warm, competent, sexy: 2 thought-provoking results from the author photo survey

So here’s something you should maybe never do: put a picture of yourself on the internet and ask for comments. You know. Like I did. (Sorry, the original poll is gone.)

I got off easy, considering how I set myself up. As I’ve said in the past, the folks who read my blog are remarkably gentle with each other and with me, so there was no creepiness or assholeness or douchiness in the comments, for which I am deeply grateful.

About 300 people responded to the survey, and the results are… interesting. I didn’t collect any demographic information, so I don’t know whether men or women or older or younger people responded differently. What I can tell you about the results is that it comes down to “Authoritative” versus “Approachable” – or, in the language universal dimensions of social cognition, “competent” and “warm.”

Quick primer: “warmth” is about whether someone appears to intend you harm or help. This is a basic “approach” or “avoid” dimension. And “competence” is about a person’s perceived ability to achieve their intention, for good or ill.

So, I asked you to rate how “authoritative” or  ”approachable” each photo seemed, and you replied on a 5-point scale from “Not at all” to “Absolutely!”

Here again are the two photos:


Now see if you can guess which image is which on this graph:


So thought-provoking result #1 is: it turns out about 12% of respondents – who, I am assuming, are mostly people who know me, read my blog, or otherwise are generally are already connected with my work – might never perceive me as “looking authoritative,” particularly, compared with just 4% who aren’t inclined to perceive me as “looking approachable.” And that’s in a highly receptive audience.

Which maybe shouldn’t surprise me. I’m a feminine-looking female, and I’m not yet middle aged and I look younger than I am, plus I have blue hair (it’s usually much bluer than it is in the photos). As one comment in the survey put it:

It occurred to me that I was judging “authoritative” not as from my view but from the world’s, and then realized that the world sees no woman as authoritative. So I said “absolutely” because fuck that shit


Whoever you are: I love you.

And in the comments, it was clear that people were experiencing the warmth/competence divide. They said things like:

Sadly, being caught in a happy moment looks less authoritative.


I like this one, but I find the more serious non-wind-blown photo to be more professional looking and authoritative and therefore better as an author photo.


This one is probably a little more authoritative and trustworthy than the second photo. But like the second photo MUCH better. Your first photo needs a bigger smile. I love the joy and enthusiasm of the second photo.

As these commenters noticed, warmth and competence interfere with each other: people who are perceived as warmer are also perceived as less competent, and vice versa. People rated the first, more standard “headshoty” photo as balanced between warmth and competence… but the balance meant it wasn’t VERY warm OR competent. It was just pretty good at both. Whereas the second photo was warmth, warmth, and more warmth, with hardly anybody rating it as looking competent.

Which leaves us with the question: which is more important? Looking competent or looking warm?

And to that I have no clear answer.


And then, to confuse things, there was this, though-provoking result #2 in the survey comments:

Both pictures don’t strike me as intended to be “sexy”. I suppose it’s hard to pull off authoritative and sexy at the same time, but given the subject, I’d look for at least a little sexy in authoritative.


I… Would anyone offer that comment to a dude? That he didn’t look sexy enough to be an authority on sex?

And how weird is it that appearing sexually appealing is conflated with “being an expert on sex”?

For most women professionals, looking sexy undermines their perceived competence, so this is an interesting little puzzle to me. Like, no one expects Naomi Klein to look sexy as part of looking authoritative. Do they?

Bearing in mind the evidence that perceived “sexiness” increase a woman’s credibility in men but not in women, here’s what I think this thought process looks like:

“Would I want to have sex with her?” the het male asks himself, looking at a photo of a person who wrote a book about sex.

If yes, then he trusts that she is a person who knows things about sex that he would like to learn.

If no, then he senses that she is not a person who knows things about sex that he would like to learn.

It isn’t true that all female “sexperts” conform to traditional expectations of  ”sexy.” For example, there are the ones who look like grandmothers – Dr Ruth and Sue Johanson. But the younger ones tend to look like Miss America. Don’t get me wrong: I know many of the women I just linked to, and they’re gigantically smart, knowledgeable, compassionate, amazing people. They also just happen to be symmetrical and able to present themselves, through hair and makeup and apparel and expression, as conforming to the cultural standard of sexual appealingness.

I don’t know what to conclude about any of this. It’s going to take me some time to understand how my appearance is related to my efficacy, and whether or not it’s something I’m willing or able to use in order to be more effective.

In the end, we found a photo that was somewhere-in-between – a little warmer than the authoritative one, a little more competent than the approachable one:

Oh and hey, for the record, Jon Crispin was the photographer. He was very patient with me.