Study reveals which Zoom backgrounds make you look the most competent and trustworthy

More than 160 participants rated their first impression based on gender, facial expressions and virtual backgrounds

A video background that includes plants was rated highly for trustworthiness and competency. Getty
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A new study from Durham University in the UK has revealed which backgrounds will make you appear more reliable on video calls.

Recently published in the journal PLOS One, research found that having a background that includes either plants or a bookcase were rated as the most competent and trustworthy.

The study examined the effects of video backgrounds, facial expressions and gender on first impressions for competence and trustworthiness within a video call context.

The research team used 72 photos of 36 adults, each pictured with both a happy and a neutral facial expression. Each adult was then placed against one of six virtual backgrounds: a normal living room, blurred living room, a bookcase, with plants, a blank wall and a novelty background – the study used a walrus in front of an iceberg, in this case.

Each photo was also framed with a Zoom border to completely simulate the experience of a typical video call. The study then had 167 participants, between ages 19 and 68, complete an online questionnaire about how trustworthy and competent they felt the people in each image appeared to be.

Overwhelmingly, the individuals who were in front of backgrounds with plants and bookcase were consistently rated higher than those against those with home and novelty backgrounds.

Paddy Ross, the research lead and associate professor of psychology at Durham University, told CNN that a carefully selected video call background “seems to be the new business suit".

Ross also added that he was also “surprised with how robust” the responses of the participants were to the photos.

“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.

“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.”

The study also found that aside from virtual backgrounds, an individual’s demeanour during a video call also makes a strong first impression.

Happy, smiling faces were perceived as more competent and trustworthy than neutral faces regardless of the backdrop used and females were judged as more trustworthy, while males were viewed as more competent.

The team behind the study plan to do further research through simulated video calls and plan to ask participants about other insights they have beyond first impressions.

Updated: September 29, 2023, 9:07 AM