One of the first things I do when I join a new social network is to upload a profile picture.

But which profile picture should I choose? Is there a best one?

Profile pictures have always been a bit of a gray area for me inasmuch as I post a picture I think looks good without knowing its actual effect on my audience.

Is there such thing as a perfect, best profile picture?

Interestingly, there’s been some rather great research about the different elements of profile pictures that have the biggest impact on an audience. The psychology and science behind a perfect profile picture leaves some great guidelines on how to influence your audience and possibly gain more followers.

I’m happy to share what we’ve found about the perfect profile picture, based on the best science, research, and psychology out there.

perfect profile pics

The 7 Elements of the Best Profile Pictures

In 40 milliseconds, we’re able to draw conclusions about people based on a photo.

That’s less than one-half of one-tenth of a second. Wow!

This finding from Psychological Science underscores the vital importance of a profile picture and the effect it has on making an impression.

There’s been a host of research done on the various elements of a profile picture—how to look, how to not look, what to wear, whether to smile. The specifics of these studies are outlined below.

Here’s an overview of all the best practices for coming up with the best profile picture on social media:

  1. Smile with teeth
  2. Dark-colored suits, light colored buttondowns
  3. Jawline with a shadow
  4. Head-and-shoulders, or head-to-waist photo
  5. Squinch
  6. Asymmetrical composition
  7. Unobstructed eyes

Worth trying out:

  • Facing the camera (or not)
  • Bright background

And things to avoid:

  • Hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Hair, glare, and shadows over the eyes
  • Laughing smile
  • Sexiness

Here’s a bit more about the science, research, and psychology behind these recommendations.

How to appear approachable, helpful, and attractive

Researchers at the Department of Psychology at University of York analyzed 1,000 images of faces in order to find the specific facial tics and features that help make a good first impression.

They came up with 65 different features that could affect one’s perceptions, things like “nose curve” and “cheekbone position” and “head area.” For each of the 65 features, they noted the effect of each on the following three distinct dimensions:

  1. Approachability – “Does this person want to help or harm me?”
  2. Dominance – “Can this person help or harm me?”
  3. Youthful-attractiveness – “Might this person be a good romantic partner or a rival?”

(It’s amazing the level of detail the researchers found. They created cartoon-like faces based on every possible variation.)

Here were the findings:

data chart

(How to read this chart: App stands for Approachability, Yo-Att stands for Youthful-attractiveness, and Dom stands for Dominance. A positive number means a positive correlation, and a negative number means a negative correlation.)

Overall, the researchers noted that the most meaningful factors in each of the three dimensions seemed to group around common traits.

For approachability, the mouth was key.

  • Mouth area
  • Mouth height
  • Mouth width
  • Mouth gap
  • Bottom lip curve

This is consistent with previous research that smiling is a key component to approachability.

For youthful-attractiveness, the eyes were key.

  • Eye area
  • Iris area
  • Eye height
  • Eye width

This is consistent with previous research that relatively large eyes link to a youthful appearance.

For dominance:

  • Eyebrow height
  • Cheek gradient
  • Eye gradient
  • Skin saturation
  • Skin value variation

These all link to stereotypically masculine appearance.

In the final report, the researchers put together composite faces that show the range in each of the three dimensions—e.g., from least approachable to most approachable, left-to-right. Can you notice the variations in the aforementioned facial features from one face to the next?

twitter profiles

How to appear likable, competent, and influential

PhotoFeeler, a neat tool that lets you get feedback on your profile pictures via feedback from actual people who vote on your picture, shared their learnings from over 60,000 ratings of competence, likability, and influence that were left on photos submitted to the PhotoFeeler app.

Here’s a quick overview of what they learned:

  • Don’t block your eyes. Sunglasses drop likeability score, and hair, glare, and shadows drop competence and influence.
  • Define your jawline. A shadow line that outlines the jaw all the way around helps with likability, competence, and influence.
  • Show your teeth when you smile. A closed mouth smile has a small increase likability. A laughing smile increases likability even more, but you lose ground in competence and influence. The best smile, according to PhotoFeeler, is a smile with teeth. This leads to gains across the board in likability (nearly twice that of a closed-mouth smile), competence, and influence.
  • Try formal dress. Dark-colored suits and light-colored buttondowns (with ties, for men) had the greatest effect on competency and influence out of all other factors.
  • Head and shoulders (or head to waist). Close-ups on just headshots brought scores down, as did full body shots.
  • Try a squinch. A squinch is a slight squint. The idea behind it is that wide eyes look fearful, vulnerable, and uncertain. Slightly squinted eyes may come across as comfortable and confident. PhotoFeeler found that squinching eyes has an increase across the board in competence, likability, and influence.

