tell from the pics that I have large breasts. I’m not conceited but I know I have a pretty face so my “myspace shot” was getting responses but I noticed a definite increase in the number of responses I get from men since putting up photos that clearly show my figure. Moreso than when I used a “myspace pic”, a regular photo of me doing something interesting, (but didn’t closely/clearly show my body), or pics where I am having fun with friends.

  11. preoroArorify says:

    I have discussed this topic with several people, but I think your opinion on it is the most reasonable.

  12. preoroArorify says:

    Thank you for your post and your site. I will definitely subscribe to it now.

  13. preoroArorify says:

    Very interesting post. I am sure many if us will appreciate it.

  14. curtis says:

    What about us queers? What type of photos get us in person dates.

  15. Casey says:

    Fascinating! I guess I’ll be changing my profile pictures on all of my social networking sites now!

    Thanks OkTrends!

  16. Lauren Mainguy says:

    Dear Mr. Reader,

    I have noticed only one grammatical errors in this rather interesting sociological report. The first is the miss use of the plural noun for the feminine subject in this sentence: “A 19 year-old showing his abs meets just under 1.4 women for every women he reaches out to…”

    The study was very interesting! Thank you for sharing!


  17. S says:

    Your article was interesting. However, for a site that seems to be so dedicated to helping people finding dates, I’m disappointed to see this does not include anything about same-sex responses to profile pictures.

    I hope to see research for the queer community included soon. It may be harder to break it down, but one thing that will help is people self-identify on the site.

    Thank you very much.


  18. Yttrioth says:

    Dear Lauren Mainguy,

    I have noticed only two grammatical errors in your rather condescending comment. The first is a misuse of the plural noun in the phrase “only one grammatical errors”. The second is the misspelling of the word ‘misuse’ in the second sentence: “The first is the miss use of the plural noun […]”

    Your comment was pointless and hypocritical! Thank you for shutting up now.


    [tl;dr version for Cracked readers:

    Dear Lauren Mainguy.

    Please eat a bowl of dicks.


  19. justsayinkthx says:

    I thought misuse is a word? “Miss use” makes no sense at all! Now both of you shut up and no one gives a shit about who uses perfect grammar on the internet because we can still understand it anyway. K?… thx

  20. schepherd says:

    i like these ladies and i want to write with time i’ll send my piture.hi

  21. Doc Irysch says:

    Ladies, if your profile pic is going to be you and your gal friends, make sure you are the best looking one in the shot.

  22. Smart. says:

    For the record, most punctuation should be placed inside quotation marks. Dipshits.

  23. laith hajri says:

    send me the most attrictive male/female pic

  24. Richard Cook says:

    I’d love to see this study expanded to include, er, me, a 45 year old single male. Also, to include people who aren’t as attractive as others — what works for them? I’m not talking about myself, I think there. :-)

  25. A.C. says:

    Figures why I haven’t gotten a single message, I’m smiling and looking at the camera in my profile picture-I’ll see how uploading one of me holding a knife and looking like I want to kill someone works.

    Gee, when did smiling become so forbidden even? To pretend to not to be happy? But-I thought people recommend being honest? And?


  26. SOS says:

    Kudos to the people that actually commented on the article instead of flaunting their egocentrism and rambling about themselves (newsflash: no one gives a shit).

    I love OKTrends articles. They use data to make useful suggestions to all the people on dating sites like this one. Excellent job.

    Although I wonder if the study takes sexual orientation into account. I saw a whole bunch of comments about including the gay community. That’s a perfectly valid issue to raise. Response?

  27. Lisa says:

    Why it’s better when men don’t smile: The majority of men on this site have wack-busted teeth. KEEP THEM AWAY!

  28. Mar says:

    I am amazed at how many men have a profile pic of themselves with a woman beside them. It makes them look married, which is not generally appealing in a potential date.

  29. india says:

    i liked the post it was nice to read actually….
    but i fill a close up picture in black and white would do the trick for anyone.

  30. laith says:

    I’m looking for most sex and attractive pictures booth male and female

  31. Christian says:

    “Flirty face”?? That’s called a duck face, and it is always, always bad.

