How many photos of you are on your phone right now?

These days, humans take almost 1 trillion photos a year. (To put that into context, that’s more photos every few minutes than in the entire 19th century.)

And lots of these photos are selfies—self-portraits, usually taken with a smartphone. As of this writing, nearly 300 million Instagram photos had been tagged with the selfie label.

We love getting into the “whys” of social media psychology, so in this post I set out to discover why we love taking photos of ourselves—and why we love viewing selfies.

What does “selfie culture” say about the world we’re living in now, and how can viewing photos of others help us make better decisions and even understand one another better? Read on for the full psychology of selfies.

psychology of selfies

A brief history of selfies: Why we take them

As early as the 15th century, according to Dr. Terri Apter, psychology lecturer at Cambridge University:

 “People who had access to self representations were keen to make use of them. In this way people could control the image projected, and of course the fact that the image was on display marked the importance and status of the person represented.”

the first selfie?

So self-portraits are about self-image—how we define ourselves.

They’re also a way to figure out who we are. The “looking-glass self” is a psychological concept that says that how we see ourselves doesn’t come from who we really are, but rather from how we think others see us.

And now that we can A) take a selfie in mere moments, and B) share them with thousands of people online at any time, the impact that others have on our self-value has increased.

The site Everyday Sociology argues that this change has led us to invest more into selfies as part of the work of projecting our identities onto others:

“The more pictures you post of yourself promoting a certain identity—buff, sexy, adventurous, studious, funny, daring, etc.—the more likely it is that others will endorse this identity of you.”

The science of face photos: Why we love looking at others

We notice faces first

Human faces have always been particularly effective attention-grabbing mechanisms. Researcher Dr. Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, has studied the neuroscience of face perception for years:

“Most of us pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else,” says Churches. “We know experimentally that people respond differently to faces than they do to other object categories.”

And social media is no exception: Face-tracking studies show that the profile picture or avatar is the first place the eye is drawn to on Facebook and other social media profiles. (Want advice on creating a stellar profile pic? We’ve got the science on that!)

here-s-how-people-look-at-your-facebook-profile-literally-7346ff71cc

 

On Instagram, pictures with human faces are 38 percent more likely to receive likes and 32 percent more likely to attract comments than photos with no faces.

face photos stat

Faces can guide our gaze

Faces not only compel us, they can drive us to action. Online, we follow the eyes of the people we see on screen.

Looking directly into the camera can help make a direct connection with someone. Looking to the left or right will help guide the reader’s eyes in that direction.

KISSmetrics has done a great job of explaining a bit about this reasearch:

“Human beings have a natural tendency to follow the gaze of others, and we have been coached since birth to follow arrows directing us to where we should be looking/going.”

baby-face-eye-tracking

Viewing faces creates empathy

A final tidbit about why we respond so well to photos of faces: They can help create empathy in us. A study of radiologists added photos of patients into the doctors records like so:

face photos radiology study

The results showed that seeing photos of patients increased empathy among doctors, and even improved the way they treated patients.

The highs and lows of selfies on social media

The high: They can improve self-esteem

It’s become somewhat common to think of those who post selfies as narcissistic or vain, but one great effect of selfies is that they can bolster self-esteem, particularly in women.

In a TODAY/AOL body image survey, 41% of adult women said selfies and other flattering online photos make them “feel more confident (although 46% said that “overall, social media makes me feel more self-conscious about my appearance.”)

For teenage girls, the results were even more empowering: 65% said seeing their selfies on social media boosts their confidence, and 40% of all teens said social media helps “me present my best face to the world.”

The low: They can harm relationships

Over-selfie-ing, however, can be a problem:Research has showed that sharing too many self photographs on social media could possibly damage weaker relationships.

A UK study asked 508 Facebook users to rank how close they felt to friends who also use Facebook. They then compared the answers for each person to how many selfies that person posted.

They found that the more someone posted selfies, the lower they ranked on the intimacy scales of the participants.

Said study author Dr. David Houghton:

“Our research found that those who frequently post photographs on Facebook risk damaging real-life relationships. This is because people, other than very close friends and relatives, don’t seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves.”

