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Selfies scratch social approval itch for narcissists: U of A psych prof’s study

Alberta psychology researcher looks at selfies and narcissism
WATCH: Posting selfies and getting positive feedback on them makes certain people feel better than others. As a University of Alberta psychology prof explains, it depends on where the person falls on the narcissism scale. Emily Mertz reports.

Posting selfies online might just be the perfect tool for narcissists to get social approval — and a method that is actually on the healthier side of things.

University of Alberta psychologist Kyle Nash was curious about the selfie trend, how they’re used and how they benefit the person sharing them.

Everyone exists somewhere on the narcissism spectrum. Where individuals fall on that scale is commonly measured using the narcissistic personality inventory.

“People rate themselves on a range of questions like, ‘If I ruled the world it would be a much better place,'” Nash explained, “the degree to which they agree with those statements.

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“There are three facets to that scale. One of those facets is — this a more healthy kind of narcissism — it’s called grandiose narcissism… it kind of correlates with a bunch of good things… low levels of distress in general, better performance at work, better performance at school.

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“This kind of narcissism is viewed as kind of good of me but bad for you,” Nash said. “They’re psychologically seemingly healthy but maybe not the nicest of people to hang out with.”

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For many, the initial appeal of or chemistry with this type of individual quickly wears off and can be replaced with fatigue or annoyance, Nash added.

“The narcissists, they want social approval but their main way of getting it is unreliable. So we thought: maybe social media provides that perfect tool where they can upload pictures of themselves, edit it, doctor it, put filters on, the right angle, etc., put up an idealized picture of themselves and kind of watch the social media approval stream in.

“It kinds of solves that dilemma for them,” he said. “They don’t need the messiness of real relationships. If that’s all they’re going for, that social approval, social media is a nice tool for them.”

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While at the University of Canterbury, Nash and his team studied about 80 people. Everyone was asked to play a game called Cyberball and were eventually excluded from the throws. This heightened their need for social approval, Nash said.

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Then, the researchers used an electroencephalogram to measure participants’ neural distress before and after posting a selfie.

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“We found when people posted a selfie and received a lot of likes, people who are high in narcissism showed the largest decrease in emotional distress,” Nash said.

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In other words, after being made to feel left out in the game, posting photos of themselves and receiving affirmation on social media made narcissists feel better.

“Narcissism is viewed as a drive towards superiority and social approval and kind of a lack of empathy that masks a sense of insecurity, but what we found was it was a particular group of narcissists — this healthy narcissism — that showed the most decrease of distress.

“It seemed to be a healthy group of narcissists who were feeling the best after viewing selfies and getting a bunch of positive feedback,” Nash said.

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“People who are low in narcissism, they didn’t seem to show any decrease in distress when they’re looking at selfies and the likes are streaming in. So, perhaps not the best way for them to feel better after being excluded.”

While he wouldn’t suggest using the results in practical applications right now, Nash said they could be used to guide continuing research.

“It does suggest some interesting avenues in which social media seems to provide some benefits and they’re not necessarily that unhealthy.

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“Future research could look into the positive side, perhaps, of how people attain social approval via likes and positive comments on pictures.”

Nash’s study was published in the Journal of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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