What Your Facebook Photo Tells About You

Your Facebook photo may not be revealing, but it could be showing more than you think -- specifically, where you come from. A new study on online self-representation (which photo of yourself you choose to show the world) found that Americans are more likely to focus on themselves in photographs, while East Asians are more likely to put themselves into the context of the world around them. 

The study, published in the International Journal of Psychology, compared Facebook profile photos of American undergraduate students to East Asian undergrads. By measuring the ratio of faces to the overall size of the photos, psychologists tried to compare cultural influences. The results indicate that Americans tend to put themselves in the forefront, apparently reflecting a cultural attitude that is “individualistic, independent, and self-based.” The East Asian students were more inclined to choose pictures in which they were a part of a contextual scene, representing cultures in which individuals see themselves as part of larger whole.

The results were statistically significant, but maybe not as telling as the researchers represent. Their work covers two experiments. The first, a study of 200 Facebook profiles, found an average face-to-photo ratio of 8.8 percent for East Asian students, all from Taiwan, and 12.7 percent for the Americans. For the second experiment the researchers gathered new data, expanding to 312 students from six different universities, two schools in California, and one school each in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Texas. 

The broader experiment examined more factors, including the intensity of smiles. (Americans smiled more.) For the face-to-photo ratio, the difference increased slightly. The East Asian ratios ranged from 6.4 to 9.4 percent, with an average ratio of 7.5 percent from the students. The American students had an average ratio of 12.4 percent, with a range from 11.8 to 13.4 percent. 

The researchers' methods raise a few questions to my mind. After a Facebook search by hometown, current location and school, the authors narrowed down the subjects. They rejected low-resolution images and any profiles featuring “non-human” photos – any images of animals, scenery, animations, and, presumably, celebrities. As the researchers point out, this is one place where we can control our first impressions absolutely. And, while necessary for the focus of this particular study, the exclusion of non-personal photos prevents a broader look at how people identify themselves pictorially. Do more Americans show themselves as their pets or favorite superstars? If East Asians prefer to put themselves into context, are they more likely to show a landscape? Or does everyone just love to display vacation photos?

Still, the results do support the hypothesis that ingrained cultural ideals would transfer from the real world to online identities. 

A correction to this article was made on 7 June, 2012.

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