The Science Behind Picking the Perfect LinkedIn Head Shot

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This story appears in the March 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Do you agonize over your LinkedIn picture? Do you dread the moment someone asks for a professional photo? There’s good reason: That picture really does matter. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that different pictures of the same person produce radically different impressions. And according to one of the researchers, Alexander Todorov, we judge new faces online after only 100 milliseconds -- about how long it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings once.

Related: First Impressions Count Just as Much Online

It gets worse: Those snap judgments are often correct! Researcher Sarah Sloat had people guess someone’s personality traits based on their Facebook profile picture. Participants accurately guessed an average of nine out of 10 traits. That means our pictures give off all kinds of signals about us -- our personality, our competence and our likability. Picking the right one is key -- and it may not be what you expect.

To understand this, let’s take a look at three photos Entrepreneur’s editor in chief, Jason Feifer, has used on social media. Take a guess -- which of these, according to research, makes for the best LinkedIn photo? 

1. You might think it’s this one. It’s not. Look at how close his shoulders are to his head. When we get nervous, we turtle our shoulders up toward our ears, which makes us look small and anxious. You’re much better off with a picture that makes you look like a winner -- relaxed shoulders and your head held high.

2. Feifer thought this one made him look lively. But he inadvertently signaled something else: The lines in the upper part of his forehead and raised lids make him look ever so slightly fearful -- not an emotion you want to suggest to others. Watch out for forehead wrinkles and overly wide eyes in your photos.

Related: 5 Steps to Build Your Personal Brand

3. Winner! It’s clear and professional, and most important, it contains a squinch. That’s the word for when you slightly engage the muscles around your eyes. People like seeing squinches, because the gesture activates the same muscles used in a broad smile, which reminds us of genuine happiness

But let’s be real: A squinch or relaxed shoulders alone don’t make for a winning photo. That’s why I’m fascinated by PhotoFeeler, a crowdsourced photo-ranking website. You submit a photo, and then the masses say how likable, influential and competent you seem. I like to think of myself as a woman who puts science above my own ego, so I submitted three squinching, relaxed photos and identified them as business (not dating!) photos. Here’s what 40 anonymous judges said:

Interesting, right? I was delighted that the image showing the most skin did not win and relieved that the most “posed” photo lost. I thought the middle photo was the most boring, but I see why it won: It’s the one in which I’m trying the least to impress. I now use it for almost everything, including this column.

Related: 8 Types of Photos You Should Never Use on Your LinkedIn Profile

In addition to making me feel good, PhotoFeeler offers insight for everyone. In one site-run study, 60,000 participants ranked 800 profile pictures. Among the findings: Full-body shots make someone seem less competent but more likable. (Takeaway: fine for Facebook, but not for LinkedIn.) And sunglasses, glare or shadows across a face in a photo decrease both likability and competence. (If you don’t have a head shot taken in a studio, use one where you’re directly facing a light.)

And the big takeaway: Second opinions are useful! So before you pick your photo, get one -- if not from the internet masses, then at least a few truth-telling friends. 

Edition: March 2017

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