Other people judge our likeness better than we do

We have all experienced the situation when we see a photograph of ourselves and are appalled. Surely we can’t look as bad as that? When we see ourselves in the mirror we think we look much better so conclude that the photograph must be introducing distortions or just happened to catch us at the wrong moment. Other people who look at the photograph rarely seem to share our opinion that it is not a good likeness but we can dismiss that by saying that of course they do not know us as well as we know ourselves.

But it turns out that we are not good judges of our own looks and that other people may be much better judges.

In the study an initial group of over 130 undergraduate students downloaded 10 suitable photos of themselves from Facebook and ranked them in order of the best to worst likeness. These participants took part in a minute long web cam video of their face and two still photos were also taken (one smiling, one neutral).

Sixteen participants who did not know the students watched the webcam videos and afterwards ranked the Facebook photos in order of resemblance to the person they had seen in the video. A further 73 participants were then recruited to complete an online face matching test.

Results of the study show that the unfamiliar participants chose a different set of ‘good likeness’ images compared to those that people had selected of themselves. Surprisingly, the images selected by strangers also led to better performance on the online face matching test. The size of the advantage in other-selection over self-selection was quite large – self-selected images were matched seven per cent less accurately compared to other-selected images.

Dr White said: “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.

When the poet Robert Burn wrote those famous lines

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion

he was probably not hoping for the ability to see ourselves physically as well as others do. But it seems like that would be a good gift to have too.


  1. Trickster Goddess says

    One thing that limits our perception of our likeness is that we mostly ever see ourselves only from a limited range of angles and when we do look at ourselves it is usually an intentional act where all of our attention is focused on examining our faces. Also we never get to look at ourselves without ourselves staring right back at us.

  2. polishsalami says

    A big problem with analyzing your own features is that you are entirely dependent on the quality of the reflective surface you are using. I would be interesting if people who saw themselves in virtual 3D all the time (via video footage) had a better idea of themselves.

  3. mnb0 says

    “When we see ourselves in the mirror we think we look much better so conclude that the photograph must be introducing distortions.”
    This is actually correct. Photographs are distorted indeed. Human faces don’t have perfect reflexional symmetry, so what we see on photographs is not exactly the same as what we see in mirrors. And we are used to the latter.

  4. tkreacher says

    I’m always surprised that so few people consider what is the main confounding issue in photo’s vs what-I-think-I-look-like… the image most people look at when they see themselves is in the mirror, which is… reversed.

    So, when someone is looking to a mirror for most of the time they are identifying their features, if, for example, your right eyebrow slightly arches higher than the left, your left ear is ever so slightly lower than your right, your nose is almost imperceptibly slanted to the left -- when you look at a photograph (which is not reversed and is how everyone else see’s you all day every day), all of these minor (or large) differences are *opposite*.

    This makes for a jarring difference between what you see every day in the mirror, and what you consider to be your likeness and what everyone else observes when they look at you, and what appears in photographs. So, you’re looking at a photo and everything is off to the opposite side, what are minor differences are skewed to the opposite of what you consider to be normal, and you can look “terrible” to yourself as a result. Whereas other people seeing your photo are seeing exactly what they see every time they look at you, the slight slant of this eyebrow, the slight difference between this ear and that are not even perceptible to them.

    I don’t know if I’ve explained myself well, but this is a huge reason many people have a disconnect between what they see in a mirror and what they see in photographs, and I would assume this plays a role here.

  5. Mano Singham says


    While what you say is true, what also surprises me is that I often look very stern and forbidding in photographs, and I don’t think of myself as being that way, at least not usually.

  6. tkreacher says

    Mano Singham #5

    Ha! I find that to be the case for myself as well, though mine is usually more purposeful.

    On the other hand though, the photo you’re using on your comments certainly isn’t stern and forbidding! Rather cheerful, I would say.

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