The selfie paradox: Study examines why people love taking selfies but don’t like seeing them

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Many people regularly take selfies, but most people don’t like them, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.

In the study, 238 people living in Austria, Germany and Switzerland completed an online survey to assess their motives and judgements when taking and viewing selfies. The survey revealed that while 77% of participants take selfies regularly, 82% would prefer fewer selfies on social media. In addition, 62-67% agreed on the potential negative consequences of selfies, such as selfies creating an illusionary world and creating threats to self-esteem.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Sarah Diefenbach of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Diefenbach: At first, selfies form a quite interesting example of how a technical opportunity (the smartphone cam as a constant companion) in combination with human ergonomics (taking a self-portrait in arm length) has given rise to a widespread cultural phenomenon and new form of self-presentation. While nobody has deliberately “invented” the selfie, its popularity and story of success are impressing. The term selfie has been added to the dictionary, social media are full of selfies, selfies have entered the domain of arts, campaigns make use of selfies, and surveys even say that every third picture taken is a selfie. At the same time, there is a controversial debate about selfies, highlighting critical associations such as non-authenticity, narcissism, or correlations between ambitious selfie sharing and body dissatisfaction and thin ideal internalization.

For us as psychologists and researchers in the field of human-computer interaction, especially this tension between peoples’ high engagement in selfie-taking on the one side and critical discussion on the other side, made it an interesting issue for further exploration. Besides a deeper understanding of the psychological value of selfies, one aspect that we were especially interested in was people’s self-reflections about the consequences of selfies, and whether they see any differences between their own selfies and others’ selfies.

What should the average person take away from your study?

In a nutshell, our study on the selfie-paradox reveals the ambivalent attitude towards selfies and potential underlying psychological effects:

One the one hand, selfies are extremely popular and 77% report to regularly take selfies. As our study showed, one reason for this might be their fit with widespread self-presentation strategies such as self-promotion and self-disclosure: the selfie as an (self-)advertising sign, plying the audience with one’s benefits or the selfie as an act of self-expression, sharing a private moment with the rest of the world and hopefully earning sympathy for that.

On the other hand, people’s’ reflections on the effects of selfies show a distanced attitude, highlighting critical aspects such as threats to self-esteem and creating an illusionary world, and 82% wish for less selfies in social media.

A relevant finding for this discrepancy between taking selfies oneself but a generally critical viewing on the phenomenon could be the systematically biased view on own versus others’ selfies: while own selfies were judged as more authentic and self-ironic, others’ selfies were perceived as more self-presentational. This pattern, in parallel to a self-serving bias, may explain how everybody can take selfies without feeling narcissistic. If everybody thinks like this, it is no wonder that the world is full of selfies.

When wondering whether a selfie is authentic, self-ironic, or just narcissistic, selfie-taker and selfie-viewer may come to different conclusions. However, this playful ambivalence may also be an essential ingredient and part of the magic of selfies.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

While our study revealed first incidence on the complex, and sometimes seemingly contradictory judgments on selfies, we need further studies to get more profound insights into peoples’ underlying reflections, also including qualitative inquiry. For example, one interesting aspect will be to find out to what degree the revealed selfie-bias (e.g., judging one’s own selfies as more authentic than others’ selfies), here revealed through indirect comparison of judgments on selfies in general, will be mirrored in direct statements, explicitly discussing this issue and comparing concrete selfies side to side.

In addition, we plan to further explore the relationships to self-presentational strategies, and effects on self-esteem. For example, research on Facebook (Gonzales & Hancock, 2011) showed that updating one’s own Facebook profile enhances self-esteem, thereby emphasizing the effects of selective self-presentation in digital media on impressions of the self. Similar effects are conceivable for editing and posting selfies (e.g., on Instagram), which can be viewed as even more self-centered.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Be aware that others may think different about your selfies than you do yourself.

The study, “The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation“, was also co-authored by Lara Christoforakos.