  32. Amu says:

    This was an interestin read, neva really knew the complexities involved in puttin up a pic, on a personal note, i’d go for a guy with a smile than a shirtless ab showin guy and I am now contemplatin not sendin the first message, jeez and i thought the world was movin forward and as a women you could take the first step and not scare the guy away lol
    quote someone from the comments above

  33. rita says:

    I enjoyed the article and comments but as an older lady (59) I would like to hear more about what might appeal to my demographic. I’m not looking to wow the handsome young fellows–I can certainly admire tham of course. But I’m looking to connect with someone my own age. All I do, is post recent pics. I think it’s dishonest to put stuff in from 10 years before. I have wrinkles (laugh lines heh) and though my figure is good it’s not that of a 20 year old. So, is it hopeless do you think? Are guys my age automatically screening me out because I look my age?

  34. blah says:

    Why am I not surprised that slutting works. Culture is on the decline and inappropriate public exhibitionists are establishing a firm foothold in mainstream society. Not that they’re perverts or anything. They’re just comfy in their own skin! (rolls eyes)

  35. Boni says:

    Yo, I can’t belive these fake jodies, they always say they want a sensitive man, nice face, nice personality and dont care otherwise

    ” Amu says:
    September 24, 2010 at 9:21 am

    This was an interestin read, neva really knew the complexities involved in puttin up a pic, on a personal note, i’d go for a guy with a smile than a shirtless ab showin guy and I am now contemplatin not sendin the first message, jeez and i thought the world was movin forward and as a women you could take the first step and not scare the guy away lol ” -from above

    really? that **tch is a fake, all the girls who actually tell me what they want is, alpha male/leader, great body, kind of an @sshole, i guess they want to try to change him, i was just sayin it really pisses me off to see girls like that talk about how sophisticated they are when they are really garbage when you get to know them…. she prolly goes to the feminist movements and talks about how bad all guys are too, but you girls really need to stop **tching cause yall pretty much own us no joke, your guy will bend over backwards for you unless you chose the @sshole, so…. if your complaining about how unfair it is to be a girl and then you go to your guy, and ignore him for the most part, make him buy you useless *hit keep testing him and other bull$h1t then quit talkin, cause if i knew you i’d backhand you… yea i dont believe in hitting girls and I would beat my friends @ss if i knew he did, but if yall can beat us all the time, we can slap you :) sorry but I don’t play *itch for anybody

    I don’t expect this to be a liked comment or even liked but I’m sayin what I say and I aint scared to say it even though i know some smart@ss h0e is gonna talk $#it cuz i dont know you so you know i wont slap you

  36. Tiamari says:

    In my humble opinion… the angle could really have something to do with the fact that most faces look better at a certain angle. It also creates the illusion of a modelling pic, as opposed to a mug shot.

    Apart from that, it’s fairly simple… if a guy looks unintelligent, boring, desperate, or ugly on his pic, he is unlikely to hear from me. Interesting pictures (any angle) makes people look interesting. Nobody wants to date someone that looks like a looser/stalker/idiot.

    And lastly… we all have preferences. Me, I go for the dark look – blondes just don’t do it for me – no matter how sweet they may be, and regardless of whether or not they do a “blue steel” on the picture.

    Enough said. It was a really interesting article. Thanks!

  37. JeffP says:

    Hey, you do us a service by researching and checking things out, and just as in the rest of our lives, there’s always at least one *A-Hole in every group who has to find something small to moan about. I found it an interesting read, and I may or may not agree in my own head with everything you said, but then I’m thinking….hmmmm he backs it up statistically…..I guess I’m wrong……maybe I should take it for face value instead of writing jibberish to whine about.

