People who post a lot of selfies on social media tend to be perceived more negatively by others — as being more lonely and less successful, for example — than people who post “posies” (photos of them taken by someone else), according to a study published in the October issue of the Journal of Research in Personality.
Yet, interestingly, the study also found that people who post lots of selfies are less likely to be narcissistic than those who post lots of posies.
The study involved only one social media site — Instagram — but its findings likely apply to other sites as well.
And, yes, understanding how we are perceived through the images we post on social media is important, given the ubiquitousness of social media and the influence it has on both our working and personal lives, including on our emotional wellbeing.
How the study was done
For the study, a team of researchers, led by psychologist Chris Barry of Washington State University, recruited 30 university students, aged 18 to 27, who had public Instagram accounts. The researchers took the 30 most recent posts from each of those accounts and coded them for self-images (selfies, posies or photos without the participant in it) and themes (such as physical appearance, affiliation with others, events, activities and accomplishments).
The participants also filled out questionnaires that measured their Big Five personality traits (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism), as well as levels of narcissism, self-esteem, “fear of missing out” socially, loneliness and tolerance for sensation-seeking activities.
A second group of 119 students, from a different university, were then asked to rate the Instagram profiles of the first group on 13 personality attributes, including self-absorption, self-esteem, loneliness, dependability, likability, successfulness, willingness to try new things and consideration of others.
What the study found
When all that data was analyzed, Barry and his co-authors found that the selfies and posies were “clearly related to inferences made by the perceivers.”
The people with a high number of posies were viewed more favorably — more adventurous, more outgoing, more dependable, more successful, less lonely and having higher self-esteem — than those with a high number of selfies.
The people with lots of selfies on their social media feed were viewed, on the other hand, as being less likable, less successful, less outgoing, less open to new experiences and having lower self-esteem.
“Even when two feeds had similar content, such as depictions of achievement or travel, feelings about the person who posted selfies were negative and feelings about the person who posted posies were positive,” says Barry in an article on the study released by his university. “It shows there are certain visual cues, independent of context, that elicit either a positive or negative response on social media.”
Selfies with a physical appearance theme — the person posing while flexing their muscles, for example — were viewed particularly negatively.
Yet, when the researchers compared the questionnaire results with the number of selfies or posies posted, they found that people who inundated their Instagram account with selfies tended to have a lower level of narcissism than those who did the same with posies.
This last finding is in contrast to some (but not all) previous studies that looked at the relationship between narcissism and selfies and found a strong link. Those studies, however, tended to rely on people self-reporting how they used social media — and self-reports can be inaccurate.
“Taken as a whole, the present findings indicate that perception may be more important in appraising social media content than a person’s communicative intent,” Barry and his colleagues write in their paper.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with several caveats. It involved a relatively small number of people. All were students and most were women. The findings might have been different if a larger, more diverse group of participants had been involved.
In addition, the study focused on the 30 most recent images from the participants’ Instagram accounts. Those postings may or may not have reflected what each of the participants typically posts on social media.
Still, the findings are intriguing.
“While there may be a variety of motives behind why people post self-images to Instagram, how those photos are perceived appears to follow a more consistent pattern,” says Barry.
“The findings of this study are just a small piece of the puzzle,” he adds, “[but] they may be important to keep in mind before you make that next post.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Journal of Research in Personality website, but the full study is behind a paywall.