Even when people are genuinely trying to select a profile picture for a social network or to serve for an ID, they’re apparently a poor judge of their own looks. Strangers were found to select a picture that matches a person appearance better, according to a new research carried out by a team at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

passport photo shoot

A passport photo shoot. Image: Flickr

When traveling or off with official business, it is often necessary to verify your identity by the local authorities. The most common and fastest method is facial identification. A border pass officer will quickly compare your face with the picture in your passport. If you had a bad hair day when you took your passport shot, you might be in for an uncomfortable stint in the border office or in the airport terminal until authorities use other methods to confirm your identity. It can be cumbersome to say the least and this happens more often than we might think. That might be because we’re quite poor at judging what picture best resembles our own face.

This was officially proved by  Dr David White and colleagues at UNSW. They asked  130 undergraduate students to download 10 pics from their facebook account and rank them by likeness. Each then participated in a minute long video camera session where their face was recorded. Two still photos were also taken. One photo  while the undergrads took a neutral pose, and another while smiling.

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Then a separate group of sixteen students who did not know the undergrads from the first study watched the minute long webcam video and were asked to rank the facebook photos in order of resemblance to the person seen in the video. They mostly ordered the photos in a manner entirely different from the persons actually in the photos.

In another experiment, 73 participants were asked to perform an online face matching test. Surprisingly, the images selected by the strangers led to more accurate results in the face matching test. In fact, self-selected images were matched seven per cent less accurately compared to other-selected images, the authors report in the British Journal of Psychology.

Perhaps most remarkably, the best results in the matching test were recorded when the photos showed the persons smiling. This might be something local authorities might want to consider. Currently, if you go to take your passport or drivers licence taken, you’ll be asked not to smile because it’s thought smiling distorts normal facial features. This could be a myth.

But why are strangers better at picking better pictures of us than ourselves? Well, it could be that we’re just so used to seeing our own face each day that we don’t think too much of it. The memory and information of our face is so deeply engraved that it’s difficult to judge which picture best reflects our true complexion.

“It seems counter-intuitive that strangers who saw the photo of someone’s face for less than a minute were more reliable at judging likeness. However, although we live with our own face day-to-day, it appears that knowledge of one’s own appearance comes at a cost. Existing memory representations interfere with our ability to choose images that are good representations or faithfully depict our current appearance,” Dr. White said.

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