Why We Hate Seeing Photos of Ourselves

If you’re human then you’ve probably looked at a portrait of yourself at some point and been dissatisfied for one specific reason or another. Most of the time, though, it just comes down to an unexplainable “I don’t like it” or “I never look good in pictures” or, in extreme cases, a sound effect similar to gagging. But according to this short TED audition, the problem isn’t with your expression or your looks, it’s in your head.

The issue is that we’ve grown up seeing ourselves as nobody else has, in a mirror. Because of this our image of ourselves, the one that we’re used to (even if we don’t like it), is actually a mirror image of what everybody else sees and what a camera captures. The idea is that, when we look at a picture of ourselves, we pick up on the million little asymmetries that don’t match up with what our brain wants to see, so we dislike the image.

Admittedly the talk, being an audition, is painfully short and doesn’t go into detail on things like emotional lateralization (we tend to show emotion more on the right side of our faces) and left gaze bias (we consistently look more at the right side of people’s faces when we speak to them, shifting our focus to our left), both of which are worth looking into if the subject fascinates you.

Of course, the simpler option is to take a photo you don’t like of yourself and flip it on your computer. Chances are the outcome will look a lot more pleasing to you. The only downside? That picture will look as much better to you as it does worse to everyone else that knows you.

(via Reddit)

  • Ze Courlis

    That means that painters never painted real self-portraits, as they looked in a mirror to do it.

  • 4dmaze

    I am not buying it. Most people don’t like to hear the sound of their own voice either. I doubt it has anything to do with it be reversed in any way… Perhaps testing needs to be done on people that have never seen their reflection. This just sounds like a unsubstantiated theory.

  • Richard W.

    Beyond the mirroring aspect of this I think it is even deeper. Think of those times when you may have been smiling without the benefit of a mirror to confirm. In your mind you “see” your face and what your mouth is doing at that moment. I’m willing to bet that the mental picture does not match with either what you do see in the mirror or in a photograph. It truly is a Head thing…

  • JP

    Interesting but surprisingly unimpressive argument for a TED talk.

  • David Rychart

    Yeah but think about this: When you hear your own voice, your brain is doing all sorts of mental tricks to keep you from sounding like you’re talking through meat (which you are). When your voice is recorded and played back, it is a much more accurate rendition that you also are unaccustomed to hearing, ergo you don’t like it.

  • Titus-Armand

    “talking through meat”

    Is that some sort of innuendo?

  • wickerprints

    I hypothesize that people don’t like seeing their own portraits in part because they are static images, which allow us to freeze a specific moment to take in the entirety of what we look like, and pick apart each flaw. In fact, I’ve noticed this effect in portraits I’ve taken of OTHER people (and not just self-portraits): when I see and converse with them in person, I don’t notice the dark circles under their eyes, or the minute blemishes on their skin, or the wrinkles, or the occasional stray hair. But all of these things stand out when I see the photograph. For me, then, retouching is not necessarily about making them look flawless, but rather, making them look how I thought they would look to me if I were to see them in real life.

    Additionally, real people are always moving–their faces are always
    changing expression in subtle and dynamic ways, and freezing a specific
    moment for our brains to process and evaluate is unnatural. Try this experiment. Take a movie clip featuring some attractive celebrity actor, and pause it at any moment while they’re engaging in dialogue. How flattering or natural is the resulting expression? You could pick out countless awkward faces in the span of a 10-second clip of them acting.

  • Michael Darnton

    Where does that leave those of us who prefer photos of ourselves to the real thing?

  • Michael Choi

    This dude surely have never been to Asia where everyone takes nothing but self portraits with a camera phone getting satisfaction how pretty or handsome they look on the photos.

  • Sol_Invictus

    It’s not the “talking through meat” it’s the way your skulls resonates the sound. In other words it’s not the meat it’s the bone.

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    I think there’s also something to be said here for micro-expressions, many of which last only a fraction of a second but can sub-consciously signal all kinds of things such as “I may be smiling but I #^(@ing hate having my photo taken.”

  • Joe Burull

    It’s a 2-D 3-D thing. Even in the mirror we are seeing in 3 dimension, a photo flattens that. That’s why some people look better than others in photos. And rather than flipping in photoshop, just hold the picture up to the mirror.

  • Some Person

    This isn’t an impressive argument, what about the camera lens? These things distort how your face looks drastically at times, as well as flash, it flattens out your face. Also camera phones make people look x10 better than they really do compared to real life. Are all these things even considered? That’s why we have people who are photogenic, and those who aren’t.

  • zippy

    what side do people look at you is it the image we see in the mirror??? or the image we see in the picture??? PLEASE ANSWER…

  • Ashley Sue Bullers

    Really? Cellphone photos make people look 10x better than they do in real life? What magic phone do you have? The lens on these cameras is an extremely wide angle, distorting facial and features tremendously and making them sharp and harsh. Since when is that flattering? Photo after photo I’ve seen of friends, taken with cellies, show them looking wider, pointier, and splotchier than a good 85mm+ would have. Are all of these things you’ve even considered?

    PS. I’m talking good phones, too. Not some sort of ancient, brick-sized cell phone from a decade ago.