What your Facebook picture says about your cultural background

What kind of profile picture do you have on Facebook? Is it a close-up shot of your lovely face with little background visible? Or is it zoomed out, so that you appear against a wider context? The answer, according to a new study by psychologists in the USA, likely depends in part on your cultural ancestry.

Chih-Mao Huang and Denise Park first analysed 200 Facebook profiles of users based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Half the users in Taiwan were actually US citizens, and half those in Illinois were Taiwanese. Regardless of their current location, there was a significant association between cultural background and style of Facebook picture. Facebook users originally hailing from Taiwan were more likely to have a zoomed-out picture in which they were seen against a background context. Users from the USA, by contrast, were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the frame.

There was a trend for the students' to adapt to their adopted culture because current location was also associated with picture style (e.g. Taiwanese based in the USA had pictures more focused on their faces, as compared with Taiwanese based in Taiwan), but this effect wasn't statistically significant.

A second study was similar but involved 312 Facebook users at three American universities (University of California, San Diego; University of Texas at Austin; and University of California-Berkekely) and three Asian universities (Chinese University of Hong Kong; National University of Singapore; and National Taiwan University). These locations were selected to be comparable in terms of having a warm climate. Again, Facebook users in America tended to have a profile picture in which their face filled up more of the frame; Asian users, by contrast, showed more background context in their pictures. Americans were also less likely Asians to display other parts of their body, besides their face. And the Americans' smile intensity tended to be greater.

"We believe this may be the first demonstration that culture influences self-presentation on Facebook, the most popular worldwide online social network site," the researchers said.

The new findings complement an existing literature showing cultural associations with attentional and aesthetic habits. For example, a 2008 study (pdf) showed that portrait photographs taken by East Asians tended to show more background (and that participants from that culture preferred pictures of that style), whilst those taken by Westerners were more focused on the target's face (and Americans said they preferred that style). Similarly, eye-movement research has shown that Westerners looking at a scene tend to focus more on embedded central objects, whilst Chinese look more often at the background.

"Our findings further extend previous evidence of systematic cultural differences in the offline world to cyberspace, supporting the extended real-life hypothesis," the researchers said, "which suggests that individuals express and communicate their self-representation at online social network sites as a product of extended social cognitions and behaviours."
 _________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Huang, C., and Park, D. (2012). Cultural influences on Facebook photographs. International Journal of Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/00207594.2011.649285

Previously on the Research Digest: Asian Americans and European Americans differ in how they see themselves in the world.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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