Psychology Explains the Real Reason We Take Selfies

The real reason we feel so compelled to join in on the trend.

Nowadays, the photos you most often see of sports stars, celebs, and even the President of the Free World are as likely to be a product of their own index fingers as a lengthy portrait-and-Photoshop session. Facebook and Instagram feeds are littered with #selfie tags of friends and strangers, sometimes in various states of undress (or at funerals). And, as evidenced by the fact the word "selfie" has been named the 2013 word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries, like it or loathe it, the informal self-portrait cluttering your Instagram feed seems to be here for the long haul.

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Part of the reason for its popularity is that those smiling, slightly off-center images of your giddy grin may actually enhance your self-esteem. Research from the University of Indiana found that the way we project ourselves on social media can actually make us feel better about ourselves, precisely because we're the ones in charge. The study didn't focus specifically on selfies-rather on how we project ourselves on social media-but found that when we can control our image, we feel better about what we see than we would if we simply looked in a mirror. "Because we have the time to choose how we present ourselves online, our presentations are a bit 'better,' " explains co-author Amy Gonzales, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Indiana University.

At first glance, that makes sense: After all, when you're the photographer and star of a selfie session, no one's saying that you can't take 10 or 20 shots in order to get the perfect image. There's no film wasted, no one rolling his eyes because you want to takejust one or two more, and a quick click of the delete button makes it impossible for anyone to see the outtakes. And once you've finally found a perfect pic, you have a fun, flattering photo to share with your friends-and your "friends"-without any of them knowing how hard it was to produce. But as anyone who's eagerly refreshed her phone in the quest for Instagram hearts and Facebook likes knows, it's rarely that simple.

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Protect Your Self(ie)-Esteem
Before you snap a shot, check in and ask why you're taking this particular photo, suggests Ellen Kenner, Ph.D., a psychologist in Rhode Island. "If you love the way you look one day, or are in a playful mood and want to capture it for yourself as a memory, or share it with friends and family, there is something fun and self-valuing in that," she says, and your friends and family will enjoy seeing you genuinely happy or excited. The problem, she explains, occurs when you're waiting for feedback from others. If you spend the next 20 minutes furiously clicking refresh, or wishing specific people commented, then it could be a sign that you're overly dependent on external feedback to determine your inner happiness. "All the selfies in the world won't replace genuine self-esteem," reminds Kenner.

"A lot of energy goes into a selfie, especially if you're the type of person in the habit of taking them all the time," warns Jaime Kulaga, Ph.D., a psychologist in Tampa. "An occasional selfie is part of being on social media, but more than a few may signify an underlying confidence issue."

QUIZ: Test Your Self-Esteem

Selfie-taking can be harmless fun. But if you're spending over an hour a day related to your selfie-behavior (including the two-minute checks to see if anyone responded, because they add up quickly), warns New York psychologist Alice Boyes, Ph.D., or if you find yourself seeking out situations (or outfits) because they might look good on Instagram and garner an outpouring of feedback, then it could be a good sign to dial back a bit.

Live First, Shoot Later
That's especially true if your selfie-taking is habitual rather than a way to chronicle meaningful moments, like visiting a historical site or showing off your new pixie cut.

Spend too much time pulling a duck face at the lens or putting every hair in place and not only are you wasting time, you're also missing out on the spontaneity and imperfections that are part of making memories. Windswept hair, spiky eyebrows, a funny facial expression … part of the reason candids are so much fun is that they're less than perfect. The windswept hair? A reminder of what you accomplished on that six-hour hike. And the spiky eyebrows can instantly bring back the feeling of just getting out of a pool on a hot August day.

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If you do find yourself frequently taking selfies just because, try to at least tone down the pre-shoot prep, just to see how it feels. Post the first (or, okay, the second) picture you take, then turn off your notifications so you won't be compelled to count the "likes" as they roll in-or lament if they don't. That way, you're minimizing your focus on the attention you receive from the photo, and making it more about how you feel in the moment.

Ready to step up your less-is-more approach? Try limiting your sharing-at least for a bit. Instead of immediately posting, keep them on your phone to look at later, or just send them to a best friend or significant other. The more you take away the "insta" part of Instagram posting, the more meaning it will have when you do choose to share this glimpse into your world. Says Kulaga, "Like the saying goes, it's all about creating a life that feels good on the inside, not a life that only looks good on the outside."

- by Anna Davies