What Is… the Psychology Behind Selfies

The psychology behind selfies: taking them isn't harmful, but editing them can be

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week, we’re going to look at the psychology behind selfies.

Smartphones and social media have given rise to the age of the selfie, which was the 2013 Oxford Languages Word of the Year. Back in the not-so-distant day, selfies just weren’t a thing. So why have we become so fixated on selfies, and is it good for us?

It’s hard to generalize the research on this topic, so this post goes more into the details of individual study findings than I normally do with posts in this series. For TL;DR, skip ahead to the last section.

The purpose of selfies

Selfies can serve a variety of different purposes. One of the key ones is self-presentation; they’re a way to selectively present ourselves to others in certain ways to represent who we are or who we would like to be. They’re also a tool for impression management, to try to control how others see us. Additionally, feedback that’s received from peers after posting selfies on social media can serve as a way of reinforcing one’s self-concept.

Differences between genders

Females tend to post more selfies and do more selfie-editing than males do. In a study of American adolescents, females had a higher level of selfie appearance investment (as reflected by the effort put into selecting and editing selfies and worrying about appearance) and concerns over peer feedback compared to males (Nesi et al., 2021).

Females were also more likely to try to pose in the most flattering way and use filters and photo editing apps. They were more likely to get feedback from a friend before posting pictures, and once pictures were posted, they were more likely to ask friends to like or comment on their photos.

Gender differences have also been observed when it comes to the relationship between narcissism and selfie-taking, although research findings on the subject haven’t been consistent. In a study of American males aged 18-40, editing and posting selfies was associated with narcissism, while psychopathy was associated with posting more selfies but not editing them (Fox & Rooney, 2015). In a study of Polish university students, selfie-posting was associated with narcissism, but that relationship was much weaker for females compared to males (Sorokowski et al., 2015).

The effects of taking vs. editing selfies

Objectification theory describes the way that women are socialized, through exposure to sexually objectifying imagery, to internalize an observer view of their bodies as something to be evaluated to determine their worth. Self-objectification leads to habitual body appearance monitoring and increases the risk for eating disorders. Selfie-taking can promote taking the adoption of that observer perspective. Feedback from comments and likes can also feed into self-objectification.

Studies of young women have linked selfie-editing with self-objectification, negative appearance concerns, body dissatisfaction, depressive symptoms, and increased bulimia symptomatology. In adolescent girls (but not boys), high levels of peer feedback concerns have also been associated with lower self-esteem and excessive reassurance-seeking.

While putting a lot of effort into editing selfies is associated with negative psychological effects, the frequency of selfie posting doesn’t appear to be. In fact, in several studies, a higher frequency of posting was actually associated with higher body esteem. In a study of Australian university students, increased selfie-posting was linked with greater body satisfaction. It’s worth noting that those are correlations rather than necessarily being causative relationships. If in fact there is a causative relationship, the increased selfie-posting could very well be the effect rather than the cause.

In a Canadian study of female university undergraduate students by Mills et al., participants who took and posted selfies experienced worsening of mood and self-image afterwards. Some participants in the study were directed to take and post selfies to their social media without retaking or retouching the photos. These participants felt more anxious, less self-confident, and less physically attractive after posting the photos.

Other participants were given the opportunity to do multiple retakes and edit their photos before posting. They felt just as anxious afterwards as those who posted unedited photos, and they experienced similar feelings of being less attractive. In terms of confidence, they didn’t experience the self-confidence hit that the unedited selfie participants did, but they didn’t experience a self-confidence boost either. The researchers speculated that while being able to edit pictures gives people a greater sense of control, the process also makes them more likely to focus on their flaws.

“Selfitis”

In 2014, the satirical blog The Adobo Chronicles posted a story saying that the American Psychiatric Association had deemed selfitis a mental disorder. While the story wasn’t true, a couple of researchers later proposed selfitis as an actual psychological construct and developed a psychometric test called the Selfitis Behavior Scale to measure compulsive selfie-taking behaviours.

The scale was developed and validated using participants who were students at Indian universities. The researchers identified six components of selfitis: environmental enhancement (creating better memories), social competition, attention seeking, mood modification, self-confidence boosting, and conformity.

Viewers’ perceptions

The way we perceive our own selfies may not match up with how others perceive them. In a study by Re et al., one group of participants took selfies, and the researchers also took photos of those participants. When those photos were shown to another group of participants who served as external raters, the people in the selfies were rated as less attractive, less likeable, and more narcissistic compared to the photos taken of them by the researchers.

While the external raters perceived selfies as less attractive and less likeable, a subgroup of the people who took the selfies had the opposite perspective. The people who described themselves as regular selfie-takers rated themselves as more attractive and more likeable in their selfies compared to the photos taken of them by the researchers. This bias wasn’t observed in people who said they didn’t regularly take selfies.

Are selfies good or bad?

Overall, it seems like taking and posting selfies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, different people may have different motivations for posting them, and some are probably healthier than others. It seems like what really causes problems for people is when they get heavily invested in editing their selfies.

I’ve never taken a lot of selfies, and I’m clueless about photo editing apps. I’d rather take pictures of my guinea pigs than myself; they’re substantially cuter than I am. I suspect that jumping on board the selfie train could very easily get crazy-making, so I’d rather just not go there. It seems like a shitty deal for kids these days to be growing up in a selfie-crazed world, and I’m glad it wasn’t a thing when I was younger (and you know you’re old when you start talking about kids these days…).

