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Surprising Science

Why We Don’t Like Seeing Photographs of Ourselves

The psychological phenomenon known as the mere-exposure effect explains why we prefer the self-image we receive from the mirror each morning to a new and interesting camera angle. 

What’s the Latest Development?

You know the feeling. You’ve been tagged in a Facebook photo, but that person with a contorted face only bares a passing a resemblance to the person you know from the bathroom mirror each morning. Photographer Duncan David believes that because mirrors generally tell us how we look, we feel a sense of rejection when a photograph doesn’t conform to the self-image we’ve grown accustomed to. In fact, David’s hunch is supported by a 1977 study in which people were shown to prefer self-portraits that conformed more to their mirror image than with their true image. 

What’s the Big Idea?

So what is so special about the way we look at ourselves in the mirror? Nothing extraordinary, except that we’ve gotten use to how we look that way. Called the mere-exposure effect, people are known to develop a preference for a stimulus based solely on his or her repeated exposure to it. “Of course, the great thing about the mere-exposure effect is that it’s an individual experience—and that’s something you should take comfort in the next time you’re lamenting over your slightly-off appearance in a photograph. The truth is, if photograph-you looked like mirror-image you, everyone else would think you look bizarre.”

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