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Scientists have figured out why people like to take selfies

A recent study is shedding light on the reasons behind people’s inclination to take selfies, and contrary to popular belief, it might not be due to vanity. 

The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science on April 27, 2023, reveals that first-person and third-person photos serve different purposes for the individuals capturing them.

The study was led by Zachary Niese, a PhD graduate from The Ohio State University and currently a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Tübingen in Germany. 

Niese was able to demonstrate that first-person photos, which capture the scene as viewed through one’s own eyes, best represent the physical experience of an event. On the other hand, third-person photos, such as selfies, are more effective in conveying the deeper meaning of an event in people’s lives.

“We found that people have a natural intuition about which perspective to take to capture what they want out of the photo,” said Niese.

These findings challenge the assumption that people post selfies on platforms like Instagram solely for self-promotion. Instead, as study co-author Professor Lisa Libby points out, “These photos with you in it can document the bigger meaning of a moment. It doesn’t have to be vanity.”

Capturing a physical experience

Previous research has indicated that capturing the physical experience of an event or its broader meaning are two primary motivations for taking personal photos

For instance, a person at the beach with a friend may take a photo of the ocean to document the physical experience of the beautiful and relaxing day. Alternatively, they could take a photo with themselves in it to capture the deeper meaning of spending time with that friend.

The researchers conducted a series of six studies involving 2,113 participants to explore the impact of perspective in personal photography. 

In one online study, participants read a scenario in which they might want to take a photo, such as spending the day at a beach with a close friend. They were then asked to rate the importance of the experience itself and the significance of the event’s broader meaning. 

The results indicated that the higher participants rated the event’s meaning, the more likely they were to take a photo with themselves in it.

Second study offers similar results

Another recent study has provided further evidence supporting people’s intuitions regarding the effectiveness of different photographic perspectives in capturing the experience or meaning of events. 

One of the experiments in the study focused on people’s Instagram posts, asking them to examine their most recent personal photograph and consider whether it evoked “the physical experience of the moment” or “the bigger meaning of the moment.”

The results revealed that when participants were featured in the photo, they were more likely to associate it with the bigger meaning of the moment. Conversely, photos that captured the scene from their visual perspective were linked to the physical experience of the moment. 

However, the study also found that when there was a mismatch between the photo’s perspective and the individual’s goal in taking the photo, they tended to have a less positive opinion of the image.

In another experiment, participants were asked about their most recent Instagram post featuring one of their photos and whether they aimed to capture the bigger meaning or the physical experience of the moment. They then rated their feelings about the photo on a scale of 1 (not at all positive) to 5 (extremely positive). 

“We found that people didn’t like their photo as much if there was a mismatch between the photo perspective and their goal in taking the photo,” said Professor Libby. For instance, if the participants’ goal was to capture the meaning of the moment, they preferred the photo more if it was taken in the third person, with themselves in the image.

Conclusion of the studies

The study’s findings suggest that people intuitively understand the perspective they should use in their photos to achieve their desired outcome. Zachary Niese hopes that “this study increases people’s knowledge about how photo perspective affects how they react to photos,” allowing them to consciously choose the perspective that will best fulfill their goal.

Furthermore, the results imply that people may have more personal motives for posting photos on Instagram and other social media platforms, beyond appealing to their audience. 

“This work suggests people also have very personal motives for taking photos. Even on social media, it appears that people are curating images for themselves to look back on to capture the experience or the meaning of the event,” said Niese.

Overall, this research offers valuable insights into the psychology behind people’s choices in photographic perspective, challenging the notion that photo sharing on social media is solely driven by external validation. It highlights the personal significance that photography holds in capturing and preserving the essence of our experiences and the events that matter most in our lives.

More about selfies and social media

The rise of selfies and social media has had a significant impact on society in various ways, both positive and negative. Here are some key aspects to consider:

Communication and Connection

Social media platforms have made it easier for people to stay connected with friends and family, even if they are geographically distant. Sharing selfies and other personal photos can help create a sense of intimacy and maintain relationships. It allows individuals to share their experiences, emotions, and milestones with their online network.

Self-expression and Identity

Selfies and social media provide an opportunity for individuals to express themselves and present their identity to the world. People can showcase their interests, hobbies, and personalities through the images they share, helping them build a sense of self and connect with like-minded individuals.

Mental Health

The impact of selfies and social media on mental health is a topic of ongoing debate. On one hand, sharing selfies can boost self-esteem and promote a positive self-image. However, excessive focus on physical appearance and constant comparison with others can lead to feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and depression. Moreover, the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) can be exacerbated by seeing other people’s seemingly perfect lives on social media, increasing feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction.

Body Image and Beauty Standards

The prevalence of selfies and the tendency to share heavily edited or filtered images on social media have contributed to unrealistic beauty standards. This phenomenon can lead to body dissatisfaction, negative self-image, and even disordered eating behaviors, especially among young people.

Privacy and Security

As more people share personal images and information on social media, privacy and security concerns become increasingly important. Oversharing can put individuals at risk of identity theft, online harassment, or even physical danger in some cases.

Narcissism and Self-obsession

The selfie culture has been criticized for promoting narcissism and self-obsession. While not everyone who takes selfies is narcissistic, the act of constantly sharing images of oneself can foster an excessive focus on one’s own appearance and achievements, potentially leading to unhealthy levels of self-absorption.

Impact on Tourism and Public Spaces

The popularity of selfies has changed the way people experience tourist attractions and public spaces. Visitors often prioritize getting the perfect selfie rather than immersing themselves in the experience, which can detract from the enjoyment of the place or event. Additionally, the quest for unique and dangerous selfies has led to incidents of trespassing, damage to property, and even accidents or fatalities.

In conclusion, the impact of selfies and social media on society is multifaceted and complex. While these platforms have undoubtedly transformed the way we communicate, connect, and express ourselves, they also bring with them potential risks to mental health, privacy, and personal safety. As with any technological advancement, it is crucial for individuals to use these tools mindfully and strike a balance between the benefits and potential drawbacks.


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