Human sexuality is an odd-thing. What we find attractive isn’t necessarily an indicator of a healthy relationship, and vice versa. With the exploding popularity of online dating tools like match.com and tinder, people pay more attention than ever to how they present themselves physically. It’s understandable, with so much competition out there, to want to “enhance” the look of your profile picture – some extra makeup here, some favorable lighting there – to better your odds. However, according to a study by University of Connecticut researchers, going overboard in pursuit of looking good may be detrimental to women.
The study involved 300 men and women between the ages of 17 and 36. Each participant was shown a series of photos of the opposite gender, and asked to rate each photo based on three characteristics: Attractiveness, trustworthiness and dating desirability. What participants weren’t explicitly told, however, was that the photo sets included two pictures of each person – one in natural light with few cosmetic enhancements, and one in professional lighting with substantial alterations to hair styling and makeup.
Perhaps not surprisingly, men and women responded in very different ways. Women universally preferred men when their pictures were enhanced, ranking them higher in all three categories. If you’re a man looking to enter the online dating world, it would do you well to throw in a few professional head shots. Or, at the very least, comb your hair and find some decent lighting.
Believe it or not, men were the more nuanced of the two groups. The enhanced photos of women were rated as more attractive, but also as less trustworthy. Quizzically, those photos still rated higher in desirability, despite the trustworthiness hit. Apparently, men are so easily swayed by looks that even when it’s obvious that a woman has put a lot of work into altering her appearance, they’re still more willing to roll the dice and go for a date if they approve of the result.
“This finding suggests that even when men suspect that a woman may not look exactly like she does in her profile picture, they are willing to take the risk and pursue a date with her,” said researcher Roy McGloin. “In our sample, attraction seems to be more important than trust.”
As for why the findings suggest that selling out for a quality profile photo is a bad idea, consider the long-term implications. The researchers say the results highlight the concept of “catfishing,” wherein people intentionally misrepresent themselves in order to trick others into a fake relationship. In that realm, standing out is paramount, and thus the deception is expected. However, that’s not the way the vast majority of online daters use these services. Most people are looking for a mate in real life, not to just score date invitations online. To whatever degree someone can enhance their looks in a photo, it can only increase the eventual disappointment (and perhaps hurt and anger) on the part of the date who, by virtue of having eyeballs, can surmise that they’re not getting what was advertised.
Because online services are only a conduit through which people meet (and not the ends themselves), it’s always best to present the best version of yourself, honestly.