No phenomenon sums up the age of social media quite as succinctly as the selfie. Many point to the popularity of selfies as proof that platforms like Instagram and Snapchat have produced an entire generation of narcissists, but is that a fair assessment? Is everyone who posts selfies a narcissist?
A team of researchers at the University of Tampa set out to examine the relationship between narcissism and selfies. They discovered that lots of people who aren’t narcissists still post plenty of selfies.
A group of college students was asked to fill out the Narcissistic Personality Inventory-13, a questionnaire that gauges an individual’s narcissism across three dimensions. Each college student also reported the number of selfies they had taken over the previous week (both alone or with a group), as well as their motivations for posting said images.
While many participants who did score high on the narcissism assessment reported posting a lot of selfies, many other students with a low narcissism score also reported posting about the same number of selfies. So, narcissists do post selfies, but just because an individual posts lots of selfies doesn’t necessarily mean they are a full-blown narcissist.
A total of 276 University of Tampa students took part in this research, all between the ages of 18 and 29.
“We predicted that narcissism, particularly grandiose and exhibitionistic aspects of narcissism, would be linked to selfies,” says lead study author Erin Koterba, associate professor of psychology at UT, in a university release. “We expected this relationship to be particularly strong for selfies taken alone rather than selfies taken with another person.”
Among the entire participant group, 169 students reported a motive behind their selfies to the research team. Using those motives, the study’s authors formulated six “global selfie motives with narcissistic themes.” For example, the most common narcissistic reason given by both male and female participants for posting a selfie was “I think that I am attractive, and I have no problem sharing that.”
However, the researchers didn’t actually find a connection between a participant reporting narcissistic motives for selfies and high narcissism scores on the NPI. This is an important distinction to make; it suggests that while many people may be posting selfies for narcissistic reasons, that doesn’t mean they’re actual narcissists.
“We found that grandiose and exhibitionistic aspects of narcissism are indeed tied to selfie-taking,” Koterba adds.
The research team was also interested to see if there were any gender differences regarding selfie-taking between males and females. Surprisingly, there were no differences observed for selfies taken alone, but women did take over twice as many group selfies per week as the male participants.
“I think it’s becoming clear that selfies are not necessarily tied to narcissism, and that only certain aspects of it are related,” Koterba concludes. “There’s a lot left to study.”
As a whole, these findings suggest that selfies are a super prevalent cultural trend more than a legitimate warning sign of unhealthy narcissistic behavior. That being said, selfies are, by their very nature, going to encourage a vain self-image. But, can’t the same be said for all social media?
The full study can be found here, published in Psychology of Popular Media.