The verdict? It’s all about healthy context

So are selfies great for us or bad for us? It all depends on how—and how often—we turn to them. A great middle ground can be found in Dr. Josie Howard, M.D.’s comments to the website Refinery29:

“It depends on how you use it. If you’re using it as a tool to document feeling good about yourself and you’re just taking mementos of living a great life, that’s fine.”

How to take a better selfie

All in on selfies and want to make sure you’re putting your best face forward? NowSourcing has a nice infographic with some tips; here’s a snippet:

better selfies

Selfies in marketing: 5 awesome examples

We know social media works great with visuals. We know we love taking photos of ourselves and we love viewing photos of others. So it’s a given that face photos and selfies can have a place in great marketing campaigns.

Brands are harnessing the power of selfies in lots of different ways—from soliciting user-generated content to creating interactive apps and everything in between.

Here’s a look at five great examples. Do they give you any ideas for your own marketing?

1. The 1888 Hotel: A selfie-encouraging space

In Sydney’s 1888 Hotel, selfies aren’t just welcome—they’re very encouraged. The hotel’s website is covered in Instagram photos, and the hotel itself offers a photo-opp-filled tour around the hotel and nearby harbor.

1888 hotel

A designated “selfie frame” in the lobby beckons guests to take photos, which they can then see appear on screens near the reception area.

1888 selfie frame

 

Try it: If you’ve got a physical space and/or a product people might like to be photographed with, tap into our innate selfie urge by setting up a photo booth or designated selfie area, or simply add a prominent sign welcoming users to snap photos. Make sure you provide consistent tagging information so you can gather them later on your site or social media presence.

2. Warby Parker: Get opinions from friends

Warby Parker’s glasses home try-on program is pretty legendary now, and with good reason. Giving customers 5 pairs of glasses to try on and decide between is a genius, organic way to spread word of your brand by simply encouraging people to do what we do naturally—ask our friends for their opinions.

Warby also welcomes users to post selfies on the brand’s own Facebook page for an expert opinion.

warby home try-on

Try it: Any product one might ask for advice on (clothes, makeup, and more) could be a great choice to encourage selfies. Think: Before-and-afters, dressing room decisions and more. Bonus: Added social proof with every mention! Another idea for non-physical storefronts is to mail out selfie-encouraging treats, like Google is doing right now in my home state with Google Fiber shirts.

3. Dove: Empowering though user-generated content

Dove is well known for its marketing efforts that focus on empowering messages. The brand even made a short film about selfies. A look at Dove’s Twitter account recently turned up the #loveyourcurls user-generated content prompt on Twitter:

Dove user generated content

And many women are responding by sharing lovely selfies of their curls:

love my curls photos

Try it: Messages that empower the user and make people feel good about themselves can be a natural fit for selfie promotion. You might try following Dove’s lead of providing explicit instructions and specific examples to help users get the message quickly. Also great for a social media photo contest.

4. #museumselfieday: Rallying around a cause

For two years now, museumgoers have shared fun, beautiful and education selfies on #museumSelfieday, a global Twitter celebration that showcases the world’s cultural treasures.

museum selfie day photos

Try it: Non-profits and causes can find lots to love in the idea of rallying around a common theme or hashtag. Similar examples: Uniqlo’s Selfless Selfie campaign, the #nomakeupselfie trend.

5.Ray-Ban: Created a selfie app

Ray-Ban takes selfie marketing to new heights with its own iPhone app, Reflections.

The app allows users to enable both their front and back iPhone cameras at the same time to create an artsy, double-exposed image—glasses optional:

rayban reflections

 

Try it: Creating apps as marketing takes a specific set of skills, making Ray-Ban’s example one of the most challenging to pull off here. Large brands and budgets could give it a try, though, focusing on a high-level vision of your brand’s purpose.

Plenty more uses exist for selfies, from fashion to medicine. Here’s a quick look at a few interesting ones:

selfie uses

What’s your take on selfies?

I’d love to know your thoughts on selfies: Is your phone filled with them, or do you eschew them altogether? Have you used selfies to share the news about a product or service, or participated in a campaign that solicited your image?

As always, I welcome all your thoughts and ideas (and selfies!) in the comments.

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Ciara O’Brien Murray

    Great post, thanks!!!

  • What a great post!! I look forward to using this and some of your supporting documents in a future workshop!

  • Thanks Kevan. I do like your wide-ranging sources and examples, and was pleased to see some references to nonprofit-related uses.

