Jesse Fox

Communication, singular

Tag: communication

Selfies, narcissism, & “psychos”: Setting the record straight

James Franco selfie psychoA recent study on selfies I published with my awesome Ph.D. advisee, Margaret Rooney, was picked up widely in the mainstream media this past week. Not unexpectedly, there was cheeky but accurate news coverage (e.g., CNN, Health,and I liked this video from the Chicago Tribune), appropriately measured coverage (e.g., Jezebel, a fellow blogger at Psychology Today), and awful, panic-stricken, inaccurate drivel accompanying splashy clickbait titles (too many tabloids and blogs to name). (Update: I’m also ecstatic to report it made The Onion.) I’m a bit behind the ball here but, in the name of good science and accuracy, I wanted to provide some answers and clarifications.

The short summary: we used data from an online survey of 800 nationally representative U.S. men aged 18 to 40. The survey asked them about social media behaviors and personality traits among some other items. We were interested in the relationship between some traits (the Dark Triad and self-objectification) and social media behaviors. We found:

  1. Self-objectification and narcissism predicted the amount of time men spend on social networking sites.
  1. Narcissism and psychopathy predicted the number of selfies men post on social networking sites.
  1. Narcissism and self-objectification predicted men’s editing of photos posted to social networking sites.

Here are some commonly asked questions as well as some clarifications about the study.

What is The Dark Triad, anyway? Sounds like a goth band.

These are what we refer to as antisocial personality traits. On the whole, these traits are associated with some pretty nasty behavior. Those high on the Dark Triad are manipulative, callous toward others, and often use deceit to get what they want. They focus on achieving their own goals, even when those are at the expense of other people.

Antisocial traits? But they’re using social media. Isn’t that social?

“Antisocial” doesn’t mean necessarily mean unwilling to associate with others; here it means these traits aren’t prosocial or beneficial for society. Dark Triad individuals are usually pretty adept at getting what their social needs fulfilled, but this is without regard for others. Social networking sites might help them meet those goals. Laura Buffardi and W. Keith Campbell published one of the first pieces on narcissism on social media in 2008, and several others have followed up with similar investigations. I would also recommend Dr. Chris Carpenter’s (2012) study, which identified specific behaviors narcissists exhibit on Facebook; this study that linguistically analyzed Facebook posts for indicators of Dark Triad traits; and Peter Jonason’s fascinating work on Dark Triad traits and interpersonal behavior more generally (e.g., here and here).

So, you found that narcissism predicts selfies. Um, #duh?

Admittedly, I wasn’t as interested in narcissism as I was the Dark Triad trait of Machiavellianism, which is characterized by being manipulative and amoral. I’ve identified relationships between Machiavellianism and other social media behavior, but it didn’t predict men’s selfie behaviors.

So, why is this finding still important? Well, first, just because something seems like common sense or something is commonly accepted doesn’t mean it’s scientifically accurate. Remember the good ol’ days when bacon (hey, protein!) and smoking (so relaxing) were good for you? Scientists have to confirm even the obvious stuff because sometimes there’s more going on than we think (which was the case here when you think about the roles of psychopathy and self-objectification.)

Second, the narcissism finding is a bit more interesting than it seems on face. The common understanding of narcissists is that they are self-absorbed, egocentric, entitled, and think they’re better than everyone else. This is accurate, but there is another important aspect of narcissism: an underlying insecurity. The selfie finding is interesting to me because it implies that narcissistic individuals may post selfies to address this insecurity. As I discuss in this paper, many social networking sites allow people to get comments, “likes,” and other forms of social feedback, and narcissists in particular may rely on these features (or affordances, if you want the scientific term) to make them feel better about themselves.

He posted a selfie! OMG! Is the guy I’m dating a psychopath?

Deep breaths. In this study, we measured the subclinical (i.e., normal) range of these Dark Triad traits. Everyone has a little bit of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism in them. Yes, even you. We can’t draw conclusions from these data about clinical levels of psychopathy or what people would commonly describe as a “psychopath.” So, don’t believe the hype.