(The photo on the left is the normal, wide-eyed headshot. The one on the right is a squinch.)

peter-hurleys-squinch

What avatars can teach us about profile pictures

Researcher Katrina Fong of Toronto’s York University conducted a study on 2D avatars, coming up with some neat observations that could extrapolate to profile pictures.

Participants were more interested in being friends with people whose avatars had

  • open eyes
  • oval face
  • smiling expression
  • brown hair

A few characteristics that turned participants away—going so far as to signal traits like intorversion, neuroticism, and disagreeableness—included

  • neutral or negative expression
  • black or short hair
  • hat or sunglasses

Should your profile picture be alluring?

Former Oregon State psychologist Elizabeth Daniels polled 118 teenage girls and young adult women about their impressions of a 20-year-old woman’s Facebook profile. Half of the participants were shown a sexy profile picture; the other half saw a more conservative image.

The results: The conservative image won out in all three categories.

  • Attractiveness: “I think she is pretty”
  • Social: “I think she could be a friend of mine”
  • Competence: “I have confidence in her ability to get a job done”

Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Times had a great takeaway from the study:

It demonstrates the degree to which, even among footloose digital natives, edgy photos are seen as a sign that the subject isn’t credible or competent.

Which matters more: Profile pic or bio?

Dating website OkCupid is well-known for its data analysis. Last year, they released some interesting details on the influence of profile pictures compared to text descriptions. How much of each matter for a person’s overall impression of your profile?

OkCupid hid their profile text for a sample of users, showing just the profile picture. This gave the site two sets of data to analyze: one for “the picture and the text together” and one for “the picture alone.”

Their takeaway:

Essentially, the text is less than 10% of what people think of you.

profile-text-experiment

Guy Kawasaki’s 4 keys to profile pictures

Canva’s Guy Kawasaki, an early evangelist for all things tech and social media, has found four factors to be key for a profile picture.

  1. Faces only. No family, friends, dogs, logos, etc.
  2. Asymmetrical. Use the Rule of Thirds to create your profile picture
  3. Face the light. The source of light should come in front of you.
  4. At least 600 pixels wide. There are varying shapes and sizes of profile pictures on social media. A 600-pixel image will look great no matter where it’s viewed.

The asymmetrical advice in particular has a lot of solid psychology and design history behind it.

The Rule of Thirds is a method for composing the elements of an image to be visually pleasing and to be in sync with the way our eyes prefer to scan an image. Photographers know the Rule of Thirds well; it is a foundational piece of photography.

The way it works is by dividing an image into a grid of thirds both horizontally and vertically. Basically, put a tic-tac-toe board on an image.

rule-of-thirds

The tic-tac-toe board creates intersections of lines, and according to Rule of Thirds, these intersections are where the eye is most likely to be drawn.

The design lesson here is to place your key elements along these intersections. Avoid placing a key element right in the center.

Blogger, author, and speaker Rebekah Radice does this to great effect with her profile picture.

rebekahradice

To face the camera or not to face the camera

Another study from OkCupid looked at the profile pictures of over 7,100 users and noted which effects brought the most contacts. One of the most interesting takeaways here was the effect of looking at the camera vs. looking off-camera.

For a woman’s profile picture, the greatest effects were noticed when looking at the camera.

For a man’s profile picture, the greatest effect came when looking away from the camera.

women_smiling

men_smiling

What eye-tracking studies say

“You look where they look.”

This title from a Usable Word blog post provides a great synopsis for the research on eye-tracking studies.

We follow the eyes of the people we see on screen. Looking directly into the camera can help make a direct connection with someone. Looking to the left or right will help guide the reader’s eyes in that direction (toward a “Follow” button maybe?)

KISSmetrics has done a great job of explaining a bit about this reasearch:

Human beings have a natural tendency to follow the gaze of others, and we have been coached since birth to follow arrows directing us to where we should be looking/going.

And this picture helps put it into great perspective:

8-baby-face-eye-tracking

Try a bright, orange background

Orbit Media dug up this gem from Rand Fishkin of Moz: Test different background colors for your photos.

