The Psychology of Selfies: Why We Love Taking and Viewing Photos of Faces
Author: Courtney Seiter

How many photos of you are on your phone right now?

These days, humans take almost 1 trillion photos a year. (To put that into context, that's more photos every few minutes than in the entire 19th century.)

And lots of these photos are selfies—self-portraits, usually taken with a smartphone. As of this writing, nearly 300 million Instagram photos had been tagged with the selfie label.

We love getting into the "whys" of social media psychology, so in this post I set out to discover why we love taking photos of ourselves—and why we love viewing selfies.

What does "selfie culture" say about the world we're living in now, and how can viewing photos of others help us make better decisions and even understand one another better? Read on for the full psychology of selfies.


A brief history of selfies: Why we take them

As early as the 15th century, according to Dr. Terri Apter, psychology lecturer at Cambridge University:

"People who had access to self representations were keen to make use of them. In this way people could control the image projected, and of course the fact that the image was on display marked the importance and status of the person represented."

They're also a way to figure out who we are. The "looking-glass self" is a psychological concept that says that how we see ourselves doesn't come from who we really are, but rather from how we think others see us.

And now that we can A) take a selfie in mere moments, and B) share them with thousands of people online at any time, the impact that others have on our self-value has increased.

The site Everyday Sociology argues that this change has led us to invest more into selfies as part of the work of projecting our identities onto others:

"The more pictures you post of yourself promoting a certain identity—buff, sexy, adventurous, studious, funny, daring, etc.—the more likely it is that others will endorse this identity of you."

The science of face photos: Why we love looking at others


We notice faces first

Human faces have always been particularly effective attention-grabbing mechanisms. Researcher Dr. Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, has studied the neuroscience of face perception for years:

"Most of us pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else," says Churches."We know experimentally that people respond differently to faces than they do to other object categories."

And social media is no exception: Face-tracking studies show that the profile picture or avatar is the first place the eye is drawn to on Facebook and other social media profiles. (Want advice on creating a stellar profile pic? We've got the science on that!)

On Instagram, pictures with human faces are 38 percent more likely to receive likes and 32 percent more likely to attract comments than photos with no faces.

The highs and lows of selfies on social media

The high: They can improve self-esteem

It's become somewhat common to think of those who post selfies as narcissistic or vain, but one great effect of selfies is that they can bolster self-esteem, particularly in women.

In a TODAY/AOL body image survey, 41% of adult women said selfies and other flattering online photos make them "feel more confident (although 46% said that "overall, social media makes me feel more self-conscious about my appearance.")

For teenage girls, the results were even more empowering: 65% said seeing their selfies on social media boosts their confidence, and 40% of all teens said social media helps "me present my best face to the world."


The low: They can harm relationships

Over-selfie-ing, however, can be a problem:Research has showed that sharing too many self photographs on social media could possibly damage weaker relationships.

A UK study asked 508 Facebook users to rank how close they felt to friends who also use Facebook. They then compared the answers for each person to how many selfies that person posted.

They found that the more someone posted selfies, the lower they ranked on the intimacy scales of the participants.


Said study author Dr. David Houghton:

"Our research found that those who frequently post photographs on Facebook risk damaging real-life relationships. This is because people, other than very close friends and relatives, don't seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves."

The verdict? It's all about healthy context

So are selfies great for us or bad for us? It all depends on how—and how often—we turn to them. A great middle ground can be found in Dr. Josie Howard, M.D.'s comments to the website Refinery29:

"It depends on how you use it. If you're using it as a tool to document feeling good about yourself and you're just taking mementos of living a great life, that's fine."

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