Selfie paradox: People want fewer selfies on social media but keep posting selfies themselves

Approximately one in every three photos taken these days is a selfie. Despite their popularity, new research suggests most people wish there were fewer.

People view own selfies as authentic and self-ironic but other people's as inauthentic, study suggests

New research suggests most people wish there were fewer selfies online and that people view their own selfies more positively than other people's selfies. (Getty Images/Cultura Exclusive)

Approximately one in every three photos taken these days is a selfie. 

Google estimates Android users take 93 million selfies a day. But despite their popularity, new research suggests most people wish there were fewer selfies online.

CBC tech columnist Dan Misener explains the "selfie paradox."

What's the latest in selfie research?

There's a new study from University of Munich, which looks at selfies and what psychologists call "self-presentation."

Humans have lots of different ways of showing who they are to the world, and the researchers wanted to figure out what this particular type of photo says about who we are as individuals and as a society.

Of course, selfies have exploded in popularity in the past few years and it can be easy to jump to conclusions about how and why people take and post pictures of themselves, with vanity and narcissism as the common stereotypes. 

But when you dig deeper into the motivations behind selfie-taking, it becomes clear that selfies aren't just incredibly popular, they're also incredibly complex.

And our behaviour and perceptions around this particular style of photograph is full of contradiction and paradox.

What exactly did the researchers want to understand about selfies?

Researchers asked the survey participants questions about their own selfies but also how they feel about other people's selfies, said Sarah Diefenbach, one of the researchers in this study.

"How often do you take selfies? What kind of media do you use to post selfies? What do you think about selfies? Would you prefer more or less selfies in social media?" said Diefenbach, who is a professor at the University of Munich, where she studies psychology and computer science.

When researchers analyzed the results, they found some deep contradictions in how people feel about their own selfies versus other people's selfies.

How did people view their own selfies compared to other people's selfies?

This is where we get into what Diefenbach calls "the selfie paradox."

For example, 77 per cent of the participants said they take selfies monthly, weekly, daily or in some cases, several times a day. 

But at the same time, the vast majority of respondents (82 per cent) said they wished for fewer selfies on social media.

There was also a difference between how people view their own selfies versus how they see other people's selfies.

Individuals judged their own photos as "authentic" and "self-ironic," but they viewed other people's selfies as inauthentic and self-promotional.

In other words, "My selfies are fun and honest, but everyone else's are phoney and narcissistic."

This is an example of what psychologists call "self-serving bias."

How does this fit in to other selfie research?

The results from the study at the University of Munich seem consistent with another piece of recent selfie research out of the University of Toronto.

Last year, a team at the U of T studied selfie-takers, looking specifically for signs of narcissism.

Researchers got a group of students to take photos of themselves, then rate those photos on attractiveness and likability.

People who were frequent selfie-takers thought higher of their photos than others, according to University of Toronto research. (Shutterstock)

Then those exact same photos were rated by a group of others.

Surprise surprise, they found that "frequent selfie-takers" had very high opinions of themselves: they rated themselves higher on both attractiveness and likability than others rated them.

Again, it points to a "self-favouring" or "self-serving" bias.

Does this research suggest ways people could change their selfie behaviour? 

The report itself doesn't make specific recommendations about taking or sharing selfies.

But Diefenbach told me she hopes this work encourages people to consider how their social media posts will be perceived by others.

"How you see and judge your own pictures is not what others see in it. Others might interpret them as a sign of narcissism as not so funny as you think they are," she said. 

She thinks this research makes a case for people to stop and think before they post to social media.

Because again, there's a pretty big difference between how we see our own online behaviour versus how others interpret it.

"Think about others before you post" is just plain good advice. And any scientific research that backs that up is a good thing in my books.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.