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The Self-Sustaining Spiral of Online Narcissism

New research finds narcissists post more selfies — and doing so further inflates their narcissism.

By Tom Jacobs


Ellen DeGeneres and others pose for a selfie taken by Bradley Cooper during the 86th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014, in Hollywood, California. (Photo: Ellen DeGeneres/Twitter via Getty Images)

It was not exactly shocking news when researchers reported narcissists post more selfies on social media than those of us with less-grandiose self-images. But this finding didn’t answer a key question: Does narcissism compel people to post selfies, or does the act of posting selfies make one more narcissistic?

New research from South America suggests the answer is: both. It reports posting selfies can launch people with narcissistic tendencies into a spiral of ever-more-inflated self-regard.

“Narcissist individuals take selfies more frequently over time,” writes a research team led by Daniel Halpern of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. “This increase in selfie production raises subsequent levels of narcissism.”

“Users who engage in this behavior probably feel rewarded by sharing their own images with other users, augmenting their levels of narcissism.”

“Although it may seem surprising that taking selfies — a relatively small behavior — could have a significant effect on a character trait,” the researchers write in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, “it nonetheless seems to be the case.”

Their study featured 314 participants ranging in age from 18 to over 65. They filled out a detailed questionnaire, and took a follow-up survey one year later.

As part of the initial survey, they responded to statements such as “I like to be the center of attention,” “I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve,” and “I like to look at myself in their mirror.” Their responses, on a one-to-five scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree), were combined to create a narcissism score.

They were then asked how frequently over the past year they had taken a photograph of themselves and shared it on social media. In addition, they provided information on such variables as their age, gender, level of extroversion, and frequency of social media use in general.

One year later, they were again asked their level of social media usage, and how often they posted selfies. They marked their answer on a scale of one (never) to seven (every day).

Consistent with earlier studies, the researchers found that “people with high levels of narcissism are engaged in frequent use of selfies.” But, in a new finding, they also discovered posting these informal self-portraits “in turn increases the levels of narcissism reported by users over time.”

In other words, it’s a reciprocal process, in which users “who have some initial degree of narcissism” get that unfortunate trait reinforced.

“Users who engage in this behavior probably feel rewarded by sharing their own images with other users, augmenting their levels of narcissism,” Halpern and his colleagues write. This prompts them to post still more selfies, which leads to even greater levels of self-satisfaction.

Whether posting selfies induces narcissism in people “who did not initially manifest it,” is an open question, they add.

So while Facebook can’t be totally blamed for our increasing narcissism, it does seem to amplify the problem. Perhaps its next set of emoticons should feature one with a swollen head.