Three Reasons Why We Shouldn't Confuse Selfies with Vanity

Selfies tell us more about social norms, motivations, and anxieties than vanity.

Posted Sep 30, 2014

Eliza Dooley has 263,000 followers who hang on to her every post, tweet, and selfie. But one lonely day she has a revelation: being friended is not the same as having actual friends. She asks her co-worker marketing guru, Henry, to 'rebrand' her self-obsessed reputation and teach her how to connect.” [] 

So goes the synopsis for a new sitcom: “Selfie,” set to air tonight on ABC (note the overt nod to Eliza Doolittle, given the Pygmalian plot-line). Whether or not the show ends up connecting with audiences, it speaks to a cultural moment and an ongoing cultural concern, echoed in countless articles (including many featured in Psychology Today!) and humorous videos (like the “No Selfie Zone" prank). Everywhere you turn, someone is worrying about or debating the perceived epidemic levels of vanity and narcissism thought to motivate selfies and other forms of self-oriented social media behavior. However, framing the issue as one of superficial self-aggrandizement may be neither accurate nor useful. Here are at least three reasons why:

Social norms: A basic and perhaps obvious explanation for the selfie phenomenon is that we take selfies because we can. And, relatedly, because other people do. The ubiquity of photo-snapping and photo-sharing technology has made sending and posting selfies incredibly easy to do. The same technological advances that allow us to post our own pictures also allow us to see what other people are posting. Even without a strong motivation to post a selfie, we may be moved by the social norms that pervade sites like Facebook and Twitter (and Tinder and Instagram and Snapchat and…). Social learning theory suggests, just as it sounds, that we learn efficiently not just by doing but by watching others do. Further, we are more likely to emulate a given behavior when it is socially rewarded. Watching other people post selfies and receive praise or “likes” not only makes us aware that we ourselves can do the same thing, but it also may encourage us to think we SHOULD do the same thing. 

It is not that people don’t vary in their likelihood of posting selfies (even the most informal Facebook poll indicates vast differences in selfie tendencies and attitudes); as with any kind of human social behavior we each fall on a motivational spectrum. However, there are powerful norms in place at the moment that may overdetermine any one person’s likelihood of posting a selfie. Social psychology teaches us to beware the “fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to underestimate the power of situational forces when explaining another person’s behavior. It is also easy to commit what some call the “ultimate attribution error” which is the FAE writ large, our tendency to characterize entire social groups in dispositional ways without appreciating situational determinants of their behavior (as in “Generation Me”). When we focus on the broader social context of selfie culture, we might even consider it rather poignant that we seem to fashion our latest tools and tricks into social and self-relevant means of communication. This brings me to the next explanation… 

Social motivations: We also take selfies because we are inherently social creatures. We evolved in groups that enabled us to survive and flourish. We survived because we learned to communicate, to share, and to show. In step with these social roots, we developed an inherent need to be seen, valued, and connected to others. Famed psychologist, thinker, and writer, William James (1892) noted: “we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind” (p. 190). He goes on to suggest that if we were to go unnoticed by those around us we would experience “a kind of rage and impotent despair…from which the cruelest bodily tortures would be a relief” (p. 190). If you doubt the rage and despair part of the story, you need only watch the vaguely heart-breaking developmental psychology videos of mothers instructed to go blank after animatedly interacting with their infants. If you find the "bodily tortures" bit hyperbolic, you might consider recent forays into social neuroscience showing that social rejection activates brain regions typically associated with physical pain. We are wired to need to be seen and to belong. 

Our earliest mirrors in life are, in fact, other people. We come to understand our identities and emotions, in part, by seeing them reflected in the eyes of our caregivers (for better and worse). As we mature, we ideally become less reliant on social mirrors to derive a sense of self and worth, although the tendency to use others as a “looking glass” (as Cooley termed it in 1902) does not entirely disappear. As James (1892, again) notes of adulthood (sexist language alert): “a man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize and carry an image of him around in their mind” (p. 190). One major update that our current “selfie moment” affords is that the images of us that are carried in other people’s minds are literal. Our need to be seen, then, has become increasingly played out on a visual stage rather than a metaphoric or emotional one. The next explanation is tied to this reality and begs the question, is this a good thing? 

Social anxieties: Finally, the notion that selfies are primarily shallow, self-promotional phenomena may obscure the painful anxieties that can motivate and be perpetuated by social media use. Indeed, even narcissism (which has been linked to increased photo-posting on social media sites) can be conceptualized as a need for excessive validation. Some research suggests that narcissists may have low implicit (or unconscious) self-esteem that runs counter to their more overt high self-esteem. Still other research suggests that narcissists are more reactive to social rejection than they may let on, according to their brain reactivity. And still other research finds that both chronic and daily insecurities about relationships rather than boastful delight underlies more frequent relationship posts on Facebook. My own related research on fame suggests that both narcissism and the need to belong motivate interests such as being on the cover of a magazine or being recognized in public. Even the most seemingly ego-driven fantasies are more complicated than they appear. 

Since belonging needs are so fundamental, some scholars have noted that self-esteem may have evolved, in part, to help us gauge our relative standing in our social group. (Others have daringly suggested that our pursuit of self-esteem itself is a liability for emotional health and well-being.) We may now have entered a phase of “selfie-esteem”--a handy concept that already has an urban dictionary definition: “Taking an excessive amount of selfies to boost one's image of themselves” with an accompanying example, “Jen's Instagram is full of selfies but its just because she needs to boost her selfie-esteem.”). The gender of the hypothetical person is likely not random here. Anxiety about physical and sexual attractiveness may be particularly problematic for young girls and women who are already subject to ubiquitous sexualization and objectification experiences by others and the mass media. The encouragement young girls and women receive to constantly look their best (and a certain media-perpetuated definition of best) is often incredibly blatant. Is it any wonder, then, that "Am I Pretty" videos are cropping up? It seems to be insult to injury to label young girls “vain” for trying to accommodate (perhaps control) the relentless directives to focus on achieving beauty at all costs. Again, we are prone to underestimate social context and pressure. 

Okay, so all three explanations are starting to run together: cultural and technological norms influence the particular ways we are attempting to meet our social and psychological needs. For better and worse. So what to do?

My students describe how social media can both boost and depress their self-image and social life, making them feel overly vulnerable to approval from their peers and overly concerned with how they are presenting themselves online. They struggle to find the balance between being addicted to their phones and being “off the grid.” We love to communicate, to share, to express ourselves, and to be seen “favorably.” But we have to guard against a tendency to constantly see ourselves from the outside in, and from becoming overly preoccupied with our reflection in the literal mirrors we send out to others. Doing so puts us at risk for various emotional and cognitive disruptions-whether decreasing our experiences of “flow” (optimal engagement in an absorbing activity linked to well-being and happiness), our adherence to internal goals and standards, or our ability to contribute to causes larger than ourselves (also, happily, associated with greater well-being and happiness). Ironically, the very human and adaptive motivations that drive our selfie habits may also spiral into maladaptive behaviors and outcomes. Perhaps the best we can do is remind each other to periodically step back, unplug, take breaks, take deep breaths, and think more about how an experience feels than how it, and we, might look.