Sometimes, when I am quite certain no one is watching me, I do it.
Secretly, I fish out my smartphone, unlock it and stare smilingly into the tiny hole that holds its camera to snap a picture.
Once the person on the screen looks remotely similar to what I picture myself to look like, I send it off into the ether to someone who can acknowledge both my existence (in general) and my current good looks (in particular) before I pocket this handy tool of self-acknowledgment with a contented smile. To most, the selfie is a modern, omnipresent way to present yourself to the rest of the world, often with a sour aftertaste of implied vanity.
Today, we will have a closer look at the whole picture:
- How did selfies emerge in the first place?
- Is taking selfies pathological?
- Do they help others to see us as we are?
- Do selfies help us remember the special moments we took them in?
- And, finally, key takeaways and more sources if you want to dive deeper…
The flood of selfies – How did selfies emerge in the first place?
Self-portraits have been around for quite a while… Robert Cornelius, an American chemist and early photo experimenter, took a picture of himself as early as 1839 (The Public Domain Review). The main difference between a photographic self-portrait and a proper selfie is, according to Senft & Baym (2015, 1589), that a selfie is not just an object, but a gesture – which can and often does transport a message to a receiver, who can then interpret this gesture either to make sense of the sender, react to the message or distort it in some way. The selfie is, so to speak, taken with an audience in mind.
This now beloved form of self-documentation and self-expression only went mainstream once it became cheap and easy enough for most people to achieve; initially, with the advent of polaroid cameras (as depicted in the (self-) portraits of Warhol’s mighty circle at the silver factory), then later on with the emergence of digital cameras that allowed us to take heaps of pictures without the need to store, print and select them.
But, as we all know, it wasn’t until the ubiquitous adoption of smartphones that selfies were able colonise every aspect of our waking lives. It’s perhaps no surprise that the first big wave of selfies to hit internet platforms coincided with the release of the iPhone 4 which featured a front-facing camera (Guardian, 2013).
Yourself and your selfie – is taking selfies pathological?
Scientists have become increasingly interested in studying what these publicly accessible depictions can tell us about the relationship between us, and our cameras. According to Baym and Senft (2015), this is in no small part due to the bad reputation that selfies have acquired through research linking them to pathologies including narcissism, body dysmorphia and even psychosis.
The two authors (Senft and Baym 2015, p 1590) criticise these pathologising advances in research by claiming that up “to date, (they) have not seen a single peer-reviewed piece of scientific literature that convincingly demonstrates that selfie production and mental illness are correlated.”
The researcher Anne Burns (2015, quoted by Senft and Baym, 2015) draws attention to a flaw of thinking in these negative accounts on selfies. She argues that pathologising a selfie-taker as narcissistic is less of a diagnosis, and more of an accusation. While the whole complexity of narcissism is not understood by the average layman, this claim serves to “chastise those whose photographic self-depiction is perceived as self-absorbed or crass.” (Burns, 2015, p. 5).
From pathology to politics
Perhaps more worrying still, is the trend that “images of women and queers of all genders tend to be more socially policed than those of heterosexual men (…). Similarly, people of color find themselves under surveillance of all sorts more frequently than Whites, and young people have fewer legal claims to privacy than older people” (Senft and Baym, 2015, p1592).
In short, the discussion of selfies and selfies themselves are politicised – the discussion of what is legitimate vs. pathological behaviour gives different freedom to different groups of society.
Thus, the two authors ask us to carefully consider not simply whether selfies can be linked to pathologies, but also who might gain from making such implications. Senft and Baym (referring to Robbins, 2014) point out that whoever pathologises these behaviours can consequently also charge for “treating” them, revealing a self-interest in declaring specific behaviours as dangerous and requiring intervention.
To avoid falling for misleading practices of scientific research, they encourage their audience to double check who is quoted as an authority on these matters, whether a diversity of views is offered to the reader, and whether the resources mentioned seem trustworthy, rather than to take for granted stories told about the effects of selfies. All in all, their critical discussion of the scientific view of selfies makes for a good, well-argued read.
Dr Mariann Hardey from Durham University (Guardian, 2013) adds another notion of how selfies deserve more credit than they currently get. In her eyes,“The selfie is revolutionising how we gather autobiographical information about ourselves and our friends”. To her, selfies offer a unique opportunity to rewrite our own stories and to choose how we represent ourselves to the outside world, which raises yet another question: Do your selfies reflect you as you are, in terms of personality traits? And, given a selfie of you, can others infer correctly you who you are?
What does your selfie say about others?
And does it help others to see you as you are?
