A new study looks at the psychology behind our travel decisions – and how often we use photos to make them. A new study looks at the psychology behind our travel decisions – and how often we use photos to make them. A smiling picture is worth a thousand words, and it could be worth more on Airbnb, according to a new study. (Photo: pathdoc/Shutterstock)

The surprising reason we choose one Airbnb over another

A new study looks at the psychology behind our travel decisions – and how often we use photos to make them.

Whether we're hailing an Uber, planning a vacation or choosing a romantic partner, we make big decisions every day based on nothing more than a photograph – and we might not even realize it.

But why? Israeli professors Eyal Ert and Aliza Fleischer set out to answer this question in a new study published in the journal Psychology & Marketing. There, they scoured listings on Airbnb, the popular homeshare marketplace, to determine which visual characteristics draw online shoppers to specific properties or hosts.

In online transactions like Airbnb, photos play an outsize role in a user's decision-making process: Which host looks trustworthy? Who do you think will provide a good experience – one that closely resembles the photos they posted?

A woman sets up a bedroom for tourists in a rental house. The popularity of sites like Airbnb has led to supplemental companies cropping up as well. A woman sets up a bedroom for tourists in a rental house. (Photo: Yamil Lage / AFP/Getty Images)

While studying hosts’ photos, Ert and Fleischer discovered that certain characteristics allow users to trust them more easily, leading to higher revenue for the host.

Visual trustworthiness

The findings of the study inform the importance of using good quality visuals when posting an Airbnb rental, but it goes farther than that, too. The study also established a “visual trustworthiness” pecking order: women are deemed more trustworthy than men, older hosts over younger ones, smiling faces over neutral expressions, and attractive hosts over unattractive ones. As for image characteristics, the pair found that high-quality photographs did better than blurry ones, and photos that showed the host interacting with other people (“a multi-person photo”) did better than solo shots of the host.

For the latter finding, the study authors posit that if a host is seen interacting with friends, it may signal their ability to maintain relationships, akin to a stamp of approval for reliability.

“Visual trustworthiness is king in the Airbnb arena," said Fleischer, of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Environmental Economics and Management. "Hosts who are perceived as trustworthy enjoy higher prices and more frequent rentals than do hosts with less-trustworthy photos."

Winning the Airbnb game

Despite the prevalence of photos in almost every arena of online commerce, many people aren't aware of the impact their images have on customers. In Airbnb's listings, for example, a host couple would fare better if they posted more photos of women, specifically elderly women who are smiling, instead of young men, or poor-quality shots where the host’s face is obstructed.

"Taken together, the results of this study suggest that Airbnb hosts can, and perhaps should, manage their online photographs wisely," Ert and Fleischer wrote. "The way in which hosts choose to present themselves in these photographs is crucial to their perceived trustworthiness and thus to their economic performance."

Professors Aliza Fleischer (left) and Eyal Ert of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Professors Aliza Fleischer (left) and Eyal Ert of Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Photo: Courtesy of Hebrew University)

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The surprising reason we choose one Airbnb over another
Whether we're hailing an Uber, planning a vacation or choosing a romantic partner, we make big decisions every day based on nothing more than a photograph.