What does your profile picture say about you?

Some people change theirs regularly and some people pick one and stick with it, but everyone at some point will spend some time deciding which photo best represents their online social networking profile. A recent study carried out for a BBC science competition looked at the psychology behind why we choose certain images to be our profile pictures.

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The study, carried out by 17-year-old student Nina Jones, was one of four finalist entries for the BBC competition So You Want to Be a Scientist?

Nina confessed an interest in profile photos on the social networking site Facebook, saying she spent a "disproportionate amount of time on Facebook each evening", even looking at the photos of people she didn't know.

She said: "I found it quite interesting the motivations behind certain people's choices. It snowballed into an idea and a hypothesis and then an entry into 'So You Want To Be a Scientist?'."

In order to understand the reasons behind people's profile picture choices, Nina started a Facebook page and gathered 3,500 'friends' who all explained their motives for the photo choices.

She and her mentor Dr Bernie Hogan of Oxford University's Internet Institute found that while people generally wanted to make their profile more attractive to people, they had different ways of going about it.

Men were 50 per cent more likely to have retouched their photos than women and 20 per cent less likely to be smiling in them. However, the chances of smiling were raised by around 35 per cent if the person was in a couple.

Those aged under 30 were twice as likely to have their profile picture taken at a party, and people aged over 30 who were in a couple were most likely to have their child's photo as their profile picture.

Dr Hogan said: "Facebook is becoming one of the de facto ways that we present ourselves to friends and family.

"This photo has become the new calling card, the first point of contact, so (it) is important for understanding what it is we want to show off to each other online."

This might explain why only one per cent of people showed themselves smoking in their profile and only five per cent showed themselves drinking.

Nina and Dr Hogan also discovered a number of more unusual reasons behind profile picture choices such as:

  • "My profile photo is meant to give the impression that I possess a higher degree of gravitas and sophistication than I actually do."
  • "This is a photo of my bike, Doris."
  • "Mine shows my desire to be Grace Jones."
  • "I like ducks. I particularly liked this duck."
Why did you choose your social networking profile picture and what do you think it says about you? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.