Jayme Burrows/Shutterstock
Source: Jayme Burrows/Shutterstock

Perhaps you despair when you think about what social media has come to in the age of the selfie. It seems as if everyone is posing for self-portraits in front of everything from national landmarks to beach parties. Researchers in social psychology are trying to understand why this trend has become so prevalent. A new study uses a well-established social psychology theory to give us some perspective on who’s most likely to post selfies and why.

According to University of Florida’s Eunice Kim and colleagues in a September 2016 paper, there are 93 million selfie postings every day, but there are few studies allowing for the prediction of selfie posting. They observe that narcissism is the personality trait most frequently associated with it, but that this isn’t necessarily a predictor. Not everyone high in narcissism posts selfies on a regular basis.

Instead of focusing on personality alone, the University of Florida researchers based their work on University of Massachusetts social psychologist Icek Aizen’s “Theory of Planned Behavior” (TPB) which links attitudes with behaviors. TPB is based on a large body of work conducted over the past 30 years by Aizen and others to provide clarity on the somewhat murky link between what people believe and what they actually do. You may believe it’s important to recycle the paper in your home, but when it comes to separating paper from pizza, you don’t always act on that belief.

According to TPB, attitudes are only one factor needed to predict behavior. You have to believe that the behavior is one that others engage in (a subjective norm), and that you’re capable of enacting that behavior (perceived behavioral control). These three components will, in turn, predict your intention to behave in a way that is consistent with your attitude. Only when you have that intention will you actually carry out the behavior.

In the case of selfies, people who will eventually post their selfies have to adhere to the attitude that posting selfies is of value because it is fun and can enhance your self-image. Then, they have to see the behavior as socially normative because their peers engage in it as well. You may think it would be fun to post selfies, but if you perceive that you’re “too old” to be doing this or that your friends will think you’re vain, you won’t do it, or you’ll post only to your very closest friends and family members. The next factor, perceived behavioral control, refers to how easy or difficult you think it will be to engage in selfie posting. If you never figured out how Instagram works, or if you’re not sure how well you’ll be able to pose for a selfie, you won’t get into the trend at all.

Now we get to the fourth predictor of selfie posting, the one you probably thought of first—the personality trait of narcissism. As Kim and her coauthors point out:

“A crucial component of narcissism is grandiosity, which involves an inflated sense of self-importance….To affirm and maintain overly positive self-views, narcissists engage in a range of self-regulatory strategies such as seeking admiration or fantasizing about their self-esteem."

They form their identity around the impressions they feel they make on others. Selfies provide the perfect opportunity for people to present those in their circle with the self-promoting content. According to the TPB model, then, narcissists should be especially likely to have an intention to post selfies, which would then be the final link in the connection between attitudes and behavior. TPB doesn’t ordinarily take personality into account, but in the case of selfies, narcissism is such an important determinant that without it, the model wouldn’t work.

To test this model for understanding selfie use, the research team asked 85 respondents (only two of whom were male) to allow their Instagram accounts to be accessed over a six-week period so that the number of selfies could be counted. Rather than rely on self-reports (as the majority of other studies had done), the researchers were able to determine exactly how many selfies the participants had posted.

On to the results: The statistical model predicting selfie use from TPB and narcissism showed that, as expected, all four factors were significant influences on selfie posting intention. In turn, intentions predicted number of selfies. Although narcissism proved to be a predictor of selfie behavior, it wasn’t sufficient on its own. People also have to see selfie posting as normative, fun, and easy to do. Instagram makes all that possible.

You might conclude from this study that all selfie posters are narcissists. However, there was considerable room left in the predictive model for other influences, even beyond those measured in this study. Part of the story of selfie posting relates to narcissism, but a large share also relates to the social norms in which selfie posting is seen as enjoyable, worthwhile, and a part of  connecting you to the larger culture.

In fact, the authors believe that selfie posting can have benefits. For people high in narcissism, yes, it’s a way to create a certain identity. But is that so bad? People with narcissistic tendencies need to construct a self-image that they believe others will regard favorably. Because selfie posting provides a viable way to do that, it can have therapeutic effects. No one gets harmed in the process, no one is forced to look at all those selfies, and perhaps, over time, the individual can feel affirmed enough to be able to move on to other ways to express his or her self-image. After all, the participants in this study were college-age individuals whose identity is in the formative stages. In this context, posting selfies is no different from other forms of expression and identity testing.

Kim and her group also believe that selfies can be used for socially constructive causes. The Ice Bucket Challenge used selfies as a way to raise awareness of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There were very few critics of this movement at the time, and in the long run, it turned out to have beneficial effects on the funding of research.

To sum up, there is a great deal of criticism of selfie culture and an implicit assumption that it only fosters more narcissism. However, personality alone isn’t enough to spur selfie use, and the idea that we build our identities in a socially constructed universe may be a useful one in understanding the many paths to fulfillment.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Reference

Kim, E., Lee, J., Sung, Y., & Choi, S. M. (2016). Predicting selfie-posting behavior on social networking sites: An extension of theory of planned behavior. Computers In Human Behavior, 62116-123. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.078

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

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