The Psychology of Selfies

Celebrities like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber lead the selfie trend

Celebrities like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber lead the selfie trend

I am a social media outlier. I have never posted a “selfie.”

In fact, I didn’t get it.

I kind of understand the teen trend as they compete in the market for mates but the steady, daily stream of selfies from business professionals, neighbors, and social media gurus? It’s like they are in their own reality show where the star, the director, and the plot are all “me.”

I could argue that taking pictures of yourself — duck-lipped and peace-signing — is the biggest mass sociological trend since the hippie movement in the 1960s. The third-most used hashtag on Instagram is #me. The Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.”

Technology has fueled the selfie fire. In 2010, a front-facing camera was built into the iPhone 4, eliminating the need for “bathroom views.” Instagram and Snapchat provide the perfect platform when the self is the message and the selfie is the medium. When a face appears in a small, square Instagram photo, filtered and buffed to eliminate any unflattering detail, anybody can look like a star.

I became interested enough in this trend — and this apparent gap between me and the rest of the world — to study it. What drives people to post photos of themselves every day, or even every hour? What I found surprised, enlightened, and shocked me. Here are a few highlights of what I found that might provoke a few thoughts of your own …

On the surface, the trend is sort of affirming, if undeniably self-absorbed: Women, whether rich and powerful or otherwise, increasingly have a healthy image of themselves. That’s a good thing.

Dr. Peggy Drexler writing in Psychology Today

selfie bieberIncreased frequency of sharing self-portraits is related to a decrease in intimacy with others. For one thing, putting so much emphasis on your own looks can make others feel self-conscious about theirs in your presence. The pressure to be “camera-ready” can also heighten self-esteem issues and increase feelings of competition among friends.

Research from the University of Birmingham, the University of the West of England, the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University.


The sheer volume and publicness of selfies defies any models we have and we fall back on social norms.  Unless you’re a celebrity, monarch or head of state, people aren’t supposed to self-promote or ‘brag.’ Especially females. In democratizing portraiture, selfies violate social rules of self-presentation and therefore something’s wrong.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today

selfie gagaSelfies are about desperately crying out, “Look at me!” This starts with childhood and not getting enough “mirroring” from parents who are too busy working or being self-absorbed themselves. Children who grow up without sufficient mirroring keep looking for their reflections in other people’s eyes, in order to get attention, validation and approval.

Dr. Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist

I like to think that Instagram offers a quiet resistance to the barrage of perfect images that we face each day. Rather than being bombarded with those creations… we can look through our Instagram feed and see images of real people – with beautiful diversity.

Sarah J. Gervais in Psychology Today.

“Psychologically speaking, there may be some benefit to participating in sharing selfies because this practice is interwoven in our social culture and is a way to interact socially with others.”

Dr. Andrea Letamendi in Time

selfie rihannaThere is a revealing and alluring element with some of the pictures, which could point towards a sense of exhibitionism – a key trait with selfietakers. Everyone looks for some validation in the way that they appear to others: the kind that’s sought will be dependent on their personality. A selfie is a way to (sometimes unconsciously) engineer validation.

Dr. Diana Parkinson in Stylist

Profile pictures are meant to represent us.  And knowing this, we look for meaning in even the goofiest of others’ profile pictures and speculate on the choice of pet, body part, or group.  By contrast, selfies communicate a transitory message at a single moment in time. We are more concerned with the context, the “what’s going on” than the projection of identity.

Dr. Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today

selfie mileyIt’s almost as though we’re peering through a window. Some photos may be of girls showing skin, or girls lying on a bed. Just about all are seeking some sort of approval from their friends. The aim is not to communicate joy but to score a position.

I’m anxious that girls are higher up on the ladder than I am: boys are looking at her, not me. I have to look like her to be worthy of boys’ attention. Boys’ tastes are not always sophisticated. The aesthetic yardstick is what they see in pornography. So girls have to conform to what boys see in pornography. And then girls post photos to ”out-hot” the other girls by porn star criteria.

Olympia Nelson,(11 years old) in The Age

In the end, my journey down the selfie rabbit hole provoked more questions than answers. Although I have a more balanced perspective of the psychology of the trend, I also wonder:

  • What are the long-term implications of the public sexualization of children, primarily girls?
  • How does a person’s life change when documenting the experience takes precedence over living it?
  • What is the psychology of those who hate selfies? Are they jealous of beauty and youth? Do they enjoy demeaning a generation as narcissists? Are they displaying their own unhappiness and depression?

