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Why Do People Take Selfies?

Past research links narcissism and taking selfies. But is there more to it?

soyvanden courtesy pixabay | CC0 License
Source: soyvanden courtesy pixabay | CC0 License

Is taking selfies narcissistic? The answer to that question is complicated.

Past research found significant — but relatively small — links between taking selfies and narcissism. Other research has found no substantial link. Still other research has shown a stronger link for men than women. This inconsistency in research results may be because not all selfies are equal. Research has shown that narcissistic individuals take more solo selfies, but fewer selfies that feature other people. And while researchers have focused a lot on how the frequency of selfie-taking relates to personality, few studies have really examined why people take selfies. New research by Erin Koterba and colleagues, recently published in the journal Media Psychology, examined these issues.

Narcissism is defined as a grandiose perception of the self with a desire to be admired and a lack of empathy for others. Personality questionnaires that measure narcissism can divide the trait into multiple components:

  • Leadership/Authority: Feeling that one is important and should be in charge of other people
  • Entitlement/Exploitativeness: Feeling that one is deserving of special privileges and being willing to take advantage of others
  • Grandiose exhibitionism: The desire to show off and be the center of attention

In the study, 276 college students completed a survey consisting of a questionnaire measuring narcissism. Then they estimated how many selfies they took in the past week, both alone and with other people in the photo. Respondents also answered an open-ended question in which they listed what motivates them to take selfies.

The results showed that one particular aspect of narcissism — grandiose exhibitionism — was the only personality trait linked to self-taking, and solo-selfies in particular. Exhibitionism wasn't related to taking selfies that included other people. However, even though this correlation was statistically significant, it wasn't that large. So grandiose exhibitionism is only one small factor that makes people more prone to taking solo selfies.

The researchers coded the open-ended responses about people's selfie-taking motives into different categories and calculated the percentage of respondents who listed each type of motive:

  • Narcissistic: For example, "I think I am attractive and I have no problem sharing that," 29.5%
  • Sharing and connecting: For example, "I want to share my experiences with my friends," 23.3%
  • Functional use: For example, "I am a sponsored fitness athlete. It’s my job," 22.80%
  • Self-esteem boosting: For Example "So I can feel better about myself," 15.54"
  • Memory: For example, "Document memories," 5.7%
  • Conformity: For example, "It's what young people do, so it's just a trend I follow," 3.1%

As you can see from the list above, narcissistic motives were the most common. But sharing and connecting and functional use came in close second and third. So while almost a third of the respondents indicated narcissistic reasons for posting selfies, that still means 70% listed other reasons. Interestingly, these narcissistic motives were not linked to participants' level of narcissism.

So, if 30% of respondents had narcissistic motives for posting selfies, does that mean that young adults are narcissistic? Given that these motives were not associated with respondents' level of narcissism, it suggests something else might be going on. The researchers argue that concluding that this shows evidence of the narcissism of young people is premature. They point out that young adults tend to be more focused on themselves, but not necessarily more narcissistic. Concerns about finding your own identity and how you present yourself to other people loom large in young adulthood.

Also, the motives classified by the researchers as narcissistic may not necessarily always indicate narcissism. The researchers had to code open-ended responses and then they interpreted them as falling into one of the six motivation categories. In fact, motives reflecting the "body positivity" movement might be interpreted as narcissistic, using these methods of coding participants' responses, depending on how the respondents phrased their responses. Self-esteem boosting was only listed by a small number (15%) of participants as a motive for selfie-posting, but it might be that people don't consciously list that as their main reason for taking selfies, even if esteem-boosting is their underlying motive. So they might say, I post selfies because "I'm happy with my body and I want to show it off," but it means "I've worked hard to become happy with my body, and I want others to see that and feel empowered too" or "I'm finally happy with how I look, but I still need that validation from others." In fact, some research has shown that vulnerable narcissism, a form of narcissism that is more introverted where people vacillate between pride and shame, is associated with taking selfies related to physical appearance. This suggests that selfie-taking can sometimes indicate insecurity.

This research suggests that self-centered motives for taking selfies are common, but not necessarily strongly linked to trait narcissism. And narcissism's connection to selfie-taking is a small part of a bigger picture.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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