Here’s why people take selfies — and why it’s not about vanity

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Taking selfies is not merely an act of vanity, but a way to capture the deeper meaning of an event for individuals, according to new research. A team from The Ohio State University say the drive to take “third-person photos,” which document a moment with the person in the frame, comes from more complex emotions than simple vanity.

“We found that people have a natural intuition about which perspective to take to capture what they want out of the photo,” says lead author Zachary Niese, a PhD graduate of Ohio State and now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

The findings are based on a series of six experiments with 2,113 participants, which investigated the impact of perspective in personal photography.

“These photos with you in them can document the bigger meaning of a moment. It doesn’t have to be vanity,” adds co-study author Professor Lisa Libby.

The results challenge the idea that individuals post selfies on platforms like Instagram solely for self-promotion. First-person photos, which capture the scene from the individual’s viewpoint, only represent the physical experience, according to the study.

(Photo by from Pexels)

In one online test, volunteers read a scenario in which they might want to take a photo, such as spending a day at the beach with a close friend. They had to rate the importance of the experience itself and the broader meaning of the event. The more significant the meaning, the more likely they would take a photo with themselves in it.

Another test demonstrated people’s intuition about whether each perspective better captured the experience or meaning of events. Researchers asked participants to examine recent photos they posted to their Instagram accounts and answer, “What does this photo make you think about more?”

If the person was featured in the shot, they were more likely to say the photo made them think of the bigger meaning of the moment. Photos showing the scene from their perspective made them think of the physical experience.

However, sometimes people may not take the photo that aligns with their goal, resulting in dissatisfaction with the image. In another challenge, participants were asked to rate their Instagram photos on a scale of one (not at all positive) to five (extremely positive).

“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 in a university release.

woman in white long sleeve shirt holding black smartphone
(Photo by Taan Huyn on Unsplash)

For instance, if their goal was to capture the meaning of the moment, they preferred the photo if it was a selfie. The study suggests that people have an intuition about the perspective they should use in photos to achieve their desired outcome. Niese hopes that the research will increase people’s understanding of how photo perspective affects their reactions to images, allowing them to consciously choose the perspective that meets their goal. The results also imply that people might be posting photos on Instagram and other platforms for reasons beyond their audience.

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

The findings, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, backs a previous analysis of hundreds of college students in the United States. That study found those who scored low on a measure of narcissism tended to post just as many selfies as those who scored higher.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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  1. Yeah….all those women who take pics of their pouting ‘duck lips’ are doing it for deeper meaning.

  2. This is junk passed off as “research” leading to a bogus conclusion. It’s validation of their existence that people seek by mimicry (posing like commercial models) – i.e., vanity (“see ME”).

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