    Last year I published a list of 12 examples of nonprofits using selfies in fundraising campaigns:

    http://www.fundraising.co.uk/2014/11/04/fundraising-campaigns-using-selfies/

    Whatever one thinks of them, they are being used to do good.

    • Great to hear from you, Howard! Yes, Courtney did some really amazing research on this one. Tons of good stuff here!

      Thanks for sending along your article. Looks like a great list!

  • Hmm…I figure the selfie is a by-product of not wanting to hand your phone over to a stranger to take a photo of you or you and your friends.

    • Ha! Yup, maybe I’ve overanalyzed it a bit here 😀

      • Kitty Cat Randy

        No no no you did a great job. This guy is just trying to make excuses for narcissism.

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  • Bhomik Chandna

    Loved the analysis Courtney! Well done. 🙂 Apparently, Philippines is the selfie capital of the world, would you have any insight on why that’s happening? Thank you in advance.

    • Wow, that’s fascinating Bhomik! I’m not sure why that would be; maybe I should take a trip there and find out!

  • Hi Courtney. Thank you for the comprehensive post on Selfies. There is much merit in having selfies but I do vehemently protest the ones where people make duck faces or look like they have just sucked an entire lemon. 🙂

    On a more serious note, you made me think a bit and I believe selfies were around at least 50 years ago too except they were not known as Selfies. I’ve got a couple of old photos of my then newlywed parents taking a shot at using their first camera by posing in front of the mirror and taking their own photo. It is another thing that half the face is hidden by the camera but one can see a delighted smile.

    Context and whether the selfie is part of being an exhibitionist need to be considered.

    • Great point, Vatsala! I think the urge to record ourselves is an old and universal one.

      P.S. I’ve read that “duck face” selfies get more likes and comments but I have a feeling that might not be a permanent condition 🙂

      • Fingers crossed, Courtney. There is no accounting for taste. 🙂

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  • Like this post Courtney! Selfies continue to show the world what we think we look like and do for a time. I have always enjoyed the interaction of meeting a stranger on my international travels and asking them to take my/our picture. There is a great time to make a new friend and taking the opportunity when its there is priceless. Have a thankful Thursday! 🙂

    • That’s a really neat tradition, Steve! What do you do with all the pics?

  • Really liked your post, Courtney! Something different and valuable! Above all, I liked your examples of how brands use selfies for marketing. Can’t wait to try some of them 🙂

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  • Amazing post Courtney! Here at WiseStamp we’ve seen a big difference in email interaction when people include photos of themselves in their email signature.

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  • Great analysis, Courtney! In terms of selfies being status defining, wonder if future generations will look back at our selfies in the same way we do at 17th century portraits (Kim K being equaled to the royalty at the time). 🙂

    • Whoa, now that’s an interesting idea to think about!

    • Blaine Fallis

      That’s the I way look at them now, as a 50 something who just doesn’t get the selfie fad. We used great cameras back in the day.

  • Hannah Grubow

    Having recently written my Master’s degree capstone on the selfie and how it could be / should be used in retail clothing environments this article hits right at home. I’ve started to notice more and more places incorporating selfies into their marketing plans, and it’s really proven with facts like above (and in my 40+ page thesis) that they really do work! Great article!

    • Wow, what a fascinating topic for academic study! I bet you found out some really interesting stuff!

    • sara

      can u plz tell which scale you have used in your thesis ?

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  • Kitty Cat Randy

    I fucking hate selfies and the culture of carefully manicured self-presentation that they represent. Thank you for finding the words to match my vehement animosity towards the narcissistic clowns who want me to view them this certain way.

  • The best photos tell a story – and a good selfie should be no different. Once you master the fundamentals, you should to share the selfies that tell the story of you, right now, in that moment. Be ruthless in your editing, and don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. The selfie can be your elevator pitch, your business card, your personal statement. But it should always say more than ‘look at me’

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  • What an interesting article! I just wrote my thoughts and a guide on sharing the #selfie love with our furry best friends 🙂 http://www.harmonyjam.me/2015/07/how-to-take-perfect-dog-selfie.html

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  • I loved this post! There’s been a lot of selfie-hate growing lately, and I think this post did a great job of explaining things to those drinking the hatorade.