Do you take a lot of selfies? Does it feel like a positive or a negative thing for you?

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson

BScPharm BSN MPN

Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

57 thoughts on “What Is… the Psychology Behind Selfies”

  1. Interesting topic! Thanks for digging into it.
    I take selfies when I’m feeling or doing something I feel is worth capturing and possibly sharing. But I agree with you – I’m lucky to have experienced a social media- free adolescence, and I’d rather photograph my doggos.
    Im not on ig right now, but when I was I loved seeing selfies of friends who live far away. So I started intentionally taking more of myself to share with them. Now I use a video chat app and/or send an occasional selfie to a friend I miss bc it makes me happy to get them in return.
    As for filters, I do use and enjoy them. But I never try to hide that my image is altered. It’s usually pretty obvious and whimsical, like the pic of me with pink hair and glitter in my gravatar! 👩🏻‍🎤

  2. I don’t like taking selfies, I just end up deleting them or editing them then I hate the edits. I’ve also come to realize that I don’t like my edited pictures as they make me not appreciate the real me without the editing.

  3. “Selfie” was word of the year… in 2013?! I feel old because that was so long ago and yet it doesn’t feel like it.

    Association with narcissism doesn’t surprise me, nor does a touch of psychopathy, for a portion of selfie-takers. Then for the others, low self-esteem and the need for reassurance or feedback connects to the desire to have others say something while also editing what you show them because at the same time, they’re afraid of criticism.

    I had no idea a Selfitis Behavior Scale test had been developed. Then again, with such a huge change in society from technology, a new trend like this would warrant more psychological investigation. I don’t think it’s appropriate to call it a mental disorder either, though you can see how some may become very depending on taking and sharing selfies or other aspects of their lives in the hopes for either recognition (narcissism) or approval (low self-esteem).

    I think for some people, it might turn out to be a good thing. I’ve tried to challenge myself taking one or two, but that was my lot and I hated it. But if you’re someone that’s likewise not fond of how they look, perhaps challenging themselves into taking and sharing these photos regularly will build their self-esteem and allow them to feel better about how they look naturally without caring so much. That is, of course, assuming they’re not having to trowel on make-up or edit the photos to within an inch of their life. And assuming they get no horrible troll comments, which will likely undo any benefit at all.

    I do like seeing photos of others, especially where you don’t see them all that often. Like you! If you scroll down Instagram and find the same person(s) constantly putting up selfies, it’s a bit weird. It loses the magic of sharing something special, too.

    Personally, I hate taking selfies myself. I hate anything where the camera is too close to my face, which is bound to happen as I have short arms.

    1. It’s funny how things get to be everywhere so quickly. I think it was 2011 or so when I got my first iPhone, and while it sort of feels like I’ve had a smartphone forever, I can still clearly remember playing Snake on my first cellphone back in 2002.

      It puzzles me when people have Instagram accounts that are all selfies. Who is actually that interesting to look at? I have a tendency to make weird faces whenever there’s a camera pointed at me.

  4. I take unattractive selfies sometimes because I have seen how people respond to you in a debate depending on how you look. I did a little social experiment on it and it cracks me up. I have seen men say to a woman “you’re not even attractive enough for me to argue with”. I had known this for years but this guy just came out and said it. I blogged about that a long time ago. But yup. I pay attention to how people react to people based on their looks. Now, I am an attractive woman without a filter. So, when they lose a debate or have nothing else, they accuse me of being a man. It makes me laugh so hard. That’s when I know they don’t have anything to offer as far as their argument.

  5. Thanks for the post! I am showing my age but this post makes me think of the years and years when my generation was at the mercy of the “beauty magazine press” where you had to be model thin to look beautiful. I believe that I along with perhaps half the female population had to struggle with body image issues because of this propensity to promote “the model figure” or a prescribed sense of “beauty.” Now that my daughter is 18, I find that she is less affected by these pressures than I was or so it seems. I don’t think she is a selfie taker per say but I don’t monitor her social accounts so I cannot say for sure. All in all in an ideal world I would hope that selfies might help dispel the myth of what is beautiful to include all folks and all body types. But based on the research you present that may not be the case. My daughter has phrases in her vocabulary that never existed when I was a teen – like “body shaming.” She is also big into social equity.

    1. I wonder if it makes it easier or harder that teenagers now are turning to social media influencers rather than magazines to get their ideas about beauty ideals. I think it probably is easier for people who want to challenge social expectations around beauty to find like-minded individuals.

  6. Interesting research. Thank you for sharing. I don’t take many selfies, unless im bonding with my son or niece and nephew, we take cute and funny filtered selfies, but I don’t post pics of myself at all for personal reasons. I would much rather take pictures of nature or food and post them. I filter those sometimes but never photoshop or edit to the extent that it looks completely different than the original

  7. Selfie editing is like using makeup. Daily application is a compulsion that is amplified by society. When showing hair roots was a style for a while, I realized that not many women are true blondes, and that by the activity of hairdressers that being blonde was mandatory for a large number of women. I’d also speculate that women with big noses and small breasts who did not post selfies would have higher self-esteem if they also had a lot of normal self photos displayed on their piano if they were older. The younger ones are all crazy (fill-in the latest euphemism). I think we need a sarcasm metric for future studies.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: