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Study: Selfies are perceived far more negatively than ‘posies’

In a new study, people who posted a lot of selfies were generally viewed as less likeable and more lonely.

Kim Kardashian/Instagram

Key Takeaways
  • A new study examined how people perceive others’ Instagram accounts, and whether those perceptions match up with how the posters rate their own personalities.
  • The results show that people react far more positively to “posies,” which are photos of the poster taken by another person.
  • Still, it remains unclear exactly why people view selfies relatively negatively.

When checking out someone’s photos on social media, what are the factors that determine how you perceive that person? One major factor, according to new research, is who’s holding the camera.

In a new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, psychologists found that people who post selfies are far more likely to be perceived negatively than people who post “posies” – photos of the poster taken by another person.

The researchers asked 30 undergraduates to fill out a personality questionnaire and for permission to use 30 of their Instagram photos for an experiment. These 30 Instagram posts were coded based on theme – such as physical appearance, affiliation with others, and accomplishment – and stripped of captions and other text.

Then, the researchers asked a second group of undergraduates to rate the Instagram profiles for 13 attributes, such as self-absorption, self-esteem, loneliness, and successfulness. The results showed that Instagram users who posted more posies than selfies were rated “higher in self-esteem, more adventurous, less lonely, more outgoing, more dependable, relatively fond of trying new things, more successful, more likeable, and as potentially being a good friend,” the researchers wrote.

In contrast, users who posted relatively more selfies were rated as “having lower self-esteem, disliking adventure, more lonely, less outgoing, disliking trying new things, less successful, and less likeable.”

“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,” Chris Barry, Washington State University professor of psychology and lead author of the study, told WSU News. “It shows there are certain visual cues, independent of context, that elicit either a positive or negative response on social media.”

Interestingly, the results showed that posting selfies wasn’t associated with self-reported narcissism, but posting posies was. Also, having many followers and following many people was associated with narcissism. But in general, the Instagram users’ self-reported personality traits didn’t match up strongly with how others judged them.

What’s the value in studying social media posts? The researchers wrote, “it may be that social media posts are more relevant for understanding how a person is perceived by others than for what they convey about the person’s personality.”

Still, it remains unclear exactly why people react negatively to selfies and positively to posies. The researchers suggested it might be because posies look more natural, similar to how you’d view someone in person. Also, because selfies were relatively rare among the Instagram profiles, seeing one might signal something potentially strange about the poster.

One interesting area for future research would be to examine whether people react similarly negatively to selfies posted by celebrities. Would they also be seen as lonely and less likable? Or would people perceive them differently because they wield a high level of prestige in society?

“While there may be a variety of motives behind why people post self‑images to Instagram, how those photos are perceived appears to follow a more consistent pattern,” Barry told WSU News. “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.”


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