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.)

  1. jackalopepatrol

    I love your blog, but University of Oregon and Oregon State University are two different schools!

  2. Amy

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Jasmine

    I love this blog even more today than I did the day before. Thank you for this post.

  4. Amie Whitlock

    Great article. Also, a thousand thumbs up for Margaret Atwood. …And Rilo Kelly, come to think of it.

  5. Jennifer Rowland

    I had written a very well thought out response, however it was long and I had to reverify myself so tl;drw, this study felt more like ” women shouldnt post “sexy” profile pictures because I don’t have the confidence to view myself as sexy, so neither should they.” And just admire my sexy google profile picture.

    P.S. hellocampcomfort.com what are your thoughts on UD’s new Pulp Fiction collection?

  6. thepaintedrogue

    Oh dear, there really does seem to be some heavy personal rubbish behind this from Daniels – I mean, as an academic-in-training, I know the pressure that is placed on you to make your research ‘real-world relevant’ and to have it help people improve their lives somehow, but you can’t just do a rather questionalbly valid ‘study’ and then start tacking on all sorts of half-assed ‘you don’t have to post pictures of your boobs to feel good about yourselves, girls!’ messages onto it (which is kind of what I think is happening here). As you point out, they didn’t get either of the groups most likely to be potential employers (people over 30 generally, and -even today- MEN specifically) to participate in the study, so what your profile picture says about your perceived employability is still an unanswered question. I’d also have liked more subtle, more numerous questions, more different photos of Amanda and a whole bunch of other things to be involved, but whoops! I guess that’s just little old me getting carried away now… 😛

  7. inlitero

    Thank you. Seems to me that if the main goal of your experiment is to validate your personal taste, it’s going to be hard to remain neutral enough to even set up the experiment, let alone draw a conclusion from it.

  8. Bun

    Alright, I’m not a scientist. But whenever I read about another bizarrely ‘pop culture’ related study, I imagine a handful of balding men in lab coats sitting around a 1998 PC, twirling their greying mustaches and looking both perplexed and uncomfortable. There’s probably a gramophone playing some sick 50s beats somewhere in the background. While Hollywood beauties walk outside the window with iPhones in hand, one of the men continues to shake the mouse, moaning: ‘The ball is stuck, does anyone possess some pressurized air to dislodge it?’

  9. ihatenyt.com

    Re: Sexualized Versus Nonsexualized” — this terminology drives me bananas. It seems to assume that human beings (or maybe just women?) are somehow inherently neutral and nonsexual until they go and “sexualize” themselves by tarting themselves up, the silly little things. “Sexy” pictures are apparently those that feature less clothing, even though nudity is closer to humans’ natural state than a modest pantsuit is. This wording suggests that sexuality is always a matter of trying too hard, and that its presence or absence is always determined by an outside observer. The researchers would presumably consider a bikini pic “sexualized,” although Facebooker who posted it may have done so not to get laid, but to remind herself of the great time she had at the beach. Conversely, a woman might feel damn sexy in male drag, but she’d get a pass on looking “sexualized” if her ensemble doesn’t appear hottt by male-gaze standards.

    This is why I think scientists need more training in humanities-style critical thinking. An English Ph.D. might not know how to do regression analysis, but they’d be able to unpack this study’s unquestioned assumptions about what human sexuality is. & those assumptions result in really bad science.

  10. penthesileia

    Totally, totally agree with your last paragraph. A lot of scientists assume that our work is value-free and universal, which is certainly not true (even in the natural and physical sciences – a lot of things are open to interpretation of the individual scientist). I feel like a few graduate-level humanities classes would be beneficial in those PhD programs, just to enhance thinking about the world and about assumptions in a critical way.

  11. penthesileia

    Great post. I’m a social psychologist and the methodology behind this study is so suspect. At the very least she should’ve used comparisons between multiple different young women, not just one “Amanda.” Also, this has very few real-world implications because people you friend on Facebook you’re likely to already know in real life, or at least know through someone, so what they have as a profile picture is irrelevant. Plus the opinions of 13-18 year old girls are probably not similar to the opinions of 25+ employers, which I imagine is who most people who are worried about their profile picture are thinking of.