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Peacocks fan their tail feathers to appear larger and more dominant; alpha giraffes strut with their heads held high; and submissive chimpanzees crouch low when met by dominant members of their tribe. Today, a new study has revealed, humans just change the angle of their forward-facing camera lenses.
Researchers at Florida State University have published the results of a series of experiments that explored how men and women take selfies, comparing them to evolutionary behaviors of other animals. Though perhaps no surprise to anyone who has spent time on social media over the last decade, women photographed themselves most frequently from above, an angle found to make them look younger and thinner to members of the opposite sex; men opted for shooting from below, which accentuated dominance to other men.
Inspired by the “MySpace angle,” in which teenage girls of the early aughts famously photographed themselves from above, psychologist Anastasia Makhanova, who led the study, said she wanted to determine what was driving this pattern of behavior and to see whether it could be understood from an evolutionary perspective.
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“I realized that probably it’s not just because,” she said. “There’s probably something that’s beneficial from taking the photo from that angle.” By changing the angle at which they were photographed, Makhanova found that individuals were changing their relative position to those observing them online.
“That really struck a parallel to a lot of animals’ competition over resources,” she said. If you flip on Planet Earth, she explained, you’ll often see a pair of wild animals size each other up, adjusting their relative positions—some making an effort to look larger, like a bird fluffing its feathers, or others crouching low. Humans in her study exhibited similar patterns of behavior.
In the first study, Makhanova and her team scoured the camera angles of men’s and women’s profile pictures across an undisclosed online dating site. (All subjects of the study were heterosexual because of what she said is lacking available research on non-heterosexual norms of attractiveness.) Women were found to photograph themselves from above, at a downward angle, with greater frequency than any other angle.
Men showed no pattern on the dating site; they did, however, when the team looked at LinkedIn. Across the professional networking site, while women still preferred shots from above, men overwhelmingly posted photographs taken at an upward angle. The audience and context here is important, Makhanova found: An upward angle, which accentuates the jawline and subject’s overall size, commands dominance to male competition. She said this mirrors the evolutionary behaviors of male animals who try to appear larger, older, or flaunt their dominance and status when confronting other males.
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It’s also a strategy that’s been used throughout human history: Dictators like Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler were routinely captured from below to dramatize their authority; in Hollywood, directors like Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock shot from below to give characters power and dominance; and historically, Marvel superheroes have been drawn from below.
But when it comes to selfies, were men and women picturing themselves this way on purpose? To find out, Makhanova’s team handed cameras to 250 university students and asked them to take a selfie, each time indicating whether a member of the same sex, or the opposite sex, would see it. “Women were more likely to take the photos from above when they were for men,” she said, “and men were more likely to take photos from below when they were for men.”
Finally, Makhanova tested whether these changes in camera angles actually made a difference when viewed by their target group. She asked men and women to view a number of photos—shot from above, below, or straight-on—and rate the subject’s height, age, and overall attractiveness.
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“Women were perceived as more attractive when they were photographed from above,” she said, “and that’s particularly because they were perceived as younger and thinner from those angles.” In one sample, of people in their twenties, women were rated on average two years younger when shot from above, and, using a seven-point attractiveness scale, went from 4.8 to 5.4.
The angle makes the forehead and eyes appear relatively larger to the face, like a child, Makhanova said, qualities that have traditionally been associated with female allure. Notably, the downward angle was found to have little to do with cleavage, as only roughly 10 percent of the women’s photographs were physically revealing in this way.
For men, perceived attractiveness wasn’t affected by camera angle. Dominance, however, was. When viewing photographs shot from below, male evaluators looking at photographs of other men found them to be more dominant. “Men were only doing this for other men, and incidentally only men were picking up on this as a cue,” Makhanova said.
Interestingly, the downward angles that women preferred to be portrayed in were not seen to affect their relative perceived dominance or submissiveness by either women or men. “They definitely weren’t trying to play up a helplessness element,” Makhanova said.
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, via Flickr.
Ultimately, Makhanova says, men and women arrived at these tactics through a combination of conscious and unconscious thought processes to put their best foot forward online. She concedes that the evolutionary factors at play in the photos are reinforced by the frequency with which individuals see others posing in this way.
“It is a cultural norm,” she said.
However, she added that the biological component was the primary factor at play. “It’s not like we gave cavemen cameras,” she quipped. “Manipulating one’s relative position is something that animals often do, and so we’re trying to take a more modern spin to it.” She said the only explanation for these poses catching on initially is that they did communicate dominance or attractiveness in a universal way. Now, humans just have far more advanced means to broadcast or even manipulate these traits.
“About one in three marriages start online,” she said. “It makes looking at these kinds of decisions and impressions that people form from their profiles really important.” As Makhanova suggests, our impressions can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Even if our impressions are erroneous,” she said, “we have a tendency to act toward others in a way that confirms our impressions.” If someone forms a strong first impression from a photograph—like your Facebook or Tinder profile picture—it’s more likely, she says, that those impressions will persist in real life.