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.