If you want to put your best face forward on social media, you might want to get someone else to choose your profile picture.

New research has found the profile pictures people pick for themselves on social networks are less flattering than a stranger would choose for them.

According to a University of New South Wales study, people have an "inbuilt bias" about how they think they look in photographs, which interferes with their ability to pick images which get the best first impression from others.

With about 1.8 billion people worldwide having an active Facebook account, the research has potentially huge personal and professional implications - with around a third of employers understood to search online for information about job candidates as well as online profiles having a significant impact on relationships and online dating.

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"Selecting profile pictures for social, romantic and professional sites is a common task in the digital age, and choosing the right image can be critical," said Dr David White, the study's first author and psychologist at UNSW.

"We make inferences about an individual's character and personality within a split second of seeing a photograph of their face. These first impressions can influence important decisions such as whether someone wants to befriend you, date you or employ you.

"Our study shows for the first time that people select more flattering profile images for complete strangers than they do for themselves. This surprising result has clear practical implications. If you want to put your best face forward, get someone else to choose your picture."

Involving more than 600 research subjects and a range of experiments, in one trial, participants were asked to indicate the likelihood that images of their own face, and images of a stranger's face, would be used as profile pictures on social sites like Facebook, dating pages like Match.com and also a professional site, such as LinkedIn.

Other people recruited via the internet then assessed these photos for social traits such as attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, competence and confidence.

The study showed that people were able to select images of themselves that accentuated the desired characteristic for a site, such as attractiveness for a dating site and professionalism for a work site.

However, the self-selected images were rated by the internet recruits as giving less favourable first impressions than the images chosen by strangers.

"One explanation could be that we perceive ourselves more positively than others do, in general. This may interfere with our ability to discriminate when trying to select the specific photo that gives the most positive impression," White said.