Selfie was crowned an official word back in 2013 when it made distinguished entry into the Oxford English Dictionary. The historic day was celebrated, quite literally, with even more selfies shared across the social ether – unsurprisingly. According to Google, it’s estimated that in 2017 alone over 24billion selfies were taken globally.
But does taking a selfie really reflect self-obsession? Over the years, researchers have tried to delve more deeply into exactly why humans engage in this selfie-taking ceremony and how it can provide underlying insights into an individual’s personality. The more we take them, the more interested scientists become in this relatively new behaviour.
Researchers believe that taking a selfie and then sharing this onto a social media platform is a new way of self-presentation, that is the instinct to present yourself in a way that controls or shapes how others view you.
Although a selfie is a modern phenomenon, the motive of self-presentation is not. Early examples of self-presentation include how ancient Britons (British Celtic Iceni tribe) under Boudica used to paint their faces with woad when they went into battle, altering the way they looked by making them more frightening to their opponents. Or how ancient Egyptians would paint their faces with makeup to make themselves look more beautiful - beauty was regarded as a sign of holiness. Or, how throughout history, from tapestries, to old paintings, humans are always trying to represent themselves as more powerful and more attractive.
Current research from psychologists at the University of Bologna suggest that there are two personality traits known to influence self-presentation: narcissism and self-esteem.
Narcissism can be defined as the extreme interest in or appreciation of oneself and one’s physical appearance. Self-esteem can be defined as the emotional evaluation of your own self-worth. While narcissism and self-esteem have common traits, narcissism can sometimes be destructive to personal relationships, whereas self-esteem may be supportive.
Yongjun Sung’s recent research from the Department of Psychology, Korea University, suggests that there are four motives for selfie-taking and they can fall under the following categories and can often be simultaneous:
· Attention-seeking - the determination to pursue positive affirmation from your peers
· Entertainment - to pass time and to escape boredom
· Communication - to build and sustain relationships within your social networks
· Archiving - to make a permanent record of special events
Narcissists tend to engage in selfie-posting because they crave the attention from others and feel the urge for entertainment - a combination of attention seeking and the desire to escape from boredom.
But what does a narcissistic selfie look like vs a non-narcissistic selfie?
Well this is difficult to qualify, as the motives for taking a selfie can be concurrent. However, those without obvious narcissistic traits may be more likely to take a selfie for motives such as communication and archiving. For example, a selfie may be taken for substantiating authenticity and to encourage the building of new relationships with colleagues or friends on social media. A selfie may also be taken for archiving purposes, for those who are sentimental, a record of travels or memorable events, particularly those reflecting relationships. Or a selfie may be taken merely for harmless fun! So why has the word selfie become so tarnished?
Has the word selfie become synonymous with vanity and self-obsession?
With the ever-growing corpus of literature around the selfie-taking phenomenon, and with many studies receiving media attention because of the correlations between narcissism and the act, it’s no wonder our perceptions are being influenced. Often selfie-takers are criticised and judged:
“You do love a selfie,” has become the new millennial back-handed insult.
Yes, we do know that selfie-taking is not an unmotivated act, but it’s certainly not limited to narcissists!
So next time you reach for your phone or camera, you don’t need to feel guilty, cue: “let me take a selfie!”