The psychology behind selfie-hating – why do people condemn self-esteem?

We asked science

About a year ago, a woman was scorched to death, smashing her car into a recycling truck. The horrific accident happened just after she posted a selfie informing her Facebook friends how happy she felt, which led to her losing her concentration, her life, and forcing the other truck off the road.

Immediately, the internet grabbed the chance to gloat over her death. Call them commenters or trolls, they awarded the deceased with the “Darwin Award,” meaning that in terms of adaptive intelligence her demise was rightful, earned, and good for the species. The anonymous—big surprise —commenters tried to reason their spite: she nearly took another life because of her “stupidity.”

More people have died from taking selfies than being bitten by sharks this year, so it’s no wonder the rise of the selfie in the social media kingdom is rubbing many the wrong way. Science tends to agree. An overwhelming number of selfies on a user’s social media page, say researchers, points to a narcissist personality unable to tame an unbridled, ravenous ego, keen on drawing virtual eyes 24/7.

The hot pursuit of illimitable likes also makes other users self-conscious about their own appearance. Some scientists go so far as to associate overflowing selfie-shness with psychopathy.

Folk wisdom has it that it’s women who love the camera flashes the most, but surveys contradict each other as to which gender takes more selfies. Interestingly, the latest polls claim that young men tend to be nearly twice as likely to jump on the selfie bandwagon as their female counterparts. The reasons why we take pictures of ourselves is in dispute, however. Some scientific circles say that, like a peacock fanning its feathers, a man takes selfies to get sex, while a woman does it for self-confirmation or to blot out criticism.

The ties between femininity and beauty have been close-knit since the dawn of man. Man has always worshipped and dreaded female sexuality at the same time. Take a look at age-old religious and mythical tales. Seductive Pandora opened her box and let all hell break loose into the world. Eve first bit the apple and lured Adam into sin and to a life plagued by labour and death. Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and a fierce warrior, was chaste but her counterpart in the realm of romance, the ravishing Aphrodite, was a promiscuous woman inviting trouble due to her voracious sexual appetite. The messages are clear: girls are sluts or saints.

Speaking to Gadgette, Dr. Chuck Schaeffer, psychologist, researcher, and clinical faculty supervisor at New York University as well as columnist for The Daily Meal and the Seleni Institute illuminates:

“Female sexual attractiveness is terrifyingly powerful—for a majority of men (straight men). They are wired with powerful neurological, chemical pathways that seek out females and sexuality as imperatives to literally carry the species onward. Those are high stakes causing a lot of anxiety about how powerful the mating process is as well as feeling intimidated because most of the cards to carry out the task of moving the species onward are in the hands of females.

For a brain overwhelmed with confusion and fear, the easiest solution is creating some sense of control over a situation. The easiest, most simplistic, least attention draining, response by male brains was to label the power of female sexuality as wildly dangerous (because it certainly feels that way) and thus inherently unsafe, bad, or demonic. That’s the mental shortcut… The rest, how men acted according to this short cut to gain more sense of control and power over women, is the history of patriarchal societies.”

This must explain why caligynephobics (people who fear beautiful women) are sure that highly educated women or women in conventionally “male” professions must be on the masculine side—or completely unattractive (either by “nature” or by striving to compete with the men). If female allure unsettles them, they can ostracise it by degrading it, by keeping it out of the more cerebral pursuits.

Caligynephobics are adamant that selfies are vain and shallow, an assumption that borders on the naïve in its extremity. This hatred fails to acknowledge that selfies are not exclusive to the modern social media world. Selfies are a whole artistic endeavour to explore identity and sense of self, witnessed in the form of self-portraitures even in ancient Greece or ancient Egypt. By the same token, we are humans, a sophisticated, “socialised” type of mammals. We want validation and approval from those that matter to us – that’s how we’re raised. And what’s wrong with that?

Black-and-white thinking about topics like selfies has taken the internet by storm. But why do people on social media jump so easily from one extreme to the other? Dr Shaeffer says:

“Given the complexity and brain energy required to have a discussion about gender, power, and women’s issues in modern society, it’s not surprising that these discussions don’t come up in social media that just feed the easy, quick, and inattentive.

Social media, with their focus on very quick, short, bursts of information fit perfectly with the more dominant parts of our brain that prefer easy, simple polarised answers rather than big, complex things that make our brains think, struggle, and often agonise.”

Maybe that’s the reason why Facebook and Twitter “reward” posts such as how-to lists (think ’10 ways to increase confidence’ or ‘7 ways to seize the day’), bulleted ways to make life happier, written in an “all-inclusive” mode, kind of like the daily horoscope where everything applies to everyone. They are our regular shots of positivity, easy to follow, comprehensible and kind of neurotic, like our lifestyles. Yet, the internet hosts a dark, cruel side too, as we saw in the anonymous comments beyond the news of someone’s violent death.

Extreme positivity [Ed: Pinterest!] cohabits the web along with utter negativity. Might it be that we openly sign the positivity cult membership but anonymously vent our negativity? Dr. Lynn Johnson, Adjunct professor at the University of Utah and writer of ENJOY LIFE: Healing With Happiness, thinks so:

“When we feel anonymous, we behave less well. That has been shown over and over. The web gives us that anonymity.”

But why?

“Threat takes precedence. Evolution has focused us on threat more than enjoyment and supporting others. “Bad is stronger than good” is both the title of a famous Baumeister paper and a true principle. That means we have a system where behaviour that would lead to a fist fight in real life has no particular consequence, and it brings out the worst in us.”

So what can we do to subdue the “worst” in us that wants to creep venomously into the web?

“If we don’t want to fall into that, we have to vividly imagine the recipient of our texts / emails / etc. right in front of us. Would we say that in person? Then let’s not say it anonymously,” says Dr. Johnson.

Would the commenters who condemned the deceased young lady say the same words in the presence of her bereaved boyfriend, her parents and friends, at the time of her burial? Of course not.

Fundamentally, posting a selfie shows a level of self-esteem, and rather than trying to cut that ‘arrogance’ down, we should be encouraging it. After all, when we’re sitting in our nursing homes remembering our lives by the selfies we took, the comments, likes and shares will be long gone – but the memories of smiling faces will be ours to keep forever.


Main image: iStock/eloi_omella