And most important perhaps, what does it mean about a person when they never, ever take selfies? Like me.

Awwwwww … what the hell …

Mark Schaefer selfie

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  • Too funny, Mark!

    No selfie from me. But, along the same line — my hubby and I met up with a couple over the past weekend. Before that we had only known them through the fact that I follow the blog of the hubby and he had taken an online class from me.

    Because of time restraints we were only able to spend a little over 2 hours with them. They were perhaps the most enjoyable 2 hours of the entire weekend. We loved visiting with the couple (who are about 30 years our junior) and are looking forward to when we can see them again.

    No pictures. None. I follow him. He has taken a class from me. We could have both benefited from showing the world we spent time together. We benefited more by simply enjoying our time together.

  • Boy you need to get with it Yvonne. All those selfie opportunities!! : )

  • You know it, Mark! Occasionally I take a picture of the inside of my purse as I drag the phone out. Does that count? 🙂

  • Excellent Mark – To me it’s not so much a head-scratcher that selfies are prevalent. I mean… put a camera on a phone and guess what happens, right?

    The pressure to document and photograph everything all the time exists for sure these days. Especially for the younger crowd. But like Yvonne mentions below – I think we sometimes lose meaningful parts of the real experiences with all our updates and photos.

    As usual – I’m sure somewhere in the middle lies a healthy balance.

    Really enjoyed this one – especially the “Peace, out!” selfie at the end 🙂

  • Only if you Tweet it!

  • Holy crud, Gary. I never thought of that before. Now I’m anxious for the next purse interior photo to show up. When will it happen? When will it . . .

  • How about viewing selfies as a way of involving friends and family in our life when we are too busy to communicate individually on a one to one basis? I take a selfie occasionally to entertain myself mainly, but my underlying reason is so people can share a bit of my life, in the same way that I love sharing a bit of their life through their social media communications. A selfie can say ‘hey, i’m doing this’ and for me they are largely situational.

    I visited a trade show last week and took a selfie whilst there of me necking free samples of whiskey and looking totally manic – for me a selfie isn’t about ‘look how wonderful I am’, I don’t do posing or pouty faced ‘aren’t I attractive’ insecure validation seeking selfies, I do them to reinforce my personality and they fit with my self projection of a whimsical, fun loving person who doesn’t take herself seriously and will gladly show things like they are, like particularly funny/terrible bed hair.

    Of course posting anything on social media is inherently attention seeking, but then so is phoning a friend to tell them something! Don’t make the mistake of believing that what motivates the selfie is only vanity and insecurity.

    My primary driver is to share my life and give my friends a good laugh at my expense.

  • Thanks Gary. A first : )

  • I think that is cool and probably captured in my post with the quote: “selfies communicate a transitory message at a single moment in time. We are more concerned with the context, the “what’s going on” than the projection of identity.”

    I’m interested in this notion of using Selfies to entertain yourself. My thinking on this has been, a random photo of myself with no particular context is probably the least interesting thing I could post to my content stream! : )

  • Forget all the psychobabble…In my work with college students, here’s the answer to “Why selfies?”: “We are just having fun!!!”

  • I think that is part of it but that is certainly just one angle. Did you read the last quote in the post from the 11-year-old girl? That’s not fun. It’s more complex than just “fun” I think.

  • Ameena Gorton

    I loved this Mark – such an interesting insight, I guess the answer to why is all of the above. The last quote from the 11 yr old chilled me – I’ve seen a fair share of inappropriate selfies on the interwebs from younger girls scantily clad and quite clearly jail bait. It does terrify me that young girls are taking these pictures voluntarily without the right education to fully comprehend what this could mean for their safety, their futures and their self esteem.

    I’ve never stopped to really think about the selfie trend, until now. I do partake in it myself and the real reason is usually because I’m bored and hope to make people laugh. Perhaps it’s because I am a gazillion miles away from my family and friends – I’ll be mulling over the real reason(s) more I think!

    Judging my my gallery on my phone I can tell you that BiP, at 3 years old, has a fabulous collection of selfies 🙂 I wonder if it’s just how we are wired!

  • I am what would usually be known as the ‘class clown’ i’ll often do daft things to entertain myself (I have a very low boredom threshold!), I often post content on my personal social media subversively – i’m interested in being real, and that means rubbish hair, cakes that go wrong, pulling dumb faces etc. I’m sick of being force fed ideals in both the media and by other insecure social media users who only want to project and share a very carefully crafted perfect ideal to others, so I think that drives me to swim in the opposite direction!