Chandra et al (2015) attempted to answer the first question by associating participants’ selfies posted on social media sites, with their ratings on four of the five Big-Five factors of personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness) mediated by several visual cues (such as emotional positivity,“duckface” and private locations in the background). Indeed, certain visual elements of selfies were found to be associated with all dimensions except extraversion.
The next stage of the experiment addressed the second question, in which strangers were asked to evaluate the personalities of the participants based on their selfies alone. While the strangers tended to agree on their rating of participants’ personalities, they failed to correctly predict four out of five personality dimensions, and only openness could be predicted at a significant level (Chandra et al, 2015). This means that the feeling of knowing someone based on their selfie is at least partially an illusion – our ability to deduce someone’s personality based on visual cues alone, is weaker than we might assume (good to know, if you’re an avid Tinder fan).
Selfies and memory – Do they help us remember the special moments in which we took them?
Lastly, let’s have a quick critical look at the capacity of selfies to serve as an autobiographical library of memories. Do they help us to remember our past? In a study by Henkel, participants were sorted into one of three groups. One group experienced a museum through observation only, the second group took pictures of the exhibits, and the third group was asked to zoom in on certain parts of the exhibits. Henkel (2014) observed a photo-taking impairment effect in the second but not the third group.
Taking pictures of a whole object led people to remember fewer objects and their location in the museum (as well as fewer details), than if they had only observed the objects in person. What’s interesting is that zooming into a specific part of the exhibit seemed to eliminate this effect, with participants able to recall details they did not zoom in on, as well as those they did. The act of focusing on remembering the taking of pictures (rather than using the pictures to support memory), may have balanced the photo impairment effect Henkel had observed.
However, in a different study, Whittaker et al (2010) found that using photos to recall memories can often be hindered by a large volume of pictures that are not well organised. Parents whom they asked to find photos of important family events more than a year ago struggled to do so: they were unable to retrieve almost 40% of their pictures.
Key take aways
- Historically, the easier and cheaper it has been for people to take, store and share selfies, the more selfies are produced and shared.
- Declaring selfies as a pathological phenomenon isn’t as straightforward as it might seem at first. When reading around the phenomenon, double check whether the full spectrum of the discourse is taken into account (including critical voices), acknowledge the inherent complexity of the subject, and check whether those talking about it might have their own stake in the scientific discussion. To avoid being duped, check if the sources cited are diverse and credible.
- Don’t judge a person by his or her selfie. While preliminary research suggests that selfies do indeed contain cues associated with all personality traits (except extraversion), and that observers tend to agree on their judgments, the likelihood that you’ll be able to accurately predict any trait other than openness is unlikely.
- When you want to use your selfies to remember your past, focus on what matters to you in your picture. Consciously zoom in. Store and order your pictures for easy retrieval to avoid losing the gem in a heap of irrelevant information.
If you are keen to learn more about selfies, these sources might be for you:
- The deep dream engine will turn your favourite selfie into a nightmarish mythical image.
- Fancy some historical selfies? You will find them at the Guardian and in the historical evolution of the selfie in 13 spectacular snapshots.
- classification of selfies
- An article on Forbes giving advice on how to satisfy the psychological needs that drive people to take Selfies “IRL” (in real life) – by appreciating the people closest to you and recognising their efforts.
- A TedX talk by Charisse L’Pree on “healthy selfies” and the psychology of selfies in general.
- And four more TedX talks visually analysing selfies, asking whether “the selfie generation (is) selfish?” with reference to historical depictions of human kind, explaining how selfies impact our identity and its formation by Dr. Linda Papadpoulos and, lastly, a TedX talk by the visual artist and educator Linda Hudson on “exposing the selfie” as an assertion of “I am here” and a way for culture to slow down.
- Two psychologist have a short discourse on the benefits and downsides of selfies in this video.
Burns, A. L. (2015). Self (ie)-Discipline: Social Regulation as Enacted Through the Discussion of Photographic Practice. International Journal of Communication.
Guntuku, S. C., Qiu, L., Roy, S., Lin, W., & Jakhetiya, V. (2015, October). Do Others Perceive You As You Want Them To?: Modeling Personality based on Selfies. In Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on Affect & Sentiment in Multimedia (pp. 21-26). ACM.
Day, E. (2013). How selfies became a global phenomenon. The Guardian, Technology.
Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-Shoot Memories The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour. Psychological science, 25(2), 396-402.
Robbins, M. (2014). There’s no such thing as selfie addiction. Vice.
Senft, T. M., & Baym, N. K. (2015). Selfies Introduction~ What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon. International Journal of Communication, 9, 19.
The Public Domain Review (1839). Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait: The First Ever “Selfie”.
Whittaker, S., Bergman, O., Clough, P. (2010). Easy on that trigger dad: a study of long term family photo retrieval. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 14(1), pp. 31-43.