Communication and Technology  

The Science of Selfies

Selfies have taken social media by storm and have led to more than a few unfortunate and memorable incidents. But why do we take selfies in the first place? What drives otherwise normal people to take a selfie at a funeral and post it on a social networking site (SNS)? Or on the toilet? And what do these habits say about us?

It turns out that the answer is surprisingly complex. That’s why University of Florida Advertising Professor Eunice Kim in the College of Journalism and Communications and her colleagues at Korea University conducted a series studies to better understand our selfie-taking tendencies.

In the study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, 315 Korean citizens were surveyed about their selfie taking behaviors and attitudes. They were asked about their motivations for taking selfies, how often they posted selfies and whether they intended to continue to post selfies. They also included questions designed to measure narcissism, such as “I am more capable than other people” and “I really like to be the center of attention.”

Participants posted selfies for one of four reasons: to get attention from others, to communicate with friends and family, to record special moments in their lives and for entertainment – passing time when bored, for instance.

“Given that selfies showcase one’s interests and values, positive reactions and feedback received from social connections on SNSs (e.g., “likes” or “shares”) may act as testaments to the close relationships and social validation central to one’s self-worth,” Kim and her colleagues write.

The research also showed that participants who scored high in levels of narcissism were more likely to post selfies, a connection that the researchers explored further in another experiment.

In this experiment, Kim and her colleagues asked 85 Instagram users to fill out a survey regarding their selfie-posting habits and allow researchers to access their Instagram account. Results from this study were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The survey asked people about their social network usage (how often they logged on and how long they stayed on sites), whether they felt that other people approved of their selfie-taking habits, whether they intended to continue posting selfies and whether they felt in control of their selfies. This study also included the narcissism questions.

Over the next six weeks, researchers monitored the social media accounts of the participants and noted how often they posted selfies. Unsurprisingly, they found that people who intended to post selfies and felt in control of their selfies were more likely to post them. Likewise, believing that people approve of their selfies led them to post more.

The researchers also found a connection between narcissism and posting selfies. “For narcissists,” they suggest, “their primary use of SNSs may be associated with a range of strategic behaviors aimed at maintaining their embellished egos, such as attention seeking.”

So narcissists like to post selfies. But there’s good news for those of us addicted to our camera phones. Kim and her colleagues suggest that it may be possible to harness the power of the selfie for good.

“Self-portraits shown in public often include information on places, goods,  and  activities. The act of selfie posting on SNSs could be encouraged as a way to promote a socially worthy cause or idea,” they explain. “A recent, well-known example would be the Ice Bucket Challenge that was intended to raise awareness of Lou Gehrig’s disease and spread quickly on SNSs.”

To take advantage of the connection between selfies and narcissism, communicators working on social networking campaigns should make sure that selfie campaigns are well-positioned to garner the type of positive reaction and validation that narcissists crave. More research is needed to tease out these connections and figure out which types of messages are effective at achieving this outcome.

Posted: November 22, 2016
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