Psychology Study on Selfies Swipes Left on Tinder's Basic Premise

In the world of online dating, swiping left is so much more than a dismissal of a potential beau’s looks. Often, the ruthless “Nope” is also judgment cast on a person’s personality, which users presume to glean from a handful of photos. This assumption is supported by previous psychology research suggesting that you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover. A new Tinder-relevant study, however, casts doubt on those findings: Turns out that selfies, in particular, don’t tell us much about a person’s personality at all.

In the study, written up in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the University of Maribor research team attempted to relate the characteristics of people’s selfies with the “Big Five” personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism — as well as the Dark Triad trait narcissism and a trait called “femininity-masculinity.” Scientists are already mining our online behavior data for aspects of users’ personalities, they reasoned, so why not try and find out what the symbolic selfie can tell us? To them, the selfie is “an index showing the activity of its author, and its meaning might be interpreted as ‘see me showing you me,’” they write, quoting a 2015 article on selfies in the International Journal of Communication. Or, you know, it might not.

What's in a selfie? Not much, apparently. 

While their study examined the selfie from many scientific perspectives, it was the third part — which focused on the “selfie as impression” — that revealed some interesting insights into online dating. To do this, the researchers analyzed 128 selfies — taken by participants — for visual characteristics integral to the selfie, like tilt of the head, the part of the face in the spotlight, whether or not there was eye contact, social distance, and mood. Then, they asked the selfie-takers to complete a battery of personality tests, which in turn provided data that they could compare with the selfie characteristics. They assumed they’d be able to find a relationship — say, selfies that involved intense eye contact correlated with owners who scored high on narcissism. But they found that these relationships didn’t exist at all.

“To say, ok, according to this element of the picture we can surely predict that the author of the selfie is high on extraversion, different dimensions of narcissism or femininity,” study author Bojan Musil, Ph.D. said in an interview with PsyPost, is just not supported by the data. “Selfies are probably just ordinary artifacts of contemporary societies,” he continued, explaining that they don’t faithfully represent the personality of the owner. The judgments we make about selfies on Tinder and other dating apps, according to this study, are truly all about looks; if we think we’re swiping left on a person because they look like they have a terrible personality, then we are sadly mistaken.

Of course, this paper comes with its caveats. It relied largely on the self-reported answers of participants, and it focused only on a majority-female group of Slovenian adults between the ages of 19 and 28. Each person only sent in one selfie — one that they’d selected independently. This selfie selection process, Musil points out, plays a big role in the message the selfie-taker ultimately wants to convey; in the paper, he writes that the “editorial process is a crucial part of selfie making.” This process may reveal more insights about a selfie-taker’s personality than the selfie itself. More studies are needed.

Musil’s study, while small, reminds us not to count Tinder selfies as definitive proof of a future beau’s personality, despite what other researchers have observed about the relationship between personality and physical appearance. Of course, if you’re the kind of Tinder user that unapologetically swipes purely on the basis of looks alone, then you can ignore Musil’s findings: Because Tinder is at its most “evilly satisfying” when users appraise attractiveness in a flash, you’ll probably have more fun disregarding personality altogether, anyway.

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