People who post many selfies are often characterized as “narcissistic.” However, people’s need to take and share photos of themselves is way more complex than that. In a recent study, researchers at Ohio State University explored the reasons for taking a selfie as opposed to taking photos without you in them. It contains plenty of interesting insights, none of which have anything to do with narcissism and vanity.
The study suggests that there could be two “particularly prominent” motivations for taking photos when you want to capture a certain experience. “When people photograph moments in their lives, they must decide (even if implicitly) whether to take the photo from the first-person perspective, capturing the moment as they see it,” the authors write, “or from the third-person perspective with themselves in the scene.”
You may feel like there are more selfies on social media than first-person photos, but interestingly enough, the statistic claims differently. According to the study, it’s nearly 50-50:
“Evidence from the current work (Studies 4 and 6) considering more than 7,500 of Instagram users’ recent posts found nearly an even split of first-person (49%) and third-person (51%) photos, with most individuals (70%) having at least one recent photo from each perspective.”
The study discusses the visual perspective and its impact on how people interpret events in photos. In first-person photos, people are more likely to form “situational attributions about a target’s behavior,” whereas third-person photos (aka selfies) “make people more likely to form dispositional attributions.”
“These findings fit with evidence suggesting that imagery perspective holds a range of implications for people’s judgments, decisions, and behaviors by shifting processing […]. First-person imagery evokes a processing style in which people understand events in terms of their experiential reactions to concrete features of the scene, whereas third-person imagery evokes a processing style in which people understand events in terms of broader knowledge structures and belief systems.
Accordingly, first-person imagery causes people to interpret events in line with their experiential reactions […], whereas third-person imagery causes people to interpret events in line with their abstract self-beliefs about their traits, values, preferences, and developmental trajectories […].”
You can read the entire study here if you’d like to go more in depth and read more about the methods used and the results of the study.
Think before you speak: about narcissism
As I said, people who post many selfies, or even self-portraits (yes, they differ), are often called narcissistic. It makes my skin crawl to see how easily the word “narcissist” is thrown around. No, a narcissist is not someone who loves looking at photos of themselves or their reflection in the mirror. It’s much more complex and much more dangerous than that.
According to Mayo Clinic, here are some signs of narcissistic personality disorder:
Symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder and how severe they are can vary. People with the disorder can:
- Have an unreasonably high sense of self-importance and require constant, excessive admiration.
- Feel that they deserve privileges and special treatment.
- Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements.
- Make achievements and talents seem bigger than they are.
- Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
- Believe they are superior to others and can only spend time with or be understood by equally special people.
- Be critical of and look down on people they feel are not important.
- Expect special favors and expect other people to do what they want without questioning them.
- Take advantage of others to get what they want.
- Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
- Be envious of others and believe others envy them.
- Behave in an arrogant way, brag a lot and come across as conceited.
- Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office.
At the same time, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they view as criticism. They can:
- Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special recognition or treatment.
- Have major problems interacting with others and easily feel slighted.
- React with rage or contempt and try to belittle other people to make themselves appear superior.
- Have difficulty managing their emotions and behavior.
- Experience major problems dealing with stress and adapting to change.
- Withdraw from or avoid situations in which they might fail.
- Feel depressed and moody because they fall short of perfection.
- Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, humiliation and fear of being exposed as a failure.
I was in a relationship with a narcissistic person, and it cost me my mental health. They will gaslight you, undermine you, call out on you, and make you question your self-worth and sanity. They also just love insecure, overly emotional, and hypersensitive people – as I was in my twenties. It took me years to heal from the trauma this relationship caused, and I’ve never again used the term “narcissist” lightly, especially not for someone taking selfies.
My personal opinion has always been that most people who post many selfies are insecure, lonely, or sad. They seek external validation and crave love and attention. Some of these traits can overlap with narcissistic personality disorder, but it’s still far, far away from having one.
However, this study broadened my views. It showed me that selfie-takers aren’t necessarily messed up, validation-seeking souls. Instead, there can be plenty of different, healthy reasons for taking selfies or self-portraits on different occasions. I like to believe that not everything is black or white, and I enjoy exploring all the shades of gray in between. And this study has helped me do it!