December 10, 2023

People who curate the backdrop of their video calls to appear well-read may be vindicated for their trouble, as research has found that bookshelves or plants make the best impression in an online meeting.

In contrast, anyone wanting to spice things up with a novelty background should think again, as researchers from Durham University’s psychology department have found this makes people less likely to think those they are watching are trustworthy or competent.

The study used more than 160 people to evaluate a selection of images of people against different virtual backgrounds and with a variety of facial expressions.

A living room or a novelty backdrop – in this case a walrus in front of an iceberg – was found to lower perceptions of trust and competency.

Gender also played a role, as women were more likely to score highly for trust and competence, regardless of their backdrop. Having a happy facial expression also improved perceived levels of trust and competence.

The images were made by collecting 72 photos of 18 white men and 18 white women who were either smiling or had a neutral expression. These faces were then superimposed on to six different backgrounds: a living room, a blurred living room, a bookcase, house plants on a cupboard, a blank wall and a walrus in front of an iceberg. They were then framed to look like screenshots during a Zoom call.

Paddy Ross, an associate professor at Durham, said: “In a world where Covid has turned a lot of first impressions online, in making a first impression, you no longer just have to think about how you look, you also have to think about how your background looks.

“What we wanted to know was: do I look more trustworthy or competent if, for instance, I was in front of some plants, or a bookcase, or my living room, or maybe I have a messy living room and I want to blur it, or just a blank wall or a novelty background?”

Ross said of their findings: “Will a background really make you look less trustworthy than someone else who uses a different background? If you can sit in front of a bookcase or some house plants we found those to be the best for ratings of trust and competence in the person. Try to avoid having a novelty background or your living space behind you. We found those to be the worst for ratings of trust and confidence. Blurred backgrounds are OK but if you can show plants or bookcases that’s the best for first impressions for trust and competence.”

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