Unit 5: Love and Metamorphosis

Article: Selfies: Narcissism or Not?

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Photo from PXHere, \cczero

Before You Read

Discuss the following questions with a partner.

  1. How often do you take selfies?
  2. When do you usually take selfies?
  3. Do you get ready for selfies (get dressed up, put on makeup, etc.)
  4. How many shots do you take before you feel the picture is good?
  5. Do you post your selfies on social media? Why?
  6. Do you comment on others’ selfies?
  7. Have you ever taken a selfie in a dangerous situation, or known someone who has?
  8. Are selfies a good or bad thing?
  9. Skim the next reading. What do you think is the author’s purpose of the text: to inform, entertain, or to persuade? How will that affect the way you take notes on the reading?

Building Vocabulary

Find the word in the paragraph given. Use the synonyms and definition to help.

  1. P4: the quality of being showy, not in good taste (n.): __________________________
  2. P4: evoking enduring images, memories, or emotions (adj.): ____________________
  3. P8: to be unusually one-sided, biased (v.): _____________________________________
  4. P8: those born between the 1980’s to 2000 (n.): ______________________________
  5. P11: publicly praised (v): _____________________________________________________
  6. P11: the process of getting confidence, control over life and rights (n.): _________
  7. P13: exaggerated (adj.): _____________________________________________________
  8. P13: lack of interest, concern, or sympathy (n.): _______________________________
  9. P13: frequent, common (adj.): _______________________________________________
  10. P14: believing you deserve special treatment or benefits (adj.) : ________________
  11. P17: natural, instinctive (adj): ________________________________________________

Vocabulary in Context

Below are sentences from the article you are about to read. Guess the meaning of the words in bold.

  1. On two separate occasions, elephants ended up taking the lives of people trying to snap images with the mammals.
  2. Animals don’t pose the only danger to selfie seekers.
  3. Police estimated nearly 100 Russians had died or suffered injuries from attempting to take “daredevil” selfies, or photos of themselves in dangerous situations.
  4. Time named [the selfie stick] one of the 25 best inventions of 2014. But critics quickly dubbed it the “Narcisstick” and the sticks are now banned in many museums and parks, including Walt Disney Resort.
  5. A British report from 2016 also suggests younger women are more active participants in selfie-taking, spending up to five hours a week on self-portraits.
  6. Other reasons included making others jealous and making cheating partners regret their infidelities.
  7. Do selfies and narcissism correlate? Psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman suggests that there’s a link.
  8. Selfies attract more attention and more comments than any other photos, and our friends and peers reinforce selfie-taking by doling out “likes” and other forms of approval on social media.

Why do people risk their lives for the perfect selfie?

By Michael Weigold, Professor of Advertising at the University of Florida, for The Conversation, \ccbynd

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In May of 2018, an Indian man was killed while trying to take a selfie next to a wounded bear. It’s actually the third selfie-related death in India since December: On two separate occasions, elephants ended up taking the lives of people trying to snap images with the mammals.

Animals don’t pose the only danger to selfie seekers. Heights have also resulted in fatalities. A Polish tourist in Seville, Spain fell off a bridge and died attempting to take a selfie. And a Cessna pilot lost control of his plane – killing himself and his passengers – while trying to take a selfie in 2014.

In 2015, Russian authorities even launched a campaign warning that “A cool selfie could cost you your life.” The reason? Police estimated nearly 100 Russians had died or suffered injuries from attempting to take “daredevil” selfies, or photos of themselves in dangerous situations. Examples included a woman wounded by a gunshot (she survived), two men blown up holding grenades (they did not), and people taking pics on top of moving trains.

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Man takes a selfie after his team wins the Worlds Series in 2014. Photo by Matthew Roth, \ccby

People who frequently post selfies are often targets for accusations of narcissism and tastelessness. But what’s really going on here? What is it about the self-portrait that’s so resonant as a form of communication? And why, psychologically, might someone feel so compelled to snap the perfect selfie that they’d risk their life, or the lives of others?

While there are no definitive answers, as a psychologist I find these questions – and this unique 21st-century phenomenon – worth exploring further.

A brief history of the selfie

Robert Cornelius, an early American photographer, has been credited with taking the first selfie: in 1839, Cornelius, using one of the earliest cameras, set up his camera and ran into the shot. The broader availability of point-and-shoot cameras in the 20th century led to more self-portraits, with many using the (still) popular method of snapping a photograph in front of a mirror.

Selfie technology took a giant leap forward with the invention of the camera phone. Then, of course, there was the introduction of the selfie stick. For a brief moment the stick was celebrated: Time named it one of the 25 best inventions of 2014. But critics quickly dubbed it the “Narcisstick” and the sticks are now banned in many museums and parks, including Walt Disney Resort.

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Taking a selfie with a selfie stick. Photo by 1475341 on Pixabay, \cczero

Despite the criticism directed at selfies, their popularity is only growing. Conclusive numbers seem lacking, with estimates of daily selfie posts ranging from one million to as high as 93 million on Android devices alone. Whatever the true number, a Pew survey from 2014 suggests the selfie craze skews young. While 55 percent of millennials reported sharing a selfie on a social site, only 33 percent of the silent generation (those born between 1920 and 1945) even knew what a selfie was.