Brightly colored backgrounds are Rand’s recommendation. For his personal profiles, he found that orange worked best. (Rand has since changed to a green background.)

randfishkin

Summary

What have you found to work best for your profile picture?

The recommendations here cover all sorts of research, science, and psychology. They may be great jumping off points for research of your own. If you’re interested in trying something new with your profile picture, consider trying images where you’re

  • Smiling
  • Squinching
  • Asymmetrical
  • Head-to-shoulders
  • Head-&-torso
  • Facing the camera

And feel free to report what works best! If you’d like to share any possibilities for profile pictures, it’d be great to see them and hear your thoughts in the comments.

Image sources: Pablo, The Noun Project, UnSplash, OkCupid, KISSmetrics, PhotoFeeler

Looking for a better way to share on social media?

Schedule, publish & analyze your posts across the top social networks, all in one place.

Get started for free
Written by Kevan Lee

Director of marketing at Buffer, the social media publishing tool for brands, agencies, and marketers. We’ve got a new podcast! 🍟

  • Post a few possible profile picture on https://www.photofeeler.com/ and let the crowd decide.

  • Cheryl

    Can someone explain how you can squinch AND smile with teeth at the same time? I can’t make it happen… without feeling a bit creepy.

    • Haha I got the best mental picture from this comment 😛 I don’t think both are a requirement to have an awesome profile picture. Looking at the examples from the article, both the “Squinch” example and Rand’s shot are both smiling with closed mouths.

      I think if you practice in the mirror, you might find a good way of combining both. Take a few shots and put them on photofeeler.com to see if they get a good response! 🙂

      Just my opinion: If I had to choose between to two when it comes to women’s pictures, I’d choose the open mouth smile. Business or personal, it just seems friendlier to me.

      There are tons of smart influential women with open smiles in their profile photos on LinkedIn. I’d definitely look there for some examples too! 🙂

    • Look towards a setting sun …. Like I was in this profile photo.

      Wayne
      Luvsiesous

  • Advert Lines

    That “Rand Fishkin” got the best tash on Twitter without a doubt.

    Good post, I like the girls should look into the camera and men just off.

    Thank you Kev, smashed it with this post. #GoodWork

  • Eric Ngo

    Interesting read on the science of profile pictures. Great work!

  • Excellent article here Kevan, thanks for sharing all of the data that researchers gathered, too! I can’t wait to put these tips to the test to see what works the next time I play around with my profile pictures.

    Personally, I prefer it when a person (man or woman) is making eye contact in a photo. I’ve often noticed that similar photos can be completely transformed once the subject locks their gaze with the lens. More often than not I feel I’m gaining more insight about a person’s personality when eye contact is being made in real life, and enjoy it just as much in photos.

    Here’s a fun website I came across recently where you can upload a photo of yours, and other people will score your photo for likeability, competence, and your perceived level of influence.

    https://www.photofeeler.com/

    Members vote on photos, and after 10 votes, your own photo is submitted for a round of scoring. People can also leaves notes with tips on photos too to help each other out.

    Thanks again for sharing, Kevin! Always a pleasure to read the Buffer Blog 🙂
    Amanda

  • Terri L Maurer

    Egads, Kevan! It’s tough enough to find a picture that WE like of ourselves – now we have to be scientific about it. Seriously, good information to have available when we are making those critical selections to represent us online.

  • Great post as always! Updating my profile picture was already on my to-do list, now it’s going on to my immediate-to-do list! When you refer to clothing, I’m curious about people who have blogs that are aimed at more casual niches. For instance, I blog about Waldorf homeschooling, a very small niche indeed… I think any sort of suit or collar shirt would be a turn off to my readers. Or for someone who blogs about gardening or splatter painting or…? We’re people who want to appear likeable, knowledgeable, and approachable, but for whom a business look would be contrary to what we blog about. So should we just stick to dark clothing, but ignore the professional look (in my case, it goes even more extreme as Waldorf teachers are supposed to dress in an archetypical nurturing fashion).

  • Awesome post! Only feedback: no tips on smizing!? http://www.wikihow.com/Smize 🙂

    • Haha thanks for posting that Caroline, I’m going to have to try practicing smizing 😛

      • Guest

        ☛☛☛ 86$ PER HOUℛ@ai35:

        Going
        Here you Can
        Find Out,,,,

        ►►► http://WorkOnlineTWork.com/get/profitable

        ❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀❀

      • hope none

        No, your picture is fine! You are giving out to much info though. Leave that to LinkedIn.

