If you think you look better in person than in photographs, you're probably right.
According to new research by psychologists at the Universities of California and Harvard, most of us succumb to the "frozen face effect" in still photos -- and it's not very flattering.
Here's a brief summary of the study from the excellent British Psychological Society Research Digest:
Robert Post (the study lead) and his colleagues made their findings by asking a handful of participants to rate how "flattering" or "attractive" 20 people looked in two-second video clips and in 1200 static frames taken from those clips. The same faces were consistently rated as more attractive and flattering in the video clips than in the stills.
The research team took pains to figure out the underlying cause of this effect and ran several follow-up experiments. Again from the Digest:
It was found that the same rule held with the videos and stills turned up-side down. The researchers also showed the effect has nothing to do with the videos containing more information: when the "flattering" ratings of an ensemble of multiple stills of a face was compared against ratings of those same stills in a video, once again the video received the more positive ratings. Memory didn't seem to be a factor either -- more or less flattering images weren't remembered any better than average.
So what's going on here? Why should movement impart greater attractiveness than stillness? It may all come down to averages. When we see a still photo, our brain processes the attributes of a face as a "one off" -- quite literally, all the brain has to work with is a snapshot, a moment in time when the face was artificially frozen in place.
When someone is moving, the brain captures multiple images of the face and averages them out across various positions. The more the brain captures, the greater the opportunity for the average of those images to appear appealing. As the Digest article points out, this finding would jibe with previous research suggesting that average faces are judged as more attractive than those with extreme features.
The study was published in the February 2012 issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.