    I think that Selfies, just like most things in life, can be thoroughly enjoyable and harmless (and even beneficial!) when used in moderation. There are definitely some out there that do nothing but take and post selfies – instead of making them feel bad about it though, I challenge them to make their selfies more creative. Get more of their surroundings in the shot, try to include more people in them, maybe do a selfie scavenger hunt. That way it becomes more engaging for others. 50 photos of someone’s face definitely has a lot less interest bring you in, than 50 photos of that person’s face along with random strangers or found objects!

    P.S. The Selfie frame is a great idea! I worked at CES a few times with my previous employer, and one of the years there was a group going around taking photos of people at the show for their blog. The catch though, was that they brought some huge frames for people to hold for the photo. It wasn’t a selfie, but the concept was very engaging and compelled a lot more people to take photos than otherwise!

    • Great tips and thoughts here, Hector, thanks so much! Love the selfie scavenger hunt idea!

  • Alicia Kolesnikova

    Before I add my comment, I’d like to make clear that I’m not a selfie hater. I actually am currently fighting the inexplicable urge to finally invest in an iPhone just so I can … well, yeah, take more selfies.

    But ultimately the selfie is a narcissist tool for a narcissist age. You can use it for ‘good’ causes and heal the world in a case of fighting fire with fire. Or you can just use it like most people do: slap a socially acceptable and salable avatar on the place where your true not-so-perfect self ought to be.

    People assume that a narcissist is someone who has an over-inflated sense of self. But actually the opposite is true. A narcissist is completely out of touch with his true self and fabricates a false random identity for himself. This identity is based on what he deems to be admirable or acceptable and is constructed using ques from what our culture deems as admirable and acceptable. His life goal becomes to constantly strive to uphold this false identity and defend its questionable authenticity at all costs. In other words, he leads a selfie kind of life.

    When all those women in the surveys claim that a selfie helps to improve their self-esteem and put their best face forward, what they are really saying is ‘Thank God no one gets to know how crap I feel today, not even me!’

    I just saw a t-shirt today that read ‘Me, my selfie and I’… The selfie has officially landed to annihilate the true self. The self is dead, long live the selfie!

    PS: For those who speak French Stromae hits the spot with his take on ‘selfie media’ in ‘Carmen’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKftOH54iNU I think the message still comes across loud and clear even if you don’t speak the language.

  • Lillian

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  • Selfie
    is good to snap your expressions for a particular moment. But the Reflection
    app makes it more justifiable By taking a Selfie and background image that is
    making you smile.

  • Invictus Foundation

    Extremely helpful, thank you very much.

  • skeets2086

    I think the majority of selfies are just people trying to make themselves feel better and show the world how happy they are, when in fact, they probably are not. Ever see a sad selfie?

  • Tj Swigart

    Interesting take. I enjoy hearing another side of the story. There are plenty of articles out there bashing selfies for being a bi-product of a self obsessed generation.

    I like the idea of selfies in moderation not being harmful. For so many people in my generation, I feel they miss out on lived experience by taking selfies. With tools like Snapchat, a lot of teens and young adults are constantly taking photos of themselves when they are out and about in the world. Particularly when traveling. When we travel we seem to want to take the most selfies. It becomes about being seen in the world rather than seeing the world. We look inward instead of outward. We replace a real lived experience with a seemingly self-obsessed mediated one.

  • James Cotter

    one thought i had while reading the part about ‘the more selfies you post the more likely you are to distance yourself from others in real life’ … what i’ve noticed is that people who dont already have a stable foundation of friendship use fb and selfies as a substitute. i believe it’s more accurate to say that those people who are over-selfie-ing aren’t driving friends away but are over-compensating for not already having the real-life connections that so many of us do have the privilege of having.

    • anonymous

      Yes, someone who understands why I post selfies every week! I do not have enough ongoing valuable friendships I wish I had!!

  • anonymous

    I’ve been posting selfies twice a week lately!! Why do I do it so often?? 😜

  • M.W

    I love how you showed selfies in a positive way but I just think that they are unhealthy overall and frankly, cause use to be so much mre self conscious. Your article was great! I just have a different opinion.

    • M.W

      they also make people their life is better than what it is. It not just selfies. It is most social media pictures.

  • Quite an insightful read on the psychology of selfies…

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    it’s really a good blog to read out… nowadays satisfying blogs are so hard to find out… i think today i am lucky…