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Is Posting Selfies Motivated by Narcissism?

The answer may depend on the gender of the person posting the selfie.

Source: milosljubicic/Shutterstock

Selfies are everywhere. Given that taking one literally involves turning the camera on oneself, many have wondered if the behavior is inherently narcissistic. A new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences explores how gender and narcissism relate to sharing selfies on social media.

A number of other studies have already examined the link between narcissism and selfies. In an earlier post, I described one in which researchers examined how certain negative personality traits, including narcissism, related to men's likelihood of posting selfies. In that study, a team found that narcissistic men were more likely to edit their social media photos and post selfies. One limitation of that study was that only men were surveyed. In another set of studies, researchers surveyed both men and women. They found that women tended to post more selfies than men, but that, once again, narcissistic men posted more selfies. However, in women, narcissism was not strongly related to posting selfies; only the aspect of narcissism that involves wanting to be admired was related.

In a new study, researchers surveyed 179 Turkish university students about their selfie behavior. They examined three facets of posting selfies on social media:

  1. Attitudes toward posting selfies: How much people thought it was a good idea to post selfies and how much they liked it.
  2. Behavioral intentions: How confident people were that they would post selfies in the future.
  3. Actual behavior: People's reports of how often they posted selfies or encouraged their friends to do so.

Participants also completed a standard measure of narcissistic personality traits (not the personality disorder).

As in previous research, the results showed that women posted more selfies than men. All three facets of selfie-posting were related to greater narcissism for men. But narcissism was not related to selfie-posting for women.

This new study provides further evidence that narcissism is linked to posting selfies for men, and women's selfie-posting is not motivated by narcissism. The authors speculate that this may be because women's communication is more about creating personal relationships, while men's communication is more likely to involve seeking recognition from other people. However, this seems to be more of an explanation for why there are gender differences in narcissism, rather than an explanation for why narcissism is only linked to self-posting among men. Narcissistic people – male or female–seek recognition from others.

These gender differences could be explained by something that goes beyond narcissism: A concern about one's physical appearance. This concern may or may not be driven by narcissism. It is true that narcissism is linked to valuing physical attractiveness and working hard to maintain an attractive appearance. But narcissism is not the only reason people care about their looks. In fact, in the study I described earlier, researchers also found that self-objectification—the tendency to base one's self-worth on one's physical appearance—is linked to selfie-posting.

One well-documented factor that is related to concern about one's appearance is gender. Women tend to be more worried about their appearance, and this is often linked to a lack of self-confidence. So narcissistic women might post selfies because they think they're gorgeous and everyone should admire them. But women who have low self-esteem and score especially low on narcissism may post more selfies out of a desire to feel validated by others. Thus, both high narcissism and low narcissism may be related to posting more selfies for women—essentially canceling each other out.

If posting selfies reflects appearance concerns, this would explain why women, who are more concerned about their looks, post them more often. If men care less about their looks, they will post selfies less. But narcissistic men are especially appearance-focused, so they may be unique among men in their tendency to post selfies. (There are several other explanations for these gender differences, some of which I discussed in a previous post.)

Like most social behavior, posting selfies is probably the result of a multitude of personality factors, motivations, and situational pressures. So while there is mounting evidence that narcissism in men is linked to posting more selfies, it's important to remember that these effects are not large. So that guy who posts a lot of selfies might be narcissistic—but you should look for more evidence before rushing to judgment.