For millions of its Western users, the picture they choose to illustrate themselves on Facebook is an important decision to make. They know it can be the first impression that anyone in the world receives of them, so they're often deeply conscious of what features are displayed and what flaws are hidden by their chosen image. But despite their careful deliberation the decision may not be a personal or independent one at all -- the choice may be more conditioned by cultural factors than anyone assumes.
According to new research published in the International Journal of Psychology, the Facebook profile pictures of Americans and other Westerners are more likely to zoom-in and focus on the individual's face than those of Facebookers from the more collectivistic and interdependent cultures of East Asia, whose profile pics generally pull-out to include more background features.
These findings echo previous research on cultural factors influencing cognitive preferences: East Asians are more sensitive to contextual information than Westerners, who tend to process focal and discrete attributes of the environment. This is the first evidence that such real-world trends are carried over into the way we present ourselves online.
Remarkably, the research also found that these cultural influences over our self-presentation can shift over time and from place-to-place. So East Asian students at American universities, for example, will be more likely to follow the preferences of their hosts and go for close-ups of their own face in their profile pics.
Worth thinking about next time you're updating your online profile pictures -- for example, on your LinkedIn profile, what impression are you giving of yourself? Are potential employers seeing a close-up of your face, and will they think you're a hands-on, details-oriented person? Or should you consider a wider angle and a more interesting background, presenting you as an expansive 'big picture' employee?
- Chih-Mao Huang, Denise Park. Cultural influences on Facebook photographs. International Journal of Psychology, 2012; 1 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2011.649285
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