    Thanks for the info

  38. SUNNY says:


  39. nonsense says:

    what ever happened with meeting that good girl or guy from school, neighborhood, or library, why are we now so much into what a person looks like, so superficial, so immature, so mundane, what happened to wanting a person who is honest, responsible, hard working, admirable, trustworthy, thoughtful, etc. etc…? looks are deceiving, and i wouldn’t trust no one posting any pictures of themselves on any internet dating website…

  40. lala says:

    I’m a newbie.. I set up my profile last week on a dating site… I added 6 pictures, different activities, different looks. I’m 54 years old and receive at least 4 emails a day. Guys from their 20’s to 70’s are writing to me. Apparently everyone who wrote thought I had a hilarious profile. I just wrote about how imperfect I was and how everyone else on the site was perfect. They seemed to find me funny… humor worked. Some guys even thought I took a class on profile writing when it was just me being a smart ass…
    Did anyone do research on the effectiveness of humor?

  41. lovehuskies says:

    i hate the ab shot and, please guys, LOOK AT THE CAMERA :)

  42. M says:

    Isn’t it interesting that we (men and women) do pretty much the same thing on an internet dating site that we do in a club, except at 10MB/sec? The only advantage to an internet site is not having to pay for over-priced drinks. Just an observation.

  43. drew says:

    I would never message someone without a face in their pic. And also if the pic is like 90 miles from their face.

    It’s not that I’m really superficial, but if a woman is particularly unattractive it doesn’t matter how stimulating she is otherwise, it isn’t going to work out.

    And when I see no face, I assume the worst and move on.

    Also, boobs don’t affect me per se. But if everything else is nice, it’s a nice extra.

  44. gugu says:

    I’ll have to get some fucking animals. And play my accordion to them, while trying hard not to look at the camera to see how long I still have before it flashes.

    You discussed in surpriseful detail how the presence of the subject’s face is immaterial, yet when the face is visible, there are big differences of how smile vs. non-smile, looking away or looking at the looker, etc., effect the desirability of the object.

    What you did not discuss AT ALL was whether I should smile or else throw kisses when my face is not in the viewfinder.

  45. Jade Simpson says:

    I hate when people use a celebrities photo and think we are all dumb enough to believe them.

  46. Deb says:

    Hahaha, I’d really like to see research to determine if there is any significant relationship between the use (or misuse) of proper grammar and spelling and how that affects one’s contacts on here. I personally determine a lot by an individual’s writing style and their spelling and grammar, as it seems to reflect intelligence level. Hmmm… Now I wonder if there are many people on here who really care about that. Survey says?

  47. Phil says:

    but something tells me all these ingredients aren’t like stoner-food.
    flexing shirtless, while I paint a portrait of my dog, smiling as I see the camera out of the corner of my eye… that does not sound like a winner to me. But even so, I couldn’t try it, because I don’t know how to paint like that, although if I remember this article, I’ll just face it so only I can see what it is I’d be not painting.
    anyway, I don’t think it’s very likely you can combine ab shots with pet shots, unless you’re at the beach and you gotta make sure it’s before you or the dog gets ‘ive-been-swimming-hair’. Idk, it’s not too weird to play frisbee in the summer either. Hrm. Here I was all set cast out the statistical peanut butter and jelly of our times, when a whole world of over-the-top possible profile pictures dawns on me.
    Why don’t I just ride a horse shirtless? That seems like it never fails for men who are not fat.

  48. mscupidtoo says:

    A profile photo paints a thousand words and 97%accurately expressed in opinions and suggestions. Personally, seeing headless with abs is totally virtual ego bloating which is one major turn-off. How else would someone show the only thing he or she got aside from being headless,lol!

  49. Joan says:

    I can tell you that I WILL NOT be responding to any males who, in their profile photo, are: holding an AK; posed beside a dead and bloody deer, or any other dead “game”; have a Confederate flag on wall, hat, etc.; are holding weed in one hand and a “fan of Benjamins” in the other; don excessive bling; even slightly show abs; wax their brows; sport a faux tan; attempt to “rock” spikey hair with highlighted tips; wear anything Ed Hardy that is two sizes too small; lastly, DOING THE DUCK LIP THING.

  50. Mike says:

    Why do so many females seem to have photos of them in the middle of a bunch of friends, you can’t even tell who it is supposed to be a picture of?