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Are selfie pictures related to personality characteristics?

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Can you predict a person’s personality just by analyzing one of their selfies?

In a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers examined Slovenians students selfie photos and found some differences between male and female selfies. Men were more likely to be centered in their selfies, while women tended to be more expressive in their selfies. Women were also more likely to tilt their heads and smile than men.

But the researchers found no evidence that the characteristics of a selfie photo could be used to predict personality traits like narcissism, extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Bojan Musil of University of Maribor. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Musil: Obviously, in just short time selfies became popular (http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/word-of-the-year-2013-winner/), dangerous (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/selfie-deaths-shark-attacks_us_5602c0c5e4b0fde8b0d09cbe), quite bizarre (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/30/briton-ben-innes-posed-selfie-egyptair-hijacker-praised-by-relatives), and fostered legal debates with our animal relatives (http://www.peta.org/blog/monkey-selfie-case-headed-u-s-court-appeals/).

However, seriously, our interest in selfies was some sort of side effect and at the same time a next step from our previous research on the impact of videos or photos, depicted with webcams, on self-reflection. Since those results indicated a trend that webcam self-portrait photos had some (limited) effect on decrease in public states of self-consciousness, we thought about different a format of pictures, self-portrait photos, in different social situations and their relations to some psychological variables.

Selfies were quite an obvious logical choice – as in all forms of self-portraits, the main actor in the picture is at the same time the creator of the picture, but with the embedment of IT appliances and applications in our everyday lives (or better mutual immersion of humans and technology) the production of selfies became enormously widespread and convenient. Additionally, selfies are often shared on social networks, which could be of great interest especially from the dynamics of potential self-presentation strategies. 

What should the average person take away from your study?

First of all, some elements or cues of selfie pictures can be quite reliably categorized or classified, while for some other elements it is better to use additional tools for analyzing pictures. For example, eye contact, context and social distance of the actor in the selfie are quite intuitive elements of selfies; but to determine the exact head position on the picture, potential tilt of the body or tilt of the head of the actor of the selfie it is advisable to use dome image processing software. And, to determine the exact position of the camera of the author of the selfie is almost mission impossible.  

Second, there are some distinct gender-based characteristics – female selfies are generally more expressive comparatively to male selfies. Women more consistently express positive mood, are more prone to tilt their heads and show dominantly left or right side of the face.

Lastly, from the elements of the selfie pictures it is hard to determine any relations with personality characteristics of selfie authors. To say, ok, according to this element of the picture we can surely predict that the author of the selfie is high on extraversion, different dimensions oh narcissism or femininity. Selfies are probably just ordinary artifacts of contemporary societies, where technology plays essential role in everyday lives and in that sense our research contributes to more objective debate on this particular phenomenon and shatter the widespread, everyday, intuitive idea of ascribed pathological nature of selfies.

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

We analyzed only one selfie photo per participant, and our sample was specific with its relatively small number of participants and very narrow age range (students). Consequently, conclusions and generalizations are limited in scope. On the other hand, participants in our research were informed about the selfie concept and had the chance to freely choose their selfie for the analysis. In this regard, they were more active in the research design – they had the opportunity to reflect on and select an image that they consider a prototype of the concept of the selfie.  Our research is thus distinct from studies which harvest images from the web, where researchers usually rely on the hash tags #selfie, #me or similar.

Another limitation of our research involves the analysis of effects in selfies that could potentially influence some aspects of coding (for example categories of background, frame of the picture or mood), but this could be of particular importance especially for the context of selfie analysis as impression formation, which was outside of the scope of this particular research. We also didn’t analyze some very subjective cues of the selfie photos, such as the attraction of the person on the selfie.

Probably from the cues of only one selfie photo it is hard to determine distinct personality characteristics, so more elaborate analysis with more pictures is needed and inclusion of the whole context in the background (discourse) – such as selfie creation and its placement in particular social networks or other mediated modes of social relations. So, more complex (qualitative in the nature) investigation is needed. In that sense, our investigation was closer to the controlled (laboratory) setting, where we excluded the story behind specific selfie in the context of social media or other social relations.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

If you take care of yourself and others while taking the selfie, beware of the sharks (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/selfie-deaths-shark-attacks_us_5602c0c5e4b0fde8b0d09cbe).

The study, “What Is Seen Is Who You Are: Are Cues in Selfie Pictures Related to Personality Characteristics?“, was also co-authored by Andrej Preglej, Tadevž Ropert, Lucia Klasinc and Nenad Čuš Babič.

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