A British report from 2016 also suggests younger women are more active participants in selfie-taking, spending up to five hours a week on self-portraits. The biggest reason for doing so? Looking good. But other reasons included making others jealous and making cheating partners regret their infidelities.

Confidence booster or instrument of narcissism?

Some do see selfies as a positive development. Psychology professor Pamela Rutledge believes they celebrate “regular people.” And UCLA psychologist Andrea Letamendi believes that selfies “allow young adults to express their mood states and share important experiences.” Some have argued that selfies can boost confidence by showing others how “awesome” you are, and can preserve important memories.

Still, there are plenty of negative associations with taking selfies. While selfies are sometimes lauded as a means for empowerment, one European study found that time spent looking at social media selfies is associated with negative body image thoughts among young women.

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Photo by Tuce at Unsplash, \cczero

Apart from injuries, fatalities and tastelessness, one big issue with selfies appears to be their function as either a cause or consequence of narcissism. Peter Gray, writing for Psychology Today, describes narcissism as “an inflated view of the self, coupled with a relative indifference to others.” Narcissists tend to overrate their talents and respond with anger to criticism. They are also more likely to bully and less likely to help others. According to Gray, surveys of college students show the trait is far more prevalent today than even as recently as 30 years ago.

Do selfies and narcissism correlate? Psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman suggests that there’s a link. She cites two studies that examined the prevalence of Facebook selfies in a sample of over 1,000 people. Men in the sample who posted a greater number of selfies were more likely to show evidence of narcissism. Among female respondents, the number of selfie posts was associated only with a subdimension of narcissism called “admiration demand,” defined as “feeling entitled to special status or privileges and feeling superior to others.”

Bottom line: selfies and narcissism appear to be linked.

How we stack up against others

Selfies seem to be this generation’s preferred mode of self-expression. Psychologists who study the self-concept have suggested that our self-image and how we project it is filtered through two criteria: believability (how credible are the claims I make about myself) and beneficiality (how attractive, talented and desirable are the claims I make about myself). In this sense, the selfie is the perfect medium: it’s an easy way to offer proof of an exciting life, extraordinary talent and ability, unique experiences, personal beauty and attractiveness.

As a psychologist, I find it important not only to ask why people post selfies, but also to ask why anyone bothers looking at them. Evidence suggests that people simply like viewing faces. Selfies attract more attention and more comments than any other photos, and our friends and peers reinforce selfie-taking by doling out “likes” and other forms of approval on social media.

One explanation for why people are so drawn to looking at selfies could be a psychological framework called social comparison theory. The theory’s originator, Leon Festinger, proposed that people have an innate drive to evaluate themselves in comparison with others. This is done to improve how we feel about ourselves (self-enhancement), evaluate ourselves (self-evaluation), prove we really are the way we think we are (self-verification) and become better than we are (self-improvement). It’s a list that suggests a range of motives that appear quite positive. But reality, unfortunately, is not so upbeat. Those most likely to post selfies appear to have lower self-esteem than those who don’t.

In sum, selfies draw attention, which seems like a good thing. But so do car accidents. The approval that comes from “likes” and positive comments on social media is rewarding – particularly for the lonely, isolated or insecure. However, the evidence, on balance (combined with people and animals dying!), suggests there is little to celebrate about the craze.

The Conversation

Comprehension Questions

Answer the questions according to the article. Paraphrase your answer.

  1. What are three examples of dangerous activities that have injured or killed selfie-takers?
  2. When and where was the first selfie taken?
  3. According to the article, what is another name for the selfie stick, and why might it have this name?
  4. According to the article, how much time do women spend on selfies, and why?
  5. Why do some psychologists say that selfies are good?
  6. Why do some psychologists say that selfies are bad?
  7. According to psychologists, why are selfies popular?
  8. What is the theory that explains why people like to look at others’ selfies? What are the four parts of this theory?

Critical Thinking Questions

Discuss these questions with a partner.

  1. After reading this article, do you think you will take fewer, more, or about the same number of selfies? Explain.
  2. Concerning the social comparison theory, which of the four factors do you think affects you most when you look at your friends’ selfies?
  3. According to Tracy Alloway, a psychology professor at the University of North Florida, “Every narcissist needs a reflecting pool. Just as Narcissus gazed into the pool to admire his beauty, social networking sites, like Facebook, have become our modern-day pool.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Explain why.

Learning from Infographics

Look at the infographic below and then answer the questions. (Click on the infographic to make it larger.)

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From Visually.

  1. Give examples of specific behaviors people who are narcissistic would do based on the information in the chart. Can you give any examples of people who may be narcissistic based on the characteristics in this chart?
  2. Summarize the negative effects of social media according to the disorders and conditions listed in the chart.
  3. What would be your response to the question at the end of this infographic?

CEFR Level: CEF Level C2

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It’s All Greek to Me! by Charity Davenport is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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