The selfie is the portrait of a generation. It’s why Snapchat automatically opens to show you your own face. And it’s why every smartphone on the market has a front-facing camera.
But new research published in The Journal of Research in Personality, led by Washington State University, might give you pause before taking that next selfie. The study found that people who took selfies were perceived by strangers to be less likable, more lonely, and even have lower self esteem than those who didn’t. Meanwhile, people who posted more “posies” (or photos of themselves taken by other people) were perceived as more successful, likable, dependable, and perhaps most importantly, like they would make a good friend.
“It’s been a while since I did the data analysis, but it was so different that I thought I’d done something wrong, just to be honest about it,” says professor of psychology Chris Barry, who led the study. “[I thought] that can’t be right. But it is.”
In the research, Barry’s team started by trying to find a correlation between people who take selfies and traits like narcissism. After all, many people who take selfies are assumed to do so out of a love of themselves—and some science has made this connection. But when running psychological profiles on 30 college students who used Instagram for selfies, “We didn’t find anything,” says Barry. “People post for lots of reasons. This isn’t necessarily a window into someone’s personality.”
However, photographs may be perceived as a window into someone’s personality, researchers hypothesized. So the team tasked more than 100 college students to rate the Instagram feeds of 30 other students on all sorts of criteria, like self-esteem and self-absorption. And that’s where the researchers did find something. People who had more selfies in their feeds were considered all-around lousier in every measured criteria, even being considered less confident and open to adventure, than those who posted more posies. By contrast, “posie” posters were more perceived as likable, accomplished people that subjects would want to be around.
Barry points out that it’s possible that if you post more selfies, you post less of other things, like food, that might articulate more interests or open-mindedness to hobbies and new experiences. In other words, there might just be too much of you, and not enough about things you’re into, to give your audience a full view of your personality. He also speculates that technology and social media tropes are at odds with our biological expectations of what people look like. “One theory is we think maybe the posie is seen as more natural. If we knew that person in real life, that’s how we’d perceive them,” says Barry. “The selfie is not natural . . . and maybe more showboaty,” he laughs.
Even still, Barry admits that context is everything, and this study specifically isolated images, seen by strangers, without captions. It’s possible that your friends react to your selfies differently than a stranger might and that we tolerate or even enjoy the selfies of celebrities and influencers because our expectation of that type of person is different.
Ultimately, Barry doesn’t advise the public to abstain from selfies altogether but suggests you might “take pause” before posting one. Or perhaps just make your friend take one instead. “The cautionary tail for this is, what people think your reasons are may be different from what they genuinely are,” says Barry. Indeed, selfies may be perceived as arrogant, but on social media as in real life, everyone just wants to be liked.