Our mental self-portraits contain clues about our personalities

By Emma Young

If I ask you to picture your face and body in your mind, what do you see? And how do your beliefs and attitudes about your self — including your personality and your self-esteem — influence these mental self-images? Completely fascinating answers to these questions have now been reported in a new paper in Psychological Science. The findings are important not just for understanding how we all see ourselves, but could also be useful for studies into body image disorders.

Artistic self-portraits have long been recognised as reflecting aspects of the artist’s identity and emotions, as well as their physical self. But they’re often drawn from photographs or reflections in a mirror. How any of us really see ourselves in our mind’s eye has been very difficult to explore experimentally. To do this, Lara Maister at Bangor University and colleagues used a technique that required 77 student participants to look at 500 pairs of faces in turn and each time indicate which they felt most looked like their own. All the chosen faces were then averaged to produce a final self-portrait. The students also completed a Big Five personality test and a self-esteem scale, and had a passport-style photo taken, for comparison.

The researchers used a face-recognition algorithm to analyse the self-portrait and the passport photo for each participant. This produced a measure of how different the two were. The team certainly found similarities (confirmed by human raters) — an individual’s self-portrait did resemble his or her photo more than other participants’ photos. However, other factors beyond physical appearance also seemed to be influencing people’s self-portraits.

To see whether one of these factors could be personality characteristics, the team had an independent group of participants act as personality raters. They were shown the pairs of self-portraits and passport-style photos and asked how strongly they perceived each of the Big Five personality traits in both. The results showed that these raters’ judgements were not random. Both self-portraits and photos clearly contained visual information that allowed the raters to make personality ratings that tallied to some extent with the participants’ self-reported personalities. (The paper doesn’t mention exactly what facial information allowed raters to make these judgements, but earlier research has found that genes and also pre- and post-natal hormone exposure can influence both face shape and personality, and extraversion has been linked to facial symmetry, for example.)

The team then ran further analyses on the self-portraits and the personality ratings. And they found that the higher the original participants’ self-ratings on a particular trait, such as extraversion, the more facial features associated with that trait were present in their self-portrait, above the level present in their photo. So for a self-reported extravert, say, their mental image of their own face had exaggerated extraversion-related facial features. This certainly suggests that our perceptions of our personalities influence our mental images of our own faces. And this is interesting for all sorts of reasons, not least this: if explicitly asked, most people surely wouldn’t be able to link particular facial features to personality traits, but we seem to have an implicit understanding of these links.

Maister and her colleagues then switched from faces to bodies. This time, 39 young female students picked from a series of pairs of body silhouettes, rather than faces, producing a body shape self-portrait. They also completed a questionnaire on body self-esteem and they were weighed and measured.

The researchers homed in one just one physical measurement: hip width. They found that, unlike in the first study, there was only a “negligible” relationship between the perceived and actual measure. But they did find that those who had low body self-esteem were more likely to perceive their hip width as being bigger than it actually was. Also, the lower a participant’s body-self-esteem, the slimmer they reported a “typical” female body to be.

This work shows that our perceptions of who we are, in terms of our personality and how we feel about ourselves, affect our mental visual images of ourselves. In fact, the team writes, the work points to a “close, interactive relationship between physical and psychological representations of the self”.

Body-images were less aligned with reality than were face self-portraits, and more influenced by how happy the individual was with their own body. We don’t see our unclothed bodies  as often as we see our faces, and this could be a factor here.

The team suggests that their approach could be used with people with clinical disorders of body image, such as anorexia or body dysmorphia. “Our approach could be used as a unique, direct method of assessing distortions in visual memory in these patients, allowing us to reveal whether they stem from higher level self-beliefs and attitudes or even a disorder in the link between these attitudes and the physical self-representation,” they write. It could also be used to explore how well treatments are working.

In fact, it could be used in all kinds of research — such as whether people who routinely take selfies have mental face images that are more aligned with reality, or whether any potential impacts on self-esteem might warp their images instead.

The Self in the Mind’s Eye: Revealing How We Truly See Ourselves Through Reverse Correlation

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest