Facebook profile pictures provide signals about social status

A Facebook profile picture which shows you enjoying the outdoors provides a strong signal to others that you have a higher level of education, according to research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Zurich.

A paper, published in the journal New media & society, demonstrates that when participants in the research were shown a selection of profile pictures, they were 50 per cent more likely to guess successfully that someone who was depicted in an outdoors setting had a (US) college degree than someone in an indoor environment.

Indeed, people with a college degree were more likely to have outdoors profile pictures.

Overall, people were able to successfully guess whether or not someone in a profile picture had a college degree in 61 per cent of attempts.

Michael V. Reiss, from the University of Zurich, co-author of the paper said: “There are many ways that we signal our social status in the real world. Our research suggests that this translates into the virtual world to some extent, when we used education as a proxy for social status.

“We don’t know what it is about an outdoor setting which signals that someone is more likely to have a college degree. It may be that we make assumptions about the cultural pursuits of people from more educated backgrounds, whether that’s enjoying nature or taking part in sport.”

Participants incorrectly judged that people with professionally taken pictures were more highly educated.

Asians were also more likely to be judged as having a college degree – in line with American stereotypes about Asian Americans being smart and educationally successful. However, this was incorrect in the sample of pictures used.

The research also suggests that if the observer and the person in the profile picture have a similar level of education, the observer was more likely to guess successfully the level of the education of the person depicted.

Milena Tsvetkova, Assistant Professor at LSE and co-author of the paper, said: “We found that someone ‘reading’ someone else is a two way process. The more similar we are, the more information we transmit to one another. You can be revealing different information depending on who’s reading you.”

She cautioned: “People can guess someone’s education from a profile picture better than chance, but they can’t tell if someone’s failed college.”

The researchers collected 224 profile Facebook profile pictures of 112 Facebook users (two pictures per user) and ‘observers’ guessed whether or not the people in the profile pictures had a college degree or not. Both the participants and the people in the pictures were based in the United States.