Does anxiety influence the way we take selfies?

March 3, 2021

A new study gives a look into the psychology of selfies. (Pixabay/Ajiu Prasetyo)

Attachment anxiety and national culture may shape the way we take, edit and post selfies on social media, according to new research that expands our understanding of how and why we manage our public image and reveals who may be at risk of negative outcomes from social media use.

In the paper, published Feb. 19 in Behaviour & Information Technology, researchers at SUNY Buffalo hypothesized that attachment anxiety, an insecure attachment style believed to form during childhood and which can result in an overriding need for intimacy and closeness, affects selfie-related behavior. They theorized that anxiously attached individuals depend more on what other people think of them for their self-worth, prompting them to act more strategically when snapping, curating, modifying and sharing selfies. 

The authors also turned to gender and national culture, hypothesizing that selfie-related behavior differed between women and men as well as between collectivistic cultures and individualistic cultures. The study sheds new light on individual and cross-cultural variations in this area, which is key to ensuring that recommendations around social media use are both culturally and interpersonally relevant and sensitive.

“We systematically measured [selfie-related behavior] from different dimensions — capturing, selecting, editing and posting,” said Zhiying Yue, the study’s lead author and a researcher in the Department of Communications at SUNY Buffalo. “Most previous work has focused on the capturing and posting dimensions. To our knowledge, we were among the first to examine the whole dimensions simultaneously.”

The researchers surveyed 336 students in the United States, which is considered an individualistic culture, and 236 students in Singapore, which is seen as more collectivistic. They asked questions designed to measure attachment anxiety and the sources of self-worth. They also asked participants about a range of selfie-related behaviors.

Among Singaporeans and Americans alike, greater attachment anxiety was linked to a greater need for approval from others for self-worth. However, attachment anxiety was only associated with selfie editing among Americans. Americans also posted far more selfies than their Singaporean counterparts.

Some cross-cultural gender differences were also striking. When controlling for attachment anxiety and the dependence of self-worth on external approval, they found that American men posted slightly more selfies than American women. Singaporean women, in contrast, outperformed Singaporean men in capturing, curating, editing and posting selfies when controlling for the above-mentioned factors.

Yue said her findings on selfie-editing and attachment anxiety fit in with previous research, which has suggested that people from individualistic cultures engage in more strategic management of their public image. “They might employ selfie editing as a method to capture attention and reduce anxiety in relationships,” she said.

Yue contrasted this finding with the image-management strategies that might work better in collectivistic cultures. “For collectivists, manipulating and posting images of themselves is more likely to be viewed as a sign of narcissism or even deception, so they may be less likely to engage in selfie editing or posting behavior to gain a sense of security, considering the potential drawbacks,” she said. 

Yue was inspired to study selfies by the damage they can cause. She was saddened by a media report about a teen who attempted suicide because he did not like his own selfies. As selfie-taking has exploded in popularity, some psychologists have warned that it can become an addiction dubbed “selfitis.”

“Social media is thought to provide a tool to fulfill our fundamental needs for social connection,” said Yue. “However, many empirical studies show that the social media use, especially excessive social media use, may backfire on our well-being.”

In previous studies, Yue examined how personality traits, mass media consumption and other factors affect selfie-related behavior. She says her latest findings could help identify people at risk of negative outcomes from social media use.

“Those with attachment anxiety might be more likely to engage in social media activities, which put them in a more vulnerable situation in terms of social media addiction,” said Yue.

This particular study relied on a convenience sample of college students, a common practice in psychology research. The authors acknowledged that this might limit its ability to capture certain aspects of self-related behavior.

“A representative sample definitely helps to draw conclusions about the population in general,” said Yue. “Future studies, especially cross-cultural studies, can aim to recruit a more representative sample to illustrate the cultural differences.”

Yue is still investigating how social media impacts well-being. She notes that survey-based methods can be paired with other techniques that do not rely on self-reporting, allowing researchers to provide an even more holistic picture of social media and mental health.

“Scholars can ask the participants to provide their social media account, and check how many selfies they ‘actually’ post,” said Yue.

The paper, “Submitted for your approval: a cross-cultural study of attachment anxiety, contingencies of self-worth and selfie-related behaviour,” was published Feb. 19 in Behaviour & Information Technology. The authors of the study were Zhiying Yue and Michael A. Stefanone, of the State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY Buffalo).

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