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How Mirrors and Photos Affect Our Self-Perception

Photos of yourself do not always match your inner image of your self.

Key points

  • The brain does not work like a camera that stores images.
  • The image of the self that exists in self-consciousness does not match reality.
  • The smartphone has far-reaching consequences for our memories.

The result of taking a photo is not always encouraging; you may not really recognize yourself in the picture. One reason for this may be that the photograph does not show us mirrored as we are used to. Interestingly, many mobile phones work in such a way that when you take a selfie with your phone, you first see a mirror reflection of yourself on the display, but once the photo is taken, it's turned the other way around.

Photography makes it possible to replace the momentary subjective image one creates of oneself with a permanent image, which is perceived as more real because it does not suffer from the fleeting mood of the moment. One of the earliest descriptions of photography is "a mirror with memory." Here, memory is used as a metaphor for photography.

Once photography had become commonplace, the metaphor was reversed, and photographic techniques were used to describe memory functions: our memory is seen as a gallery of images of what we have done. But the metaphor is misleading, the brain does not work like a camera that stores images. Our memory is more like a kaleidoscope, we piece together different visual memory fragments into constantly changing images.

It is fairly easy to show that the image of the self that exists in self-consciousness does not match reality. An experiment by psychologists Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch provides a clear example of unconscious self-deception in how we recognize photos of ourselves. The subject was shown several photos on a computer screen. The task was to point out the photo of themselves as quickly as possible.

Some of the self-portraits were manipulated to show a more attractive face than the real one. It was found that the subjects recognized the embellished photos of themselves faster than the real ones. Of course, the subjects are not aware that they perceive the manipulated images as more accurate than the real ones. The experiment also showed a correlation between how much the images were manipulated and how self-confident the subject was: The more self-confident, the more one reinterprets one's real appearance.

A Third-Person Experience of Yourself

When describing computer games, a distinction is made between a first-person perspective, where the player sees the game world directly through their own eyes, and a third-person perspective, where the player sees the character controlled in the game 'from the outside'. The same distinction can be applied to selfies: the third-person experience of yourself you get from the picture or movie you just took is mixed with how you experience yourself from a first-person perspective. The more selfies you take, the more your self-perception is influenced by the indirect experience you get through these images. Your external self-image no longer needs to be mediated by other people. You are sitting next to yourself as you looked a few seconds ago.

Unlike the image in a mirror, the photograph stands still and cannot be interacted with. It becomes easier to take an outside perspective on oneself when concerning a photograph. Susan Sontag writes: “While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken—feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.”

It is easy to forget that, unlike the mirror, it is not reality that becomes accessible through a photograph but an image. The photograph thus tends to diminish the direct experience, because the emotions it evokes are different from one's memory of the photographed situation and overlay it. The family camera, the video camera, and now the smartphone have had far-reaching consequences for our memories.

Facebook image: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Ollyy/Shutterstock

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