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.
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.
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?
- Balakrishnan, J., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). An exploratory study of “selfitis” and the development of the Selfitis Behavior Scale. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 16(3), 722-736.
- Cohen, R., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2018). ‘Selfie’-objectification: The role of selfies in self-objectification and disordered eating in young women. Computers in Human Behavior, 79, 68-74.
- Fox, J., & Rooney, M. C. (2015). The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 161-165.
- Mills, J. S., Musto, S., Williams, L., & Tiggemann, M. (2018). “Selfie” harm: Effects on mood and body image in young women. Body Image, 27, 86-92.
- Nesi, J., Choukas-Bradley, S., Maheux, A. J., Roberts, S. R., Sanzari, C. M., Widman, L., & Prinstein, M. J. (2021). Selfie appearance investment and peer feedback concern: Multimethod investigation of adolescent selfie practices and adjustment. Psychology of Popular Media.
- Re, D. E., Wang, S. A., He, J. C., & Rule, N. O. (2016). Selfie indulgence: Self-favoring biases in perceptions of selfies. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(6), 588-596.
- Sorokowski, P., Sorokowska, A., Oleszkiewicz, A., Frackowiak, T., Huk, A., & Pisanski, K. (2015). Selfie posting behaviors are associated with narcissism among men. Personality and Individual Differences, 85, 123-127.
- Terán, L., Yan, K., & Aubrey, J. S. (2020). “But first let me take a selfie”: US adolescent girls’ selfie activities, self-objectification, imaginary audience beliefs, and appearance concerns. Journal of Children and Media, 14(3), 343-360.
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.