    For me, if I look like an idiot and/or find myself entertaining, i’ll post it because I find it funny, but equally, as most of my friends share the same humour as me, I know some of them will find it funny too.

    I know what you mean about sharing things with no particular context though and I think if you and your friends aren’t like that in general, then just randomly sharing selfies would be a bit weird!

    Great article by the way, I forgot to mention that in my initial comment! 🙂

  • MrTonyDowling

    Nice hat!
    And a very interesting and thought provoking read too – thanks Mark

  • That is really awesome. I try to show through pretty authentically in my writing but generally only present my shiny self on most of the web. I’m not just a person, I’m also a brand and a company. Everything we say and do reflects on your brand, no matter how casual it may be. Every company who hires me is going to Google me. I want the search to say “solid” not “goofball.” : )

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comments!

  • Always an honor to hear from you Ameena. I mentor an 11-year-old boy and I am absolutely shocked by what I see on his Facebook page from his classmates. The ability to share sexualized photos with the world as a competition will change people, change society, maybe even change the way we market and do business over time. There is no going back but it makes me worry for the children thrown into a competition to look like porn stars.

  • Thanks Tony

  • But 11 years old is not a college student. The college student/young adult was the original, prime selfie user. My point is sometimes we overthink and overanalyze and overthink and overanalyze, and I believe this to be the case with selfies. There are loads of other “tools” that trigger the same psychological issues you discuss and do so with far more power than selfies….By the way, love your selfie! Very funny!

  • One more thing…Where the heck are the PARENTS of the “children” who are posting selfies???

  • Sandra Isaac

    I think the 11 year old nailed it out of the ballpark. Selfies take self esteem issues to a new level. We are faced with the challenges of telling pre-teens (and up) that what they see on TV and in magazines are not “true” but photoshopped parts of reality. Throw in a bit of narcissistic behavior and pow! We are now bombarded with image competitions resulting in more provocative photos and a warped sense of what the norm is. My images is true to who I am: me behind the camera, as it always will be.

  • Very interesting post. One thing to think about, though: Look at everyone’s comments below on this post — they all have profile pictures. Is there really any difference between seeing those profile photos than seeing someone’s selfie? (Miley Cyrus and other *nude-selfies* excluded, of course!) Someone else taking your photo should not determine if someone is desperately crying out, “Look at me!” Selfies just provide a much more convenient way to post photos of yourself.

  • WIth the kids I mentor, there are no parents.

  • Thanks for taking the time to comment Sandra.

  • I think there is a difference that is well stated in the eighth quote in the post. An avatar is more or less table stakes.

  • Susan

    I wouldn’t say I enjoy demeaning a generation as narcissists, but hey if they shoe fits. 😉 Seriously though, I think different people take selfies for different reasons

    I think many people take them simply because it is a practice that their peers are partaking in at the moment, it’s just what is going on in today’s world and they really have no underlying motive. Sadly, some young girls are looking (not so subtly) for people to tell them they are beautiful. Some people probably just want a good profile picture without having to wait for a social gathering for someone else to take one. And some people, I believe, are just that self-absorbed.

  • Sorry, I somehow missed that quote when I read the post.

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  • OMG. You didn’t SKIM did you??? : )

  • Thanks for commenting Susan.

  • Susan

    One more comment and then I’ll yield the floor. Last year I went on vacation with some family. At one point I wanted us to get together as a group and ask someone passing by to take our picture so we could all be in the shot. For some reason my sister was very against this and insisted we could just scrunch together and hold the camera at arm’s length to take it. I don’t know if the reason she was so damant we do it ourselves was the time it would take asking someone else to do it or if she thought it was too old fashioned to have a picture obviously not taken by someone in the group. I’m still baffled by it and so was my mother.

    I guess my point is that selfie and group selfie (if that is actually a thing) seems to have almost become the preferred method of any type of non-professional personal or group shot.

  • Never say never, Mark!

    Great post by the way, I will share this post with my daughter’s Health teacher for her freshman class. I don’t like this selfie trend at all, especially because the kids don’t understand, that something which may start in an innocent and fun way at a younger age, later develops into something which gets out of control. I also have to repeat to my kids that camera’s or phones are not to be used in the bathrooms, locker rooms or fitting rooms in a store (because they have also fun in just trying clothes on in a store and take pictures). My daughter, who has a Facebook account, asked me to have also an Instagram account. I said no because there was no reason for her to add another social network. A week later I found out that she opened a snapchat account, without my consent. Luckily it was on my iPhone, so I immediately canceled it. So far we are trying to control as much as we can our kids’ online activity, having both my husband and I a strong Information Technology background helps a lot, but sadly the danger is around the corner. It is not fun at all!