This isn’t to say subclinical psychopathy is a desirable trait, however. It is characterized by impulsivity and a lack of empathy for other people. People higher in psychopathy may post selfies online impulsively and without thinking. (It makes sense, too, that we didn’t see a relationship in between psychopathy and editing your selfies given this impulsivity.) Because people higher in psychopathy lack empathy, they might not care if you’re annoyed by all the selfies they post, either.

I told ’em! This generation! All them Facebooks and selfies are turnin’ those kids into narcissists!

This study was a survey, which means we can’t make any causal claims; experimental research is needed to answer those questions. Narcissism could cause selfies, or selfies could cause narcissism, or a third variable could be driving them both. We can only state that we observed a relationship between these things among a nationally representative sample of U.S. men aged 18 to 40.

Well, how many selfies can I post without looking like a total narcissist?

We only looked at selfie posting in this study. We don’t have enough research on how people perceive others’ selfies yet to answer this question. My common sense answer: if you have to stop and ask yourself if you’re posting too many selfies, you are probably posting too many selfies. My suggestion is to ask your close friends what they think about the frequency and content of your selfie posting–and don’t get defensive when they give you honest feedback.

Why did you only look at men, hater? Obviously it’s because you are female and out to get men.

Ah, the stupid, sexist things trolls say. Read the paper. Magically, the answer is there. The longer story:

Trust me, I would have loved to have a nationally representative sample of women as well, but I had no control over what went in the survey. Glamour magazine conducted the survey through a survey company. Most survey companies charge by chunks of time (e.g., 20 minutes) and you get to fill those minutes with questions. As a women’s magazine, of course they had more questions to ask the women, and they filled the women’s 20 minutes with other questions. (You can see the results in their November 2014 issue.) They had some time left over on the men’s side of the survey given they didn’t have to ask men about their thigh gaps and bikini bridges, and so they included the Dark Triad and self-objectification measures. Thus, no data on the Dark Triad or self-objectification for this particular sample of women.

Don’t fret, though. I already have data collected on women, and the results are coming soon. The problem is that a nationally representative sample is very expensive, so I collected data with a convenience sample of college women. This means the sample will be restricted in age, education, and race/ethnicity, unlike the men’s sample. So, we can’t be as confident that these data will represent U.S. women as a whole, but it’s a start in answering questions about women and selfies.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to add except an additional thanks to Liz Brody, Shaun Dreisbach, and Glamour for making this research possible, and to Jeff Grabmeier, Joe Camoriano, and OSU University Communications for helping with the media traffic. It’s an academic’s dream to work with so many great people in so many different research-related contexts.

Key books for grad students in Communication

IMG_1374I’m not going to get topical on you and list my favorite books on comm tech, which are for another day. These are the books that I find indispensable for graduate students in Communication. I’ll note that these are skewed toward my own practices and experiences (submitting predominantly to social scientific journals and using both quantitative and qualitative methods) but several will be useful for any graduate student in the social sciences.


Guide to Publishing in Psychology Journals edited by Robert J. Sternberg

My amazing faculty mentor, Dr. Brad Bushman, gave me this book when I asked some questions about feedback I had received on a rejected journal article. I devoured the whole book in two days, and in the end I was picking skull bits out of my ceiling because my brain had exploded. WHAT??? was my reaction to many of the chapters. I realized that, in six years of grad school, I had never really been taught how to write an article for publication. In grad school you get a lot of feedback on how to write lit reviews and front ends of papers in class, but often there’s not enough focus on the practical aspects of writing for journals. Highly, highly recommended for quantitative scholars.

