Wharton's Jonah Berger discusses his research on posed photos vs. candid photos.

In our increasingly digital society, a friend or colleague’s first impression of you is just as likely to come from a profile photo on a social media site as it is from an in-person meeting. While it’s tempting to display only images where every hair is in place, new research from Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger finds that people are more attracted to authenticity than perfection. In, “A Candid Advantage? The Social Benefits of Candid Photos,” Berger and co-author Alixandra Barasch of New York University compare audience reactions to posed vs. candid photos in online profiles. When observers viewed profiles that displayed unvarnished images — or those that seemed to be unvarnished — they reported feeling more connected to those people and more interested in getting to know them. Berger recently spoke to Knowledge at Wharton about the research and its implications for how individuals and companies present themselves.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: What inspired this study? Was it a selfie or something else?

Jonah Berger: There are so many photos today that are taken out there. If you think about how we form impressions of other people, it used to be meeting them face to face. But that’s not really the case anymore. Most of how we form those first impressions of people — whether it’s people we’re hiring for a job, whether it’s potential friends, whether it’s even people we’re getting to know on a different level — is from their online profiles. We were interested in how these photos affect how people see you. Could something as subtle as whether that photo is candid or posed impact the way that people see you, whether they want to be friends with you and whether they want to hire you?

Knowledge at Wharton: When you were doing the study, you simulated what we might go through when we’re meeting someone on social media, through a friend request, or possibly when we’re on Tinder trying to decide if we want to date someone. You found some interesting things about what people thought about candid versus posed. Can you tell us about that?

Berger: We looked at thousands of different posts from websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, dating web sites like OKCupid, group websites, meet-up websites. Across all those platforms we found something very much the same, which is that most photos that people post are posed photos. They are photos of them looking at the camera, smiling, looking a particular way, presenting themselves in a varnished way to others. They are taking 10 photos and picking the best one that makes them look good to their peers.

What’s interesting is that would suggest that that photo makes you look the best; that by sharing those posed photos, you’re not only looking good, but you’re helping others get to know you and making them want to interact with you. But we found something that wasn’t entirely in line with that. If you ask posters which photo they would choose, which one they would post, which one they think other people would like more, people have this intuition that posed photos are better. And that is because as a photo taker, you think a lot about how you come off to others. You think by controlling the lighting and your smile, that you’re presenting your best self.

But as an observer, someone who’s looking at those photos, what we found was quite surprising. Candid photos, where someone isn’t looking directly at the camera or looks like they’re not posing, actually lead to better impressions. People are more interested in getting to know someone, more interested in dating them and potentially more interested in being friends with them if that person has a candid rather than posed photo. The reason why is somewhat surprising, but simple once you hear it. It’s all about authenticity or whether someone is genuine. We think that by posting posed photos, people are getting the best version of us. But what we don’t realize is that when people see that best version, they don’t really have a good sense of who we are. Sure, there are a lot of photos online of people looking perfect and smiling. But that doesn’t really tell us much about them because they all look the same. It’s everyone presenting their best self, not their real self.

“People have this intuition that posed photos are better. You think by controlling the lighting and your smile, that you’re presenting your best self.”

As observers, we want to know, “What’s your real self? If I’m going to be friends with you, if I’m going to date you, I don’t want to know what you look like on your best day. I want to know what you look like most of the time.” They prefer those candid photos because they’re more genuine and seen as more authentic. I think that has a lot of implications, both for us posting photos but also for companies and organizations as well.

Knowledge at Wharton: After reading your study, I looked through my Facebook feed and realized almost all of my profile pictures are posed photos. Social media often is the entrée to someone meeting you. These days, even recruiters or hiring managers are looking at social media. What does this research mean for this personal identity management that we’re all having to do online these days?

Berger: What I would say is we should think twice about just posting a posed photo. It depends a little bit on the situation we’re appealing to. Dating may be a little bit different than getting a job, and it depends on what we’re hiring someone for. But we often underestimate the benefit of a candid photo. Candids can have an advantage over posed photos in many situations.

For those situations, we need to think about not just whether we like the way we look but whether the people who will see us like the way that we look. Because that’s the question, right? Are we posting those photos for ourselves? Probably not. We’re posting them online, so we want other people to see them. How will it affect the judgments that others make? And will those judgments lead to the outcomes we’re hoping for?

Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve got to think less about how perfect we look and more about what we are trying to project, and whether a posed photo is really the best way to do this?

Berger:  Yeah, I like the words “varnished” and “unvarnished” because I think they’re quite accurate. The way that social media today is, everyone takes dozens of photos and picks the best one. They only post things that are really positive that they’ve done. They ignore all the negative things that happened. They project this lifestyle, almost like this brand of themselves. In some ways, that’s good and other people might think that you’re great. But once everybody does that, people recognize that you’re not actually what you’re posting. That’s just a small sample of who you are. By getting this unvarnished perspective, because we don’t get it all the time and because it gives us some insight into who that person really is, we value that. Your unvarnished photo is going to be different than my unvarnished photo, so we really feel like we’ve learned something more about someone. That genuineness or that authenticity makes us want to learn more.

“We often underestimate the benefit of a candid photo.”

Knowledge at Wharton: Candid photos are harder to get. You can’t take a candid selfie, at least not yet. Does this mean we need to be working harder to collect candid photos of ourselves? You also note in the research that something that appears to be candid might not really be candid.

