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The Zoom backgrounds that make you look more – or less – trustworthy, according to experts

To inspire the most trust in those you interact with during video meetings, ensure you have plants or books strategically positioned behind you. That’s according to new research, which looks at how people’s choice of Zoom background could be helping or hindering them.

Researchers from the United Kingdom’s Durham University set out to see how the way we interact online impacts first impressions and the judgments we form. Their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Plos One.

The team used 72 photos of 36 adults from a photo database – each one was pictured with both a happy and a neutral expression. These were then superimposed on various virtual backgrounds and framed with a Zoom border “to simulate the experience of a video conference call.”

The six backgrounds selected for the study were categorized as: home (living room), blurred home, bookcase, plants, blank wall and novelty – in this case a walrus in front of an iceberg.

A cohort of 167 participants, aged between 19 and 68, were then asked to complete an online questionnaire about how trustworthy and how competent the people in each image appeared to be.

“Faces presented on the plants and bookcase background were consistently rated as the most trustworthy and most competent, contrasting the home and novelty backgrounds which received lower trustworthiness and competence ratings,” the authors of the study said.

“We tested over 160 people and we found that the background of plants and bookcases led to higher trust and competency responses. And we found that the living room and novelty backgrounds were the worst,” he said.

‘The new business suit’

Analyzing the findings, he said: “I think people know that’s how other people work. Not everyone has a home office but yet there’s something that still seems a little unserious [about a home or novelty background].

“It’s like you haven’t put any thought into how you are presenting yourself and so this seems less competent than someone… who seems able to keep plants alive, or someone with a bookcase who looks like they are trying to better themselves.”

Ross said that a carefully selected video call background “seems to be the new business suit.”

“Whereas for a job interview you used to have to think about what you were wearing and how you would look,” he said, adding that the focus is now on the environment of your backdrop.

Another important factor, however, was the person’s demeanor in each shot.

“We found that generally smiling makes you look more trustworthy and competent, no matter what the background,” he said.

Overall, women inspired more trust, the study found.

“Female faces were also rated as more trustworthy and more competent, regardless of the background they were using,” the researchers wrote.

The team now plans to carry out further research using actual simulated video calls, rather than still images.

Ross added: “We are creating actual recorded Zoom videos of people at the start of a job interview and what we’re planning to do is change the background and ask people not just about first impressions, but bigger decisions too.

“If it makes a difference to people’s hiring decisions then we could really help people to give themselves the best chance of getting a job.”

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