Science of Selfies: What Your Self Portraits Say About You

Photo courtesy of Andrew Fysh via Flickr. 

Since before Narcissus fell in love with his fountain-face, humanity has been obsessed with the selfie, or perhaps more accurately, just the self.

Self-documentation is a uniquely human trope — excluding this monkey selfie — that reflects ourselves through whatever mediums we have at our disposal.

Before, it was hieroglyphics and paint, but by the time of cameras, and eventually the Internet age, things got a whole lot more interesting.

The science of selfies and obsession with self

Why and how we do it is a philosophical and psychological query all at once. Those that have dared to study “selfiology,” like science author Jennifer Ouellette, reveal some interesting insights on what selfies mean to humanity and why.

Some of Ouellette’s observations, from her book “Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self” include:

  • We spend our lives reading the faces of others, but are less familiar with our own
  • Because of this, we often think we look better than we do. Selfies let us control and manipulate self image to our liking.
  • The self is a fragile construction of the mind, one that we define and curate through self-documentation and representative objects like photographs

What it means: Selfie obsession is not a new phenomenon. Though the self is in flux, humans have need to define themselves for their own understanding and as a means of communications. The Internet has intensified this need considerably.

The science of selfie demographics and location

SelfieCity, a data-driven analysis of selfies in five cities, tracks selfie-portraiture in New York, Moscow, Bangkok, Berlin, and San Paolo to identify and compare selfie trends on the popular photo-sharing app Instagram.

Major findings from their study include:

  • People take less selfies than assumed: Only 4 percent of photos were actually selfies.
  • Women take more selfies than men, unless they are in their 30s.
  • The estimated median age of selfie-takers was 23.7
  • People smile most in Bankok and San Paolo, and least in Moscow.

What it means: From SelfieCity’s insights, we get a fairly comprehensive look at who shares selfies on Instagram and how. Findings, however, are strictly related to the locations studied, and the social platform Instagram.

The science of selfies, hashtags, filters and likes

Another selfie study by “social media scientist” Dan Zarella, also based off of Instagram, looked at the relationship between the tagging and filtering of 160,000 selfies and the amount of “likes” received.

Major findings from the study include:

  • Cool-colored selfies get most likes
  • Hashtags #pretty, #boy, #girl, #daily and #hair received the most likes, as did hashtags requesting likes or follows (the more hashtags, the more likes)
  • Black and white and filterless selfies had most likes
  • Photos using the hashtag #NoFilter performed well, but 30% of selfies tagged this way actually did use filters

What it means: Though this study dates back to 2013, it gives us a good idea of best Instagram practice for selfies: less filters, generic tags, and many hashtags yield more likes.

The science of selfies, and what they say about you

Just because more hashtags get more “likes” doesn’t mean your friends actually like your selfies, or that you even like yourself.

Various studies have attempted to uncover the psychology behind selfie-taking. Findings include:

What it means: What it doesn’t mean is that just because you take a selfie, or even 100, you are absolutely a shallow, self-hating, unemployable botox-lover. These studies in bulk, however, do point to psychological trends that may drive obsessive selfie-taking.

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Jennifer Markert