Berger: First of all, you can pose a candid photo. If you look on LinkedIn or on Facebook or some of these other sites, you do see profiles where someone’s staring off into the distance. But you wonder whether they set up a camera to take that photo. What’s really important on the observer side is not just whether the photo is candid or not, but whether they believe that it was candid or not. If you take a perfectly posed candid photo where someone can tell that you’re faking it, it’s not going to have the impact. The question is not whether you’re looking at the camera or not, it’s whether it seems like it’s really you. As long as you can take a posed photo that looks candid, it’s going to have the same impact as a candid one. Whether that’s having our friends take photos where we’re not really looking or setting up the camera to take a photo after a delay when we’re not looking, either of those can have a positive benefit.

Knowledge at Wharton: How can businesses apply this research? I think about a company’s “about us” page with perfectly coiffed pictures of all of the senior management. Should companies change this?

Berger: I’d be careful to say, “Everyone should take a candid photo all the time.” We did collect some data saying, for example, when you’re looking for a job, we could think about both how genuine someone seems and how authentic they are, but also how competent they are. How serious they are. If I’m hiring someone to do a very serious job, I don’t just want to know that they’re authentic. I want to know that they’re good at their job and highly competent. I want to know that they’re thinking appropriately about what the situation is.

If you’re applying for a very serious role, someone’s going to expect you to walk in with a tie on, for example. I remember my own experience in college, doing a job interview with a consulting firm. I didn’t get a second-round interview. I asked, “Why didn’t I get a second round? Would you mind helping me with some feedback?” They said, “Well, a lot of people were all pretty good. You weren’t wearing a tie, so we decided not to pick you.” I appreciated the honesty of that feedback.

“We think about online as a little bit like the wild, wild West. We don’t have a great understanding with it. Things are always changing.”

If you’re an individual looking for a very serious role and want to be taken seriously, maybe think about a posed photo some of the time. If you’re in advertising, if you’re a marketing professional, if you’re in a more creative role, if you’re trying to stand out from the crowd, all of those are cases where being candid might be more valuable.

Knowledge at Wharton: I would think that if you’re going to use a candid, you should take something that’s relevant to the business position. If I’m trying to apply for a job that is serious, probably the photo of me moshing at a concert is not the best one. Maybe I should use the photo of me mountain climbing.

Berger:  Yes, I think you do see a number of firms that have done this, where they’re not just taking stock images. They are doing something more interesting. It’s also true that because they’re a little less usual, they get more attention. I spend a lot more time looking at those pages when the images are interesting and different rather than just the person smiling at the camera, wearing a tie. That could be one of a thousand other people.

Knowledge at Wharton:  Are there implications in this research for advertising? Should companies be thinking differently about how they’re picking the images they use in their ads?

Berger: As a side note, there was a great piece of research recently looking at how stock images have changed over time, particularly of women. The most popular stock image of women, say, 10 years ago was a woman at a spa. Now, it’s a woman mountain climbing. The way these stock images are used really change our perceptions of the world.

In terms of how this relates to brands and marketing and companies and organizations, there’s a big parallel. It’s not always that we’re taking photos of ourselves, but it’s about authenticity. I do a lot of work in social media, a lot of work on word of mouth. I have a book on the topic called Contagious: Why Things Catch On. What we forget about is that we can’t just post ads online and assume that people will share them. I’ve worked with lots of brands, big companies and organizations that have 10 million followers on Twitter. They look at the number of retweets that their posts get, and it gets 10 or 12 or 15. Why is no one sharing it? Because they took their regular ad, posted it online and assumed people would want to share it. People don’t want to share an ad. They don’t want to share something that looks completely varnished. They want to share something that looks authentic, that looks real.

“People don’t want to share something that looks completely varnished. They want to share something that looks authentic.”

For example, Coke has done a great job of building these sorts of situations where people hug a Coke machine and get a free soda, or other stuff comes out of a machine, like a sandwich or pizza, and everyone has a great time. They post these online and people share them because they’re emotional and they’re real. As we take the learning away from this, we need to think about, are we coming across in an authentic way? Particularly on social media, particularly online. It’s not enough to be varnished. We have to be authentic. No one’s going to share something if it seems like a perfectly boxed thing that we’ve created. That’s paid media; it’s not going to work online. To get that earned media to work for us, we have to be authentic, and we have to understand why people share.

Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of brands are turning towards user-generated content. I know someone who posted a picture of herself with this unicorn-shaped pool raft, and the company asked if they could use it on Instagram because she was a real customer.

Berger: Oh, that’s great. That says a number of things. One, we can do it more cheaply. We might not have to be an over-produced ad. We can use you to generate content and share it in our own post. Two, it might not make sense to spend all that money. Sometimes a lower production value might actually increase sharing online. It doesn’t need to look perfect. It can look more like found footage or something along those lines. That can often be better and make it seem real, making people want to share it.

Knowledge at Wharton: What’s next for this research?

Berger: We’re doing a lot of work on word of mouth and understanding why people share things, whether they’re sharing photos or online content, whether they’re sharing things about themselves or about brands. We think about online as a little bit like the wild, wild West. We don’t have a great understanding with it. Things are always changing. Whether it’s Vine or Instagram, things are coming and going. To me, it’s less about the technology and more about the psychology. People have been sharing things about themselves forever. Maybe it wasn’t photos online. Maybe it was something different. Maybe it wasn’t talking about brands, it was talking about them offline. But understanding that consumer and why people talk and share is just as, if not more, important than understanding the technology they use.