The Psychology of the Selfie

By Jess Matthewman on Tuesday January 14, 2014

You’re standing in front of a mirror, with a pineapple on your head, a pair of giant neon sunglasses across your face and you’re pulling your best duck-face pout.

And you’re taking a photo of the occasion.

Yes, a photo of yourself, not a photo that a sneaky friend is taking so they can embarrass you later but a PHOTO OF YOURSELF IN THIS RIDICULOUS POSE AND YOU’RE POSTING IT ON THE INTERNET.

As much as we laugh, I’m sure we can all admit to taking a selfie in some capacity.  And who can blame us?

If you aren’t taking one, you’re in the minority. It seems nothing will stop the selfie: wind, rain and record low temperatures did nothing to stop people taking them this week in America…

Selfie 1

On top of that, you can even take a selfie in an alternate universe – just check out the character selfies from Grand Theft Auto V below - so there really is no escape.

Selfie 2

But what exactly makes us feel the need to take a photo of ourselves to share with our online friends? Is it a case of self-indulgent narcissism, or is it that the selfie seems to provide more safety and control than other photos?

It’s an interesting question, especially if you’re wondering how your brand could get on board with this seemingly ever growing trend.

To try and understand this a bit better, I’ve looked at the science behind the selfie and what attracts us into taking them.

“I’m Just A Teenage Dirtbag, Selfie”

Selfie 3

Of all the selfie converts, teenagers are far and wide the biggest fans of the craze. This is hardly surprising with them being the typical early adapters, who are most likely to have the latest smartphone model and who are most adept at using social networks.

But is there more to it than that? It would seem so.

Life as a teenager isn’t an easy one. This is the stage in life at which we begin to question our role and position in the world. This desire to achieve a sense of belonging is known as ‘identity formation’ and causes teens to ask questions such as, ‘who am I?’, ‘what do I want to be?’ and ‘will people like me?’.

Taking a selfie is one way of displaying this desired identity to the world while also providing a way to control what this identity looks like. The idea of being able to delete what you don’t like is particularly appealing to the teenage brain.

Me, My Selfie and I

Selfie 4

Linked to how teenagers have an urge to belong is the human desire to present a likeable representation of oneself to the world. In the past, we’ve relied on understanding what our worldly representation is through the feedback of others, but now we are not only able to see it for ourselves but we can shape our representation as we desire.

Creating an image which pleases us has a positive impact on our self-esteem, so it is little wonder that Instagram filters, Photoshop tools and other image controls are so appealing.

Feeling Selfie Assured

Selfie 5

The final piece of the selfie psychological puzzle is the need for peer approval. Once we have created an identity that we are pleased with, we desire the approval of others to reinforce the positive messages we have sent ourselves.

This isn’t simply asking for flattering feedback – it can extend to the ‘sad-face’ selfie which asks for sympathy – rather, it is feedback which agrees with our mentality or provides acceptance. As humans, this reinforcement is vital for meeting our emotional needs and providing a sense of security.

The Business Selfie

So, what does it all mean for business? Are we to begin manipulating people's long held desire for acceptance? I hope not.

But it is helpful to understand what drives people to share selfies and what makes people feel as though they belong. Make this a fun activity and they will genuinely engage with you. 

Selfie 6A good example of this is the #SelfieOlympics hashtag which has been trending this week. The origin of the idea is unknown, but the concept is genius.

Users simply post an image of their most ridiculous bathroom selfie – something that could be a hilarious, simple and inclusive competition idea perhaps? The key thing to remember is not to try and hijack the selfie concept – it certainly wasn’t your brand’s idea, so don’t try to take over the party.

So, what do you think? Is the selfie phenomenon down to our psychology? Do you agree with the use of selfies in brand campaigns? 

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