Girls taking a selfie. MUSSI KATZ/CC FLICKR

We’ve all seen a selfie being taken in the wild: carefully angling their heads, selfie takers adjust their hair, smiling to show just the right amount of teeth to capture with their awkwardly-stretched, phone-brandishing hand.

A recent study at the University of Toronto examined the social effects of taking selfies. “Finding subjects for the non-selfie taking population was quite difficult,” confessed Dr. Daniel Re, postdoctoral fellow in a social cognition lab of the psychology department at U of T. The study’s focus was about what goes on inside the heads of the selfie ‘artists’ and their target ‘audience.’

According to the study, the amount of effort needed to generate the perfect selfie is not as appreciated as subjects might think; it might actually make the recipients think negatively about the subject of the selfie.

This effect links to a concept known as ‘meta-perception,’ which refers to an individual’s knowledge of how others perceive them. “People’s meta-perception is usually quite accurate, with people’s view of themselves being similar enough to what others think of them,” Dr. Re explained. “Exceptions are present, for example, in people suffering from depression, who commonly view themselves more unfavourably in comparison to how others view them.” Quite the opposite effect is seen in people with narcissistic traits.

Meta-perception accuracy or ‘meta-accuracy’ was found to be reduced in individuals who frequently take selfies. The nature of the selfie forces the subject to see a static image of themselves literally in their own established ‘best light,’ leading them to perceive themselves as more attractive. According to Dr. Re, this engages in a “self-favouring bias.”

The recipients, however, are inclined to view the selfie taker as unknowingly exposing negative aspects of their personality such as vanity, narcissism, and a lack of likability, which creates unfavourable impressions about the subject.

The experimenters instructed two subject groups, selfie takers and non-selfie takers, to take a selfie of themselves similar in style to what they might post on social media. The subjects were then asked to pose for a photo taken by the experimenter in a manner they would adopt in front of a friend.

After they completed a test that measures their level of narcissism, the two groups were then asked to rate their photos based on attractiveness and likability. A group of external judges were also asked to rate the photos, which were distributed so that one judge would not see both photos of the same person.  

It was revealed that selfie takers rated their attractiveness and likability higher than the judges, but this did not extend to the non-selfie takers whose ratings coincided with the judges. Both selfie takers and non-selfie takers did not rate themselves as significantly narcissistic after looking at their own photos. The judges, however, rated the individuals in the presented selfies as more narcissistic, less attractive, and less likable.

Ironically, Dr. Re explained that selfie takers still perceive other selfie takers as vain and narcissistic when looking at their photos.

Although narcissists are more likely to be engaged in excessive selfie taking, moderate selfie taking does not reflect a narcissistic personality. “When we subjected selfie takers and non-selfie takers to a commonly used forty-question Narcissism Personality Inventory (NPI) test, there was no apparent difference between the two populations,” said Dr. Re.

So, before you pose for that next selfie — and take the time to perfect the lighting, the filters, and your facial expressions — you should think twice about whether or not you want your narcissism to be captured as well.

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