    • I’m a smizing pro 😛

  • John Chapman

    Interesting. No mention of making your profile picture unique and memorable though. I don’t actually look much like mine (I hope) but it’s easy to pick out from all those toothy squinched images.

  • This is great. I do it all but the off-center tip. That’s hard in a selfie. I’ll have something to practice now. 😀

  • I am certainly not an example to follow – but I love my avatar !

  • Great tips here. And I love the science behind some of this stuff. I would only add that your profile picture should look like you now. If you changed your hair color, have a completely different hair style, or the picture was taken more than a decade ago, try using something a little more current. I once met someone in person that I followed on social media that looked nothing like any of her profile pics. I almost thought it wasn’t her (it was but she looked very different).

    • hope none

      Yea, but very few people look like there picture. I used to work for a photographer. I was his assistant. He always had me take a Polaroid of the person. Beautiful models left the studio in tears. Some of the best models looked like little, pale boys.

  • jason malouin

    Well, this is all very cool. EXCEPT… The info that smiles with teeth rate better… This physically pains me. I have specialised in Headshots and Portraits for years. It’s the one thing that I specifically avoid.

    I don’t have the research to back it up, but I once heard that we our ‘croc’ brains are programmed to recognise a toothy smile as safe… And then we are free to move past it. Our brains seek challenge or incongruence… So I make sure to avoid the pearly whites and retain some tension… some mystery…

    http://jasonmalouin.com/headshots-2/

    Thanks for a great article!

  • The rule of thirds actually doesn’t work that well with square pictures. With a square photo, it is often best to place the subject (squarely) in the middle of the photo.

    If you want to have the subject off-center, it’s often better to have them in the middle of the first or third part of the square.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. The advice about the rule of thirds only really works well for landscape and portraits.

  • No info on skin colour? Note I didn’t say skin tone.

    • This is a great one, Khürt! Definitely agree that is a needed addition to this post, this is a great example of how we might be a bit latently biased. I know I’ve read some interesting pieces on this topic from photographers, it would be neat to check it out for a future post.

  • Kevan,

    Thanks!

    Wayne
    Luvsiesous

  • great article and awesome insights.

    When i saw the Rand guy I immediately thought “weak willed clown” though.

  • Wow Kevan, that’s some great research!

    The only thing I’d add is the level of zoom & positioning. It’s a great idea to keep the eye level approximately 1/3rd from the top, with the chin being just below a 1/3 from the bottom – as rough values.

    I got a little obsessive and went into more detail on this here: http://kameelvohra.com/10-tips-to-create-the-perfect-social-media-profile-picture/

  • this is amazing, check out some best Facebook profile pictures collections on http://www.digilogi.org/

  • How bout a bit more on reading that chart?

  • hope none

    Wear big sunglasses! Don’t give them anything. Don’t pose. Don’t try to hard. It’s too bad we have become so self-aware when being photographed. Everything you think is alluring is most likely wrong. In all honestly, most of us are on FB to find the “one”. A big cheezy toothy picture might horrify that special person? Oh, yea, just because you are looking for the perfect person, with the right life; guess what–the guy/girl is not looking for a clone. Why did Arnold sleep with the maid? Good luck–don’t be a follower. Be yourself–you might be suprised how many people are attracted to that slightly neurotic person.

  • Suzan

    Awesome post!
    make free world wide shipping https://suzan-shop.com/

  • Mahendra

    It’s incredible….. i have no words to express my thanks..i never see this sort of helpful site. For more Jobs Perfect Profile

  • sudha

    Your webpage of the blog is truly nice.More over the the content is very productive and extremely profitable.Data you have given is truly extremely beneficial.and continue posting.Thanks Perfect Profile

  • mahendra karnam

    Thanks for sharing great information in your blog. Got to learn new things from your blog regards Perfect Profile

  • theefer

    Now I feel proud about my profile picture. However, one co-worker asked me to connect with them and endorse some of their skills on LinkedIn. However, the profile picture of that Co-Worker is shocking and goes against almost all that is mentioned as good practice in this article. I wonder how impatful could it be it I work for a long distance moving company (http://colonialvanlines.com) and endorse someone else, will the association affect my own reputation in any ways as it could in real life?

  • Dávid Szalai