  • Joe Cardillo

    Interesting exploration Mark..

    I think some of the comments so far are accurate in that there are two sides to it….for example, on the pro side there’s the #feministselfie tag (movement?) from a couple of weeks ago, which some friends of mine have pointed out is empowering especially to black and latina women, who are often over-sexualized and generally misrepresented in mainstream media.

    On the other hand I find the whole idea disturbing b/c structurally (especially for girls and women) it’s a re-focus on physical beauty or attractiveness, when there are so many other attributes I’d rather see appreciated and encouraged.

  • At the end of the day, all we can do is hope they make good decisions but we are in a weird time to be sure!

  • In my reading on the subject, I definitely saw both sides of this story. I think I lean toward “concerned” because of the dynamics it is setting up with children at a young age. Very disturbing to me. I am seeing it first-hand and it blows my mind what these kids are posting.

  • Joe Cardillo

    Yes, I’d agree with you there…I taught middle school back in ’07/’08 and even then the stuff they’d share was hard to believe.

  • Gee whiz, I thought the whole point of posting selfies on Facebook and Instagram is to increase my Klout score. Actually I still stand by that.

  • Neicole Crepeau

    I’m not into selfies either–in fact, I try to avoid posting pictures of my middle-aged self anywhere! But my kids are into them, especially my daughter. Their friends are, too.

    I think these “experts” are really over thinking it and looking at it from the perspective of their own age group, rather than that of kids. While it’s true that I see some of my daughter’s friends on Facebook posting over sexualized selfies, a lot of what the kids post are blatantly goofy pictures. The are laughing at themselves in them. So, while I think there may be some competition in some social groups, in a lot of cases they just seem to be having fun and goofing off. I see the same thing with YouTube videos, where they post vids in which they are just being decidedly silly.

  • LOLOL! I will admit I try to avoid selfies because of my family jowls. They are such camera hogs. They will probably persist long after the rest of me is dust… (grin)

  • Hahahaha…

    Your first selfie rocks, Mark!

    Have you uploaded it to Instagram and tagged it with 100 hashtags?

    Your cap could be the next trend setter!


    Still laughing…

  • LOL! Nope, just got interrupted and skipped that one when I started reading gain. I would NEVER skim one of your articles!

  • Ha! My only reader : )

  • A logical theory : )

  • I definitely think there is that aspect too Neicole. Many angles to the issue!

  • Good idea for an app. Snap Jowl: The photo sharing app for middle aged people.

  • No, this was quite enough thank you!

  • I agree with your comment(s), Shell. Well said.

  • Andy Crestodina

    Nice pic, Mark. But now I need to try to “out-hot” you.

    …but seriously, great post on a great topic, if not a little frightening.

  • Guest

    I read her post when it came out. Be sure to read the entire post. She has her act together, she’s simply pointing out what she sees in others.

  • I read her post when it came out. Be sure to read the entire post. She has her act together. She’s simply pointing out what she sees in others.

  • Joe Cardillo

    Perfect addition to a little Tumblr I’ve been working on…

  • Jeff Jockisch

    Mark, Yonatan Zunger of Chief Architect of Google+ weighted in on Selfies several months ago. I loved his insight here:

    Yonatan’s commentary revolves around an article from Sara Gram: “The Young-Girl and the Selfie”

    As someone that sees the questions kids ask every day to ChaCha, I can tell you than many many of the kids out there are seeking validation. It’s not really a bad thing in and of itself, but part of our new digital DNA. It is however seeping into younger and younger age groups…

  • Bring it Crestodina. And yes … I actually DO have moves like Jagger.

  • We’re all seeking validation on some level but I can see how this would be particularly acute with teens. Thanks for the shares and insight Jeff.

  • Andrew Jones

    I’m guessing a “year 11 school girl” is not actually an 11 year old. you might want to fix that- ain’t no 11 year-old writing that without an adult.

