A person’s Facebook picture may reflect more than just their individual preferences, but also their more deeply, rooted, unconscious cultural differences, according to researchers from two studies.

Researchers Chih-Mao Huang and Denise Park first compared Facebook profiles pictures of 200 Facebook profiles of users based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the National Taiwan University in Taipei. 

Half of the participants in Taiwan were actually U.S. citizens and half of those in Illinois were Taiwanese.  Researchers said that regardless of where the participants were at the time, there was a significant association between cultural background and style of profile picture.

Researchers said that Facebook users with a Taiwanese background were more likely to have a picture that was zoomed out in which they were seen against a background context, and American Facebook photographs were more likely to have a close-up picture in which their face filled up more of the picture.

Researchers noted that students were slightly, but not significantly, more likely to adapt to the culture of their host country and adjust their profile photos to the general preferences of where the country where they were currently living.  For example Taiwanese students living in the U.S. had pictures that were more focused on their and American students studying in Taiwan tended to have pictures that contained more background.

The second study involved 312 Facebook users at three American universities (University of California, San Diego; University of Texas at Austin; and University of California-Berkekely) and three Asian universities (Chinese University of Hong Kong; National University of Singapore; and National Taiwan University).

Once again, Facebook users in America were more likely to have a profile picture in which their face filled up more of the frame and Asian users had more background context in their pictures.

American students were also less likely than Asian students to display other parts of the body other than the face, and more likely to have a greater facial expression and smile intensity compared to Asian students.

Researchers said that the latest findings demonstrate clear cultural differences in the focus of attention among East Asian and American Facebook users. 

Previous research found that culture can affect not only language and custom, but also how individuals perceive the world and process information. 

In western cultures, people are conditioned to think of themselves as highly independent individuals, whereas East Asian cultures stress collectivism and interdependence, leading to westerners focusing more on central objects or faces as opposed to their surroundings when looking at a scene or painting portrait.  In contrast, East Asians tend to focus on context as well as objects, like the scenery behind a person.

"We believe these findings relate to a cultural bias to be more individualistic and independent in the U.S. and more communal and interdependent in Asia," said Park in a university news release.

"Facebook constitutes an extended social context in which personal profiles mirror various individual characteristics, private thoughts, and social behaviors," noted Huang in a statement. "As such, the study presents a novel approach to investigate cognition and behaviors across cultures by using Facebook as a data collection platform."

The study was published in the International Journal of Psychology.