Psychology of Selfies
Department of Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, Munich, Germany

Such photos have become enormously popular and it is impossible to visit any social media without seeing our friends’ selfies – self-portraits, taken with a camera or phone. The Google statistics in 2015 reported about 93 billion selfies taken per day – counting only Android phone users.

While some highlight the value of selfies as a new material for creative work and the enhanced possibilities to convey emotions, others are primarily concerned about the excessive self-presentation and negative side-effects of selfies for social interaction.

While being totally immersed in the mission of taking the perfect selfie, this may diminish the experience of the moment itself. Another disconcerting phenomenon related to the boom of selfies is the vanishing of natural, candid pictures. Further reports referred to the relations between selfies and narcissism, or the selfie as manifestation of inauthenticity.

In contrast to “normal,” authentic photographs with natural facial expressions and poses, selfies present clearly recognizable poses as inauthentic way of showing off, often imitating others rather than showing one’s true self, destroying any illusion of a natural glimpse into a person’s life. Whatever one was doing, one interrupted this activity to take a photo of self. This lacking authenticity may be the reason why people state that they prefer seeing other pictures of their friends than selfies.

Taken together, selfies appear as a somewhat mysterious phenomenon. The discussed consequences of selfies seem rather negative – breaking social norms, focusing on photographing oneself rather than what is happening around, causing conflict in relationships, fostering body dissatisfaction, inauthenticity and narcissistic behavior. Still selfies are extremely popular.

In general, the outward orientation and public presentation seems an essential part of selfies, considering that most people do not take selfies just for themselves. People deliberately use self-photographs to form a particular impression.

Some researchers explored impression management in the context of travel selfies shared via social networks, revealing how tourists strategically adjust photographic images to manage their impressions and highlighting the role of posting selfies as strategic self-presentation behavior.

For example, studies regarding the example of Facebook, already examined the benefits for identity construction through selfies, the use of self-promotional content, the benefit of online social technologies for identity experimentation and self-disclosure. Studies showed a positive effect of selfies on self-esteem through the possibilities for selective self-presentation in social media.

Visiting profiles of others, however, can have rather negative impact on well-being, especially if virtual friends are not personally known: while neglecting that this selective view does not represent the “true life” of others, one comes to the depressing conclusion that others must be happier and having better lives. Thus, the same effect that boost our self-esteem presenting a highly selective, favorable insight in our life, may fire back when visiting the profiles of others.

In general, online-self presentation via blog posts, etc., is much more controlled than self-presentation in offline environments, since the former can be edited and revised before making it public, with lots of opportunities to manage the image. Within this, selfies provide some degree of new independence and control. One can get a quick picture of oneself, anywhere, at any place, without help from others.

Investigations in relation to individual differences in strategic self-presentation behavior lent further support to self-presentation as a central motive for social media use. Selfies may be especially supportive of particular types of self-presentation. Two strategies in particular seem well in line with what selfies can provide: first of all, self-promotion, highlighting own accomplishments and abilities, to be perceived as capable, intelligent, or talented by others.

The second strategy is self-disclosure, revealing selective parts of one’s self with the aim to convey a likable image and earn sympathy, trust and appreciation from others.
In contrast to self-promotion, self-disclosure does not aim to present the best “polished” self, but rather aims for sympathy through openness and “natural” insights into the self.