Inside Out Blog

The Psychology of Selfies

The Psychology of Selfies

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We have all done it. Getting caught in a group as someone shoots a selfie becoming all too aware of our body shape and height as in comparison to everyone else in the photograph. Turning side on for a better profile or using pro tips and tricks to get the jaw line and facial expression right. (That last one may just be me). 

Even Former US President George Bush stood on a stool for photographs with Mexican President Vicente Fox in 2005. Bush isn't short either. He is 6 feet tall, but as the leader of the free world didn't want to appear smaller than the 6'4" Mexican leader. 

So why would the "Leader of the free World" want to appear taller next to President Fox? Primal Instinct. 

All animals use size to show dominance or submission. When your dog has been bold and you raise your voice. They become smaller. When the post man or that child across the road they hate walk past. They become bigger and their hair stands on end. 

As humans we do this too. World leaders addressing the masses are elevated, standing proud on podiums, kings and queens sit high on thrones while their subjects look up at them. 

There is another way of adding a few inches to your height. The Selfie! 

Not only are we showing the world how great our life is, competing with the social demands we place upon ourselves. Showing how fun and exciting our lives are, we show dominance and proud stature.

Holding the camera at eye level, taking into account how wide the camera is and the changes that causes, it shows what we look like normally. You get a stronger angle on your jaw, focus more on your eyes and make your shoulders look broader and waist look smaller. On the whole looking taller and in better shape. Shooting from below makes your shoulders look huge and make you look taller and dominant as if the person looking at the image is shorter than you. 

Florida State University psychologist Anastasia Makhanova and her colleagues tested the hypothesis that people would manipulate camera angle when taking selfies as an impression-management strategy. The rationale for this idea is derived from evolutionary theory.

In the mating world of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, two processes are at play, intersexual attraction and intrasexual competition. Intersexual attraction refers to the set of strategies that people use to arouse the interest of members of the opposite sex. Bob brings Carol an extra-large piece of meat from the hunt to show he’s a good provider. Meanwhile, Ted shows his thoughtfulness by bringing Alice an animal skin to keep her warm on a chilly night. Likewise, Carol and Alice are flaunting their youth and fertility to garner the attention of Bob and Ted.

At the same time, Bob and Ted are in intrasexual competition with each other as they vie for the ladies’ attention. To do this, Bob and Ted jockey for a position of dominance amongst themselves, since the more powerful male will likely attract the sexier female. Women are attracted to men who dominate other men, but they also expect those same men to be supportive toward their spouses. Likewise, women rely more on social influence than physical size or strength to establish their position in the pecking order.

Thus, Makhanova and colleagues argue, people will manipulate the camera angle of their selfies depending on their intended audience. In one study, they examined self-portraits posted by men and women on internet dating and professional-networking sites. In this case, the internet dating sites were viewed as contexts for intersexual attraction, and the professional-network sites as contexts for intrasexual competition.

Specifically, they made the following predictions:

  • Men will take selfies from below when their audience is other men (to show dominance).
  • Men will take selfies straight on when their audience is women (to show supportiveness).
  • Women will take selfies from above when their audience is men (to show submission).
  • Women will take selfies straight on when their audience is other women (to show supportiveness).

This is exactly the pattern of results that Makhanova and colleagues obtained. But this was just an observational study, and the researchers wondered if they could produce these effects experimentally. So they approached students on campus, handed them a camera and asked them to take a selfie. Half of the participants were told their picture would be viewed by members of the same sex, and the other half were told it would be shown to members of the opposite sex. Again, the results patterned as predicted.

So, people really do manipulate the camera angle of selfies to create an impression of dominance or submission. But are other people actually influenced by camera angle? To explore this question, the researchers took pictures of men and women, each from all three camera angles—above, straight on, and below.  

Another set of participants then viewed these photos and rated them on a number of characteristics related to dominance and submission. They also rated the attractiveness and other physical characteristics of the person in each photo. As predicted, the men were perceived as taller and rated as more dominant and attractive when the camera angle was from below. And conversely, the women were perceived as younger and rated as more submissive and attractive when the camera angle was from above.

These results show that people really do manipulate their perceived height to indicate dominance or submission. Furthermore, people actually are influenced by these attempts at impression management. But what’s the take-home message?

Here’s the advice for men: If you’re trying to impress other men in a professional context, take your selfies from below. This will signal your dominance. But if you’re trying to impress women in a romantic context, take your selfies straight on. This will show your supportiveness.

And here’s the advice for women: If you’re trying to impress other women in a professional context, take your selfies straight on. This will demonstrate your social intelligence. But if you’re trying to impress men in a romantic context, take your selfies from above. This will make you look younger and more attractive.

Despite our modern beliefs about gender equality, the dynamics of intersexual attraction and intrasexual competition are still deeply engrained within us. However, this doesn’t mean we’re powerless pawns of our evolutionary past. Rather, it means that if we understand how these dynamics work, we gain power over them and can wield them to our own advantage.

References

Makhanova, A., McNulty, J. K., & Maner, J. K. (2017). Relative physical position as an impression-management strategy: Sex differences in its use and implications. Psychological Science, 28, 567-577./ Psychology Today: Dr David Ludden