Obsessed with yourself(ie)?

Obsessed with yourself(ie)?

Originally published in Edgars Club magazine

Cyberpsychology is a fascinating new branch of research into the ways we interact online and the behavioural phenomena associated with emerging technology. One tech trend currently getting a lot of attention in this sphere is the rise of the selfie, with researchers analysing the motivations behind its ubiquity. Hold on to your selfie-sticks, because things are about to get interesting… 

The first study to look at the psychology behind selfie-posting was published in 2015, in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences. Its authors, Jesse Fox and Margaret Rooney, investigated the link between selfie-posting and what’s known in psychology circles as The Dark Triad: narcissism, psychopathy (lack of empathy) and Machiavellianism (manipulativeness without concern for others).

‘Narcissist’ is a label much bandied about in today’s society, in a similar way to how almost every perfectionist incorrectly self-describes as ‘OCD’ . However, narcissistic personality disorder is believed by psychologists to be present in no more than one percent of the world’s population. And it doesn’t refer to simple vanity, either. ‘A narcissist is a person who has an exaggerated sense of self-importance and believes they are superior to others,’ explains Durban counselling psychologist Rakhi Beekrum. ‘They appear to be self-absorbed, admire themselves excessively and are entitled. Narcissists often have problems maintaining healthy relationships as they lack empathy and concern for others. They also, however, lack insight into their own behaviour. Even though they appear bold and confident externally, they actually have very fragile self-esteem.’

After analysing the personalities and selfie-posting habits of 1 000 study participants from the US, Fox and Rooney concluded that ‘narcissism and psychopathy predicted the number of selfies posted’. 

Now, don’t smash your smartphone just yet… ‘Before you start accusing all your selfie-posting Facebook friends of being self-obsessed narcissists and psychopaths, realise that these correlations (though significant) were relatively small,’ writes Dr Gwendolyn Seidman in Psychology Today. Dr Seidman is the chair of the psychology department at Albright College in the US, and specialises in relationships and cyberpsychology. ‘[It] most certainly doesn’t mean that everyone who posts frequent selfies is a narcissist,’ she says.

It certainly doesn’t – because one major flaw in that first study is that it didn’t include women. All 1 000 participants were American men between the ages of 18 and 40. A second body of research, also from 2015 but this time conducted in Poland, assessed the personalities and selfie-posting behaviour of 1 296 men and women, aged 14 to 47. ‘Women posted more selfies of all types than did men,’ say the researchers. ‘However, women’s selfie-posting behaviour was generally unrelated to their narcissism scores. In contrast, men’s overall narcissism scores positively predicted posting selfies. Our findings provide the first evidence that the link between narcissism and selfie-posting behaviour is comparatively weaker among women than men.’

In yet a third study, this time from 2018, researchers analysed the posting behaviour of 179 Turkish university students. They too found that, while the female participants posted more selfies than the male contingent, narcissism was not necessarily related to selfie-posting for women.

This gender divide could be explained by the fact that, according to Beekrum, ‘scientific research has consistently shown that more men than women meet the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.’ Thus in any study of this nature, it will be slightly more likely that men will be motivated by narcissism than women will be. But if that’s not the driving factor, why do women generally post more selfies than men do? 

In their study, the Polish researchers broke down narcissism into its four sub-scales: self-sufficiency, vanity, leadership, and admiration demand. They found that men’s vanity, leadership and admiration-demand scores each independently predicted the posting of one or more types of selfies. However, when it came to women, only the admiration-demand sub-scale predicted selfie-posting, leading them to believe that women’s elevated rate of selfie-posting could be linked to ‘self-objectification’. 

‘Basically, self-objectification refers to viewing oneself as an object first before seeing oneself as a person,’ says Beekrum. ‘Examples include excessive admiration of oneself in the mirror, constantly glancing at one’s reflection, and comparing oneself to others in the media or on social media.’ 

The sad truth is that women are far more likely to self-objectify than men are. ‘Historically, women have been objectified in the media, through advertising and by men. Over time women have internalised this, with some basing their self-worth on their appearance,’ says Beekrum. ‘The more compliments and attention they receive due to their appearance, the better they feel about themselves. The problem with this is that if the attention from others is absent, then they feel worse about themselves.’ 

And thus begins a vicious circle of selfie-posting, validation through likes and comments, and then the need to post another selfie for another hit of attention.

Interestingly, the original US study by Fox and Rooney found that a portion of their male participants were also engaging in a level of self-objectification. While these men posted fewer selfies than their narcissistic counterparts, they were the most likely to have edited the photos to improve their appearance.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, and you need not swear off selfies for life. ‘Problems arise only when selfies are taken to get attention from others – and if you feel invalidated if there are not enough likes and comments, or if you take and share selfies excessively because you feel you deserve to be admired,’ says Beekrum. ‘But there are certainly healthy selfie-taking behaviours. If, for example, there is no one else to take the picture, or you just want to capture a fun moment with friends or family, there’s no harm.’ 

So the next time you find yourself switching to the front-facing camera, take a beat to analyse why you’re doing so. If you’re not on the hunt for validation or admiration, we say snap to it. 

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz

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