I Don’t Know What Your Sexy Facebook Profile Picture Says About Your Competency, and Neither Does the University of Oregon
“The Price of Sexy: Viewers’ Perceptions of a Sexualized Versus Nonsexualized Facebook Profile Photograph” coming out of Oregon State University is being published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture. A study called “The Price of Sexy”? Time for a disproportionate amount of media attention!
The researchers showed young women two fictitious profile pictures a girl they pretended was named Amanda. Amanda likes reading Twilight, watching the Notebook, and listening to Lady Gaga. The pages differed only in their profile picture. The photos were borrowed with permission from a real girl. One was allegedly “sexy” (her prom picture). One was “not sexy” (her senior photo). In the “sexy” photo, ‘Amanda’ donned cleavage-bearing red dress with a high slit and a garter belt. In the “not sexy” photo, she wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a scarf.
(This sexy photo is probably not very representative of the typical sexy Facebook photo.)
|Perhaps a more typical “sexy” Facebook picture.
I asked some friends for their sexy Facebook photos for this post and was asked if it counted as a sexy photo if there was an Elvis impersonator in it.
The researchers then asked 58 high school girls (aged 13-18) and 60 women who were not in high school aged 17-25 to rate Amanda on a scale of one to seven in three aspects:
“I think she is pretty.”
“I think she could be a friend of mine.”
“I have confidence in her ability to get a job done.”
‘Boobalicious Amanda’ scored worse than ‘Wearing-a-Scarf Amanda’ on all three.
The researchers conclude, then, that having “sexy photos” causes people to perceive you as looking uglier, being socially undesirable, and being incompetent.
I conclude that you can probably just keep whatever your current Facebook profile picture is.
Why? In psychology, there are two kinds of validity that are crucial when designing a study. One is called internal validity and one is called external validity.
Internal validity essentially means that we’re looking at the things we think we are looking at. If we conclude that “sexy pictures make people think you are incompetent”, the ’cause’ really needs to be “sexiness” and not something else. The easiest way to make this happen is to manipulate a single variable. Unfortunately, “sexiness” is a variable that is really difficult to manipulate, which is why there are a shitload of things that changed between these two pictures. Because so many things changed, there are lots of plausible explanations for the lower scores given to Boobalicious Amanda. Maybe people thought her red dress was ugly. Maybe people with prom pictures as their profile photos seem less mature than people who have a more generic picture. Maybe Wearing-a-Scarf Amanda’s scarf was super stylin’. Because we can probably come up with a gazillion plausible explanations, the study is pretty low in internal validity. A study that was higher in internal validity might have manipulated two photos to be identical save for level of cleavage shown, for example, and used cleavage as a proxy for sexiness.
External validity is the extent to which findings can be generalized to other situations. We know that 13-year-old girls didn’t like Boobalicious Amanda. Does that mean that potential employers (early high schoolers are definitely not potential employers) give a shit about your sexy photo, which likely does not involve a low-cut red dress with a slit and a visible garter belt? They might. But this study says nothing about it. It’s often stated that, in psychology, there is a trade-off between internal and external validity. Sadly, this study was lacking in both departments. A study that was higher in external validity might have used a crapload of different “sexy” or “not sexy” photos that actually reflect the kind of sexy photos people take, and would have used a variety of different profiles. Maybe someone who likes Margaret Atwood and Rilo Kiley would be given more boob-related leeway than someone who likes Twilight and Lady Gaga. Maybe beach bikini sexy photos are seen as less weird than random garters on teenagers, so they are more acceptable sexy photos. (And, if they want to talk about the consequences with anyone who is not a teenage girl, they definitely would have used some non-teenage girls.)
Alternative headline for the media covering this study: High School Girls Really Don’t Like Amanda’s Garter Belt.
Although there is some level of common sense to the idea that you shouldn’t fill your profile with pictures of yourself smoking pot while wearing a thong, we can’t use this study as evidence that you can’t post a picture with a little cleavage.
Researcher Elizabeth Daniels pushes her results even farther, telling ladies to change their profile pictures by not “focus[ing] so heavily on appearance… Focus on who you are as a person and what you do in the world.” The thing is, that’s not what the study shows at all. Wearing-a-Scarf Amanda isn’t rock climbing in her senior photo. She’s just sitting there doing nothing and people thought she was pretty competent and attractive. Daniels is just telling you what she wants your profile picture to be. Moreover, she’s telling you it’s your responsibility to prevent other teens from unfairly judging you because they don’t like your prom picture.
(Luckily, she doesn’t get to pick what goes on your profile.)