Sitting in front of a bookcase with a smile on your face is the best way to appear trustworthy and competent on Zoom, scientists have found.
Experts at the University of Durham found that having a plant in the background also boosts first impressions.
In contrast, choosing a novelty background or even a living room may make users appear more frivolous and less competent, the research showed.
Experts asked 167 adults to view still images that looked as if they had been captured during a video conference.
Each image showed the face of a man or woman, either smiling or with a neutral expression, against a background featuring a living space, a blurred living space, houseplants, a bookcase, a blank wall, or a novelty image of a walrus on an iceberg.
Statistical analysis showed that participants rated faces against the houseplant and bookcase backgrounds as being more trustworthy and competent than faces with other backgrounds.
Faces against a living space or novelty image were rated as the least competent or trustworthy.
Participants tended to perceive happy faces as more trustworthy and competent than neutral faces. They also perceived female faces as more trustworthy and competent overall.
Paddy Ross who led the research said: “Background context can affect people’s ratings of things like threat, so we speculated that the same thing may be happening here.
“Just as dressing a certain way can lead people to make personality trait judgments about you, we think that for instance the presence of plants can make you look responsible (you are capable of keeping plants alive) and thus more competent.
“Similarly with the bookcase, you have spent time and money acquiring these books to better yourself in some way. Leading to increases in ratings of trust and competence.
“Your background is framing you on video conferencing software, if it looks like you haven’t given it much thought/don’t care about it (with a messy bedroom for instance), it could be that just like the way you dress, people are using this information to help form a first impression of you.”
Previous research has shown that first impressions can influence everything from choosing romantic partners to influencing criminal sentencing decisions.
Since the pandemic many business and social meetings have moved online, but little attention has been paid to how backgrounds might be shaping the impressions of users.
The new research showed it would be better to blur the background if it shows a living area.
The team said that video-conference users – particularly men – concerned with making a good impression, should smile and choose a background with houseplants or a bookcase.
Writing in the journal Plos One, the authors concluded: “This research shows how our Zoom backgrounds can affect the first impressions we make. If you want to come across as trustworthy and competent there are some backgrounds you should use and some you should definitely avoid.”