#Love & Sex

The Evolutionary Theory of Online Photos

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The Evolutionary Theory of Online Photos

No scientific researcher has spent time analyzing online dating pictures to come up with a unifying theory of what works, but some dating sites are testing their own theories.

One of them, OKCupid, mined its data to categorize and analyze over seven thousand photos to find out if three indicators—facial attitude, how much skin is showing, and environment—bore any relationship to a person’s popularity on the site. What they found jives quite well with much of the science of attraction. From an evolutionary standpoint, men and women are both looking for a mate with a good genetic makeup, and we use physical cues to assess this; all of this means that your online profile photo can be one of the most blatant indicators of your genetic desirability.

To Smile or Not to Smile—It’s All About Hormone Levels
It’s seems obvious that smiling is a surefire way to increase your odds of appealing to the masses, but it turns out it depends on your gender. Why? Because according to the basic tenets of evolutionary theory, women are looking for men who come across as masculine, signaling they have high levels of testosterone, and men are looking for women who can portray estrogen-related attributes. Facial expression is one indicator that can offer hints to genetic makeup. According to the OKCupid analysis, a woman is much more likely to smile, giving off the message that she’s approachable and good at building relationships—traits that can signal she’s a good mate. On the other hand, men are much more likely to appear unsmiling in their pictures. Compared to the 56 percent of women who smile in their profile picture, only about 37 percent of men do. This is likely because men are attempting to achieve a more masculine appearance, which can signal that they have higher testosterone levels. Since women may consider men’s facial attractiveness as a cue for physical strength, a more masculine face is generally considered to be more attractive to them, and a stoic expression may convey more masculinity.

Women are also much more likely than men (9 percent versus 2 percent) to make a “flirty-face”—the pouty-lipped, coy picture that makes for a great come-on. However, there’s one caveat: the site found that flirting away from the camera is the worst thing a woman can do, perhaps because it sets a guy up for the inevitable feeling that “she’s just not that into me.” Flirting into the camera is the ideal picture for women because it overtly shows their interest in potential suitors—crucial in both the animal kingdom and modern world.

For men, not smiling and looking away from the camera is the best (as measured by number of women met per month). The aloofness is part of the allure for women; females typically are the choosier of the species and may seek men who don’t seem to be casting a wide net with an overly flirtatious approach. In contrast, men need a flirty signal in order to know when to make their moves.

A Come-Hither Look Works for Women
The OKCupid folks also look at what they dub the “MySpace Angle”—holding the camera above the head and looking coyly at the camera. OKCupid found that, for women, the MySpace Angle was the best shot, even when they removed from their analysis those angles that overtly gave a boob shot (to exclude the possibility that the MySpace Angle’s popularity is only reflecting a preference for cleavage). The angle often highlights the side of a woman’s neck, and showing the neck is often a sign of submission, in both animal and human interactions.

The success of the photo could also play into the idea of initiation—a coy, flirtatious picture may signal sexual interest. A 2009 study entitled “Social-Sexual Interactions? Meta-Analyses of Sex Differences in Perceptions of Flirtatiousness, Seductiveness, and Promiscuousness” hypothesizes that if a woman initiates a first date, a man will think it’s sexual; they also postulate that men think flirtation is a sign of sexual interest. So the coquettish pictures may work well because they are interpreted to be overtly sexual.

Men, Flaunt Those Muscles
The picture of a guy without a shirt on? It seems so cheesy and blatantly sexual, it’s hard to believe anyone would find that attractive. But they do. The research indicates that, at least for the younger crowd, showing off a nice set of pecs works well. In fact, in terms of women met for every ten attempts, showing off muscles was only second behind photos with an animal for having the highest likelihood of meeting a woman (maybe a furry chest could be a two-fer!). However, this was most pronounced for the nineteen-year-old set; the older the women are (and the oldest measured was thirty-one), the less likely a muscle-bound photo is going to impress.

From an evolutionary standpoint, males who come off as powerful and as leaders of the pack usually land the ladies, be they primates or prima donnas. For younger women and men, physical strength might be an indicator of this, whereas with older daters, leadership and confidence may have less to do with gym time and more to do with life status.

Check out our relationship panel's advice for writing the perfect online profile: