Scientists Explain Why People Love to Take Selfies

Woman taking a selfie

Scientists have figured out why people like to take selfies — and it’s not necessarily to do with vanity.

In a new study, researchers at Ohio State University suggest that while selfie shots may seem shallow, self-portraits actually serve a deeper psychological purpose and capture the “bigger meaning of a moment.”

According to the study which was published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal on Thursday, “first-person” photos which show the photographer’s eye view of a scene best represent the physical experience of an event they are shooting.

However, “third-person” photos, meaning shots that include the photographer, such as selfies or group shots, are better at depicting the deeper meaning of an event in that individual’s life, by showing them actively participating in that moment.

The researchers provided two photographic examples involving a trip to the beach. For example, while a photo of the ocean captures the physical experience of a beautiful day, a selfie with a friend depicts the time spent with a loved one.

“These photos with you in it can document the bigger meaning of a moment. It doesn’t have to be vanity,” co-author and professor of psychology at Ohio State, Lisa Libby says.

The Meaning of The Event

In a series of six studies involving over 2,100 participants, the researchers showed the differences between the decision to take a selfie or a third-person photo.

In one study, participants read a scenario in which they might want to take a photo, such as spending the day at a beach with a close friend.

Results showed that the higher participants rated the meaning of the event to them, the more likely they would take a photo with themselves in it.

Another study asked people to examine photos they posted to their Instagram accounts, to figure out the intuition people use to decide the perspective of their pics.

Participants opened their most recent Instagram post which featured their own photo and were asked whether the image made them think more about the physical experience or the bigger meaning of the moment.

Researchers found that if the photo featured the participant in the shot, they were more likely to say the photo made them think of the bigger meaning of the moment.

Meanwhile, photos featuring the scene from their own visual perspective made them think of the physical experience.

Intended Goal of The Photo

The researchers also found that people do not like photos as much if the image does not capture their intended goal.

In another experiment, participants again opened their most recent Instagram post featuring one of their photos.

Researchers asked whether they were trying to capture the bigger meaning or the physical experience of the moment, and then asked them to rate how they felt about the photo.

“We found that people didn’t like their photo as much if there was a mismatch between the photo perspective and their goal in taking the photo,” Libby explains.

Researchers found that if the participant’s goal was to capture the meaning of the moment, they liked the photo more if they were included in the image.

Selfies are Not Just About Self-Promotion

According to the study’s lead author Zachary Niese, the results suggest that people have an intuition about what perspective to use in their photos and selfies are not simply about self-promotion.

“I hope this study increases people’s knowledge about how photo perspective affects how they react to photos,” Niese says.

“That way, they can make sure they consciously choose the perspective that will meet their goal.”

The results also suggest people may be posting photos on Instagram and elsewhere for more than just their audience.

“This work suggests people also have very personal motives for taking photos,” Niese adds.

“Even on social media, it appears that people are curating images for themselves to look back on to capture the experience or the meaning of the event.”

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.