Picking out the perfect profile picture is hard.

You have to find one where you’re feeling pretty dang attractive–the perfect angle, the perfect lighting, the perfect smile.

And while most of us choose a photo of ourselves sporting a big grin, it raises the question:

Is a smile really the best first impression to give?

It’s definitely a go-to pose for most people, especially on social media. We want to appear happy, friendly and carefree, laughing or smiling with those pearly whites right in view. But is it what people of the opposite sex find attractive when they first see your picture?

The truth is: yes and no.

To Smile… Or Not To Smile

That is the question. And the answer to this question depends on whether you’re a man or woman.

Research has shown that men rate women as more attractive if their first impression is their beautiful, smiling face. But women’s preferences for men are exactly the opposite– they find that the most attractive first impression is when a man is brooding and mysterious (see here: “the smolder“).

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In a study done by Jessica Tracy and Alec Beall, men and women rated the sexual attractiveness of the opposite sex as they viewed pictures of individuals expressing a range of different emotions. These facial expressions varied from happiness (smiling), pride, sadness, moodiness, powerful/confident, etc.

Women found that men who smiled were the least attractive. They even preferred the men who had a moody or shameful facial expression over a smile. The reason? Women rated the men with a brooding, mysterious facial expression the highest because it made their faces look more masculine–something women subconsciously desire and look for when choosing a mate.

An interesting tidbit that Beall noted when analyzing results for this study was that smiling is linked to a lack of dominance, and that “previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression.” Another reason why women tended to prefer men who weren’t smiling.

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Women, on the other hand, had the highest rated first impressions when they were smiling. Men recognize smiling as a flirtation technique (meaning that the woman is available), so this cue attracts them. Men actually rated women who had a powerful and confident expression and body language as the least attractive in this study.

This lack of attraction to dominant women, and women’s strong attraction to dominant men, reflect the traditional and old-fashioned gender norms that have emerged in our Western society and have been reinforced through history.


Women, don’t let this discourage you from being confident, powerful and happy. And men, don’t stop smiling. This study was solely based on first impressions of sexual attraction, not whether these men and women would make amazing partners.

 

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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