- Many of the photos posted on social media platforms are selfies.
- Judges rated positivity in selfies to be related to extraversion and agreeableness.
- Duckface selfies were related to neuroticism.
- Selfies allow the owners a degree of control over how they look.
We may think that the type of photos posted on social media can give us some clues as to the photo owner’s personality characteristics. For example, we may infer that extraverted individuals post photos in which they are surrounded by friends, whereas those who are more conscientious may be more likely to be seen in environments that are neat and tidy. In addition to this, we often infer personality characteristics from facial expressions or body posture. Furthermore, there is research that suggests a link between the number of photos uploaded on Facebook and the account holder’s personality (Eftekhar, Fullwood & Morries, 2014).
Today, many of the photos posted on social media platforms are selfies, and therefore Lin Qiu and colleagues sought to investigate firstly what types of personality cues are communicated via selfies and, secondly, how others might infer personality characteristics from viewing selfies (Qiu, Lu, Yang, Qu, & Qu, 2015).
The participants in their study completed the Big Five Personality Inventory (John, Donahue & Kentle, 1991), which measures five distinct dimensions: extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The researchers then downloaded selfie profile photos of the participants and coded them according to a pretested system of 13 cues:
- Pressed lips
- Emotional positivity
- Eyes looking at the camera
- Camera height
- Camera in front
- Face visibility
- Amount of body
- Location information
- Public location
- Private location
- Photoshop editing
Finally, independent judges viewed each selfie and reported their impression of the personality characteristics of the selfie based on the Big Five Scale outlined above.
What they found
First, the researchers compared participants’ own personality ratings with their selfies and found that extraversion was unrelated to any of the 13 selfie cues listed above. This is possibly due to the selfie owners displaying positive emotion by carefully managing the impression portrayed in their selfies. They did, however, find that agreeableness was related to emotional positivity but negatively related to camera height, meaning that more agreeable participants were likely to take pictures from below. Conscientiousness was negatively related to displaying a private location in the selfie background, maybe indicating participants’ caution regarding their privacy. Finally, duckface selfies were related to neuroticism, whereas openness was associated with selfies displaying emotional positivity.
Next, the researchers looked at the relationship between the independent judges’ ratings of the personality characteristics of the selfie owners based on the selfie cues displayed by participants: in other words, how the judges used the cues in selfies to infer personality characteristics. They found that ratings of extraversion in the selfie owners were related to emotional positivity, which suggests that extraversion is related to facial expressions such as smiling. Judgments of agreeableness were related to emotional positivity and eyes looking at the camera, maybe implying that the direct eye contact communicated by this made the selfie owners look more agreeable.
Conscientiousness was judged to be related to emotional positivity and negatively associated with a duckface. Neuroticism was judged as being negatively related to emotional positivity but positively related to a duckface and face visibility, which suggests that showing a duckface and not showing a full face are perhaps related to moodiness. Neuroticism judgments were also attributed to those who zoomed in on their faces; in other words, neuroticism was negatively related to the amount of location and body information displayed in the photo and judged as being positively related to being alone. Judges attributed lower levels of openness to selfies displaying normal faces and faces with pressed lips. Finally, attributions of openness were also given to selfies showing emotional positivity, perhaps suggesting that smiling is an indicator of openness.
Accuracy of judgments
The independent judges who assessed the personality characteristics of the selfie owners were accurate only for assessments of the selfie owner’s degree of openness. The low level of accuracy in judging participants’ personality characteristics may be because the judges used the wrong types of cues in assessing selfie owners’ personalities. For example, the judges reported using emotional positivity to judge all five personality traits and, in addition, also utilized some newer cues, such as duckface, pressed lips, and background location. In sum, then, it seems that it is only openness that can be accurately detected from viewing selfies.
Why is it difficult to make accurate personality judgments from selfies?
It is obvious that selfies allow the owners a degree of control over how they look. In other words, selfie owners can decide exactly how they present themselves via their selfies and manipulate them accordingly, even though this may not reflect how they normally look. Selfies posted on social media generally present the owners in the most favorable way possible. Therefore, the real-life associations between extraversion and positivity, for example, may cease to be valid. Furthermore, selfies typically feature only faces, which means that cues such as clothing and body posture, which may also communicate personality characteristics, are absent.
The findings from this study have implications for other social media-related applications and platforms, such as online dating sites, for example, where people make dating decisions based on what they view from a person’s profile picture. This may be concerning given the current findings, which suggest that those viewing selfies generally tend to make inaccurate inferences regarding the personality characteristics of selfie owners.
Eftekhar, A., Fullwood, C., & Morris, N. (2014). Capturing personality from Facebook photos and photo-related activities: How much exposure do you need? Computers in Human Behaviour, 37, 162–170.
John, O. P., Donahue, E. M., & Kentle, R. L. (1991). The big five inventory—versions 4a and 54. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Personality and Social Research.
Qiu, L., Lu, J., Yang, S., Qu, W., & Qu, W. (2015). What does your selfie say about you? Computers in Human Behaviour. 52, 443-449.