By Emma Young
What kind of person posts a lot of selfies on their Instagram account? It has been suggested that such people are more narcissistic, but the research results on this are inconclusive. However, a new study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, has found that whatever the actual personality traits of those who post plenty of selfies, other people have a clear opinion about them — and it’s not good.
Instagram is an “increasingly ubiquitous” platform for social interaction, note the researchers, led by Christopher Barry at Washington State University, so it’s clearly important to understand how the kinds of photos people post affect others’ impressions.
The team first recruited 29 university students, aged 18 to 27, who had at least 30 photos on their Instagram accounts. The researchers took screenshots of these images, and also asked the participants to complete questionnaires that measured their levels of narcissism, self-esteem, “fear of missing out”, loneliness, sensation-seeking, and Big Five personality traits.
Each of the participant’s 30 most recent Instagram photos were then coded by independent raters as being a selfie, a “posie” (a shot of the participant taken by someone else), or a photo without the participant in it. Raters also classified each selfie and posie by theme — whether it concerned physical appearance, affiliation with others, or an event or activity, for example.
For the next stage of the study, 199 students from a different university were shown each set of 30 images on a screen. For each set, they were asked to rate the individual portrayed on 13 attributes, including loneliness, success, extraversion, absorption, dependability, emotionality, being considerate of others, and so on.
This second group was generally not great at assessing the Instagrammers’ actual personality attributes, as measured in the first part of the study, although they did seem able to glean some slight insights from the photos. For instance, students in the first group who scored higher for “grandiose narcissism” and self-esteem were perceived as being more self-absorbed.
But the raters were in pretty clear agreement with each other. People with more selfies were seen as being less likeable, less successful, more insecure and less open to new experiences — while those with more posies tended to be seen more positively. “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,” comments Barry. Selfies related to physical appearance — showing muscles being flexed in a mirror, for example — were given especially negative ratings.
There were some hints of relationships between actual personality attributes and the likelihood of posting selfies vs posies (for example, participants higher in narcissism were less likely to post selfies). But these associations were not strong.
What might explain the perceptions reported by the second group? The team has a few ideas. It could be that posies are preferred because they look more natural, portraying the individual in the way they’d be seen in real life. Or perhaps selfies — which were posted far less frequently than posies — stand out as signalling something unusual about the individual.
There are some limitations to the work. First, the 29 students in the initial group represent a fairly small sample, and only eight were men. It’s not clear whether a perceiver’s own gender might affect their judgements of people of the same or different gender. And the raters’ only source of information about the individuals were their photos. All text — another clear source of potential personality information — was stripped out.
Still, the research is certainly intriguing. “While the findings of this study are just a small piece of the puzzle, they may be important to keep in mind before you make that next post,” says Barry.