Having books in your Zoom background makes you seem more trustworthy

When people were asked to judge the trustworthiness and competence of video callers with various backgrounds, appearing in front of plants or books came out top

Cook et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

People give a better first impression on Zoom calls if they have books or plants behind them, rather than a living room or a novelty background – such as a walrus in front of an iceberg.

“With videoconferencing, most of what everyone else sees – the majority of your screen – is taken up with your background,” says Paddy Ross at Durham University in the UK. “So you no longer have to just worry about how you look and how you’re presenting yourself to other people, but also what you have all around you.”

Ross and his colleagues collected 72 photos of 36 white adults, made up of 18 men and 18 women who were either smiling or had a neutral expression, taken from a human faces photo database for researchers.

They superimposed these faces onto six different backgrounds: a living room, a blurred living room, a bookcase, plants lined up across a cupboard, a blank wall and a walrus in front of an iceberg. They then framed these images to look like screenshots during a Zoom call.

Next, the researchers asked 167 people to rank how trustworthy and competent they thought the people in the 72 images were, on a scale of 1 to 7.

The most favourable first impressions were given to the people in front of the bookcase or plants, while the worst were in front of the living room or walrus. The blank wall and blurred living room fell in between.

The team also found that among the photos with the unblurred living room background, the women were more likely to be judged as being just as competent as they were with the plant and bookcase backgrounds, compared with when the men had these backgrounds. More research is needed to understand why men give poorer first impressions in some settings, says Ross.

But regardless of whether the caller was a man or a woman, smiling evoked more competence and trustworthiness than having a neutral expression. This is probably because smiling suggests self-confidence, says Ross.

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