  • Olga Filonchuk

    I am 24, not 11 but I agree with this girl in all points. I rarely do selfies even when I want to post a selfie I just forget to take a pic of me, like “shit, I was too obsessed with what’s going on now to remember that I have to take this goddamn photo for goddamn what”.
    At the same time I see some of my friends getting promotion and I know for sure that their bosses have a keen look at all selfies they post on FB, like them, write nice comments sometimes. Guys choose girls by selfies when thinking who to invite to the party: I swear they do! in spite of the fact most of men I know are 25-30 years old.
    Girls even do everything possible to ALWAYS look good because they have to post new selfies, buy new dresses to have these selfies, and things of the kind.
    I think the problem isn’t over-dramatized, it’s now UNDER dramatized, because at some point we will face a generation of young women who will have little respect to themselves and will be too obsessed with how they look – not with what they achieve in this life, or how good their character really is.

  • A selfie us yet one more safety/personal security risk. Way too many creeps out there.

  • Joe Cardillo

    @olgafilonchuk:disqus I always end up at your last point…of course there are positive ways to understand physical beauty, but given how much emphasis it already receives in our culture I figure it’s better to focus on things like character/ethics/passion for ideas/intellect, etc…

  • Mark,

    I’m a female in her late 20s, and I can’t recall ever posting a selfie. I’m just as fascinated by this trend as you are.

    I personally think it has a lot to do with a need for acceptance and/or shaping one’s identity in an idealized fashion. (Isn’t this what most people’s personal social networks–not those of us who use them for business/marketing–are for as a whole?)

    At any rate, your questions bring to mind another one that I find myself wondering a lot these days … How are people who are in infancy or childhood now going to feel when they grow up and find their lives have been documented online for the world to see? What kind of impact will that have on our society?

  • I’ve never understood the selfie trend. It’s always been a little disturbing to me. It smacks of self-promotion and approval-seeking. Probably both are reasons why you and I have never done it. While we all want validation, asking for it in such an objectified, public way is what bothers me. Are people not getting the love and attention they need one-on-one?

    On another note, what a fascinating article from the 11-year-old. It’s a brilliant piece. Am I cynical to wonder if that could possibly be written by a pre-teen?

  • It appeared in a reputable journal so i assume they vetted the source but there is no way to know that for sure.

  • Another important angle Randy.

  • Laurel, first of all, it is great to hear from you again. I think this is a fascinating question and in fact I think I will do a blog post about it. I think there is a reason we can’t remember our first five years of life! Now every moment is documented and I do think there are implications.

  • The only thing I can say is that this trend makes me deeply sad. Thanks very much for sharing your perspective Olga.

  • Definitely! Every time I see a photo of a toddler “going pee-pee on the potty” for the world to see, I cringe for his or her future self.

  • Andrew Jones
  • I guess I see it both ways. If people did not get nurtured, maybe selfies are a harmless way to get attention. Perhaps there are psychological aspects that are healthy. Who knows?

    The 11-year-old indeed write this. Apparently she is quite famous in Australia for being outspoken on this issue.

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  • LOL Love it and would probably use it. Though I probably still wouldn’t dive into selfie land. I find it hard enough to promote my novels. LOL

  • Seems to me that the selfie is the natural progression of social media. People are encouraged to share their lives, and photos thereof, combine the two and you get a self portrait.
    Add in the endless number of apps that turn any old snap into a filtered portrait that looks nothing like the original and the temptation to make yourself look good becomes too much to resist.

    Interesting article Mark, enjoyed the read! 🙂

  • That’s a good question, Mark. I’m sure there can be benefits. I suppose it goes both ways.

    And, very cool that the 11-year-old wrote this. She has a bright future!

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  • Thanks Barry!

  • Marie Lyne

    Lucky you never had to be “in front” of the camera… Or were able to stay away from there. For those of us who had to, at some point in life, Selfies are not attractive to us, as you may imagine. Again, good for you for keeping yourself “safe” in a way. ; )

  • This post is spot on. I feel very sorry for the kids who have no parents to help them through the online social maze. It’s hard enough for adults. We know many parents who “trust” their kids so they don’t get involved in their kids social online activity.

    We are working with our local church and launching a teen / parent education program for the community. I am sure we are going to get the rolled eyes from some parents and teens. However, I hope at minimum I can get them to at least think about the risks both for safety as well as sociological impacts it is having on their precious kids.

    We are working with some others including @Amy Howell to collaborate on this work, even across states @businessesgrow:disqus . Would love to do the same with you. Happy to share any and all content we deliver, share, learn etc. for the purpose of education.

  • I’m interested! Would be happy to help Pam.

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  • rhonda hurwitz

    Two non-techies had the best idea of all: an app that takes 10-15 pounds off your selfie — and it has been downloaded many times. That tells us all you need to know! I selfie (edited to look thinner, of course) … therefore I am!

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