The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide (2nd ed.) edited by John M. Darley, Mark P. Zanna, & Henry L. Roediger III

This book was another gift from my faculty mentor. Although this is mostly aimed at young faculty, this is a very useful text for grads as well with chapters on job searching, giving job talks, teaching, setting up a lab, grant writing, and managing department hierarchies and politics. It also has the same general chapter by Daryl Bem as the book above that has very useful points for writing empirical articles.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.) by the APA

You can substitute whatever your area’s formatting tome of choice is here. Make sure you have the most current edition. I like APA because they provide advice on clear writing as well (and they endorse the Oxford comma as all rational people should.) Beyond that, you need to be familiar with the major format of your area because violating it can have consequences. Of course, if you don’t mind getting your papers desk rejected or held up for weeks because you don’t feel like learning the rules, then there’s no need to worry about a silly thing like formatting. Is it annoying that something as trivial as how you punctuated a reference can hold up science? Of course, but that’s the way it goes.

On a related note, if you’re on the academic path for a while, suck it up and buy the actual manual. Online resources are incomplete and often outdated, and you put yourself at risk of really annoying your teacher/advisor/research collaborator/first author when they task you with the formatting and you can’t seem to follow basic directions. (On the plus side, one day you too may be able to pass the formatting buck to a co-author.)

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White

I was raised by an English teacher. I have a degree in English with a focus on writing. I taught English and writing in several contexts. I have had several professional writing jobs. As you can probably tell from reading this blog, my PsychToday blog, or even this post, I am still far from a perfect writer. This slim volume will remind you how many awful habits you need to break. Best of all, Strunk and White (yes, the guy who wrote Charlotte’s Web) have peppered it with plenty o’ snark.

If you’re the grammar/style policing type, you will learn new things that will make your hair stand on end. I mention this before presenting you with the following rant: in the name of Strunk and White and all things holy, I implore you to stop using the word “utilize.” Face it: you learned that word in middle school and started inserting it into every social studies report and English paper thinking it made you sound smarter. BARF. You’re an adult now. Stop it.

Quantitative Research

Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics (4th ed.) by Andy Field

Dr. Field and I share a love for ruh-ruh-ruh metal and bizarre data examples, so I was warm to this book from the very beginning. It is the book I wish I knew existed when I was first learning SPSS. This won’t be the only stats book you need, but it is an incredibly useful synthesis of statistical tests and reasoning and using SPSS to execute said tests. Great screenshots and supplementary materials (sample datasets, syntax, and elaborations on the accompanying website). Even as a seasoned user I learned a lot of tips and tricks for using SPSS more efficiently. It also delves into the very necessary PROCESS functions (see below.) Make sure you get the latest edition as the SPSS interface has changed over the years, and older versions of the book don’t discuss PROCESS.

Introduction to Mediation, Moderation, and Conditional Process Analysis: A Regression Based Approach by Andrew F. Hayes

Speaking of PROCESS, if you are a quantitative researcher, you can’t live without it. Dr. Hayes’s book delves much more into the mathematical reasoning and equations behind these processes, so I recommend warming up with Field’s chapter on basic moderation & mediation so you have a good overview. Make sure you also have the downloaded materials that come with the PROCESS package handy as there are a lot of models there that are not illustrated in the book.

Qualitative Research

Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory (3rd ed.) by Juliet Corbin & Anselm Strauss

The Strauss lineage of books is a great place to start with qualitative research. I recommend the later editions as they delve more into the use of technologically-mediated sites for research and computer programs for analysis. Note: there is a 4th edition set to come out in fall 2014.

Qualitative Communication Research Methods by Thomas R. Lindolf & Bryan C. Taylor

Yes, I’m partial to this book in part because Dr. Lindolf is affiliated with the University of Kentucky and I get to see examples from all my former profs in here. This book is also a useful addition to the Corbin & Strauss volume because it is very helpful to see how qualitative methods are incorporated specifically in communication research. Occasionally I have trouble identifying with and extrapolating from examples from other fields, so it’s helpful to have a good in-house text. I also find the writing very lucid, which is refreshing when many methods books (both qual and quant) are unnecessarily obtuse.


This is a work in progress, so if you have any other suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.

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