Do you hate looking at photographs of yourself? Do you think you ‘take a bad picture’?
Maybe you felt really good when the picture was being taken, but when you look at the photo you don’t see that. Instead your eye goes straight to the bits you don’t like – your double chin, that extra roll around your middle, the size of your arm or whatever body bits you don’t like!
Well let me share some news with you. You are not alone!
I reckon 95% of people I talk to tell me they hate having their picture taken or that they take a terrible picture. In fact, many almost apologise that I’m going to have to take pictures of them because they ‘just don’t photograph well’.
Have you ever seen a picture of a friend and thought it looked absolutely amazing, but all she does is be hyper-critical of herself and you just can’t understand it?
I get this feeling a lot! I was beginning to despair. I began to think my photography skills just weren’t up to the job. Because, yes, lighting, posing, camera angle, lens choice, connection with the photographer – all these things make a BIG difference to the final image. And when you pay a professional photographer these are the kind of skills and knowledge you are paying for.
But I knew I was producing good work and I felt there was something deeper at work here.
So I asked people via my Facebook page how they felt about being photographed and I got lots of comments like this one:
‘I think I’m the most unphotogenic person ever. I smile like me and think it should look like how I feel when I smile. But I never see this in my photos. I just see an unpretty person with yukky legs, or yukky teeth, or a funny line on my face.’
To say this comment filled with me with sadness is an understatement and it spurred me to do some research into why people hate looking at images of themselves.
And what I found really surprised me.
It's all about psychology
My first thoughts were that it must be related to self-confidence along with the fact that in today’s marketing world we are comparing ourselves to an impossible and unreal standard.
Sure, those reasons no doubt come into play, but it turns out there’s a lot of psychology at work here.
Yes! There are actual psychological reasons why we dislike ourselves in photographs!
So I want to share what I learned with you because if we know the nature of the beast (i.e. our own brain) we can overcome it and stop beating ourselves up. Really, life’s too short to spend the rest of it avoiding looking at or having photos taken of you.
If you’re not convinced here’s my number one reason why you need to be in pictures: Your loved ones <3
One day you will be gone, and any photos of you will be a comfort to those left behind. If few, or worse, no, recent photos of you exist it’s going to add to the grief. Think back to when you lost someone close or dear to you. What’s one of the first things you do once you’re over the initial shock? You go and dig out every photo you can find.
So with that in mind let’s dig a little deeper into why your brain lies to you or tricks you into not liking yourself in photos.
The brain, tigers and speed
First up you need to understand a little bit of evolution because our brains have evolved with the primary purpose of keeping you alive. That’s obviously pretty important, it’s just that brains are still back in the days when life or death situations involved sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths.
To save you from the tiger your brain had to be able to process information really fast. If it didn’t work fast the chances were you would get eaten by the tiger.
To get that speed the brain developed a whole bunch of amazing shortcuts. It will pull out previous experiences and memories from the past (e.g. dad encountered tiger, tiger ate dad, run!) to speed up thinking.
But that speed comes at a price (there's always a price to pay). Namely, that the brain doesn’t always get it right.
Relying on previous experiences and memories to process information means we see the world the way we expect it to be and develop our own personal biases.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
The first one we’ll look at is the familiarity principle. It basically says that we tend to prefer people, objects, products, etc that we are more familiar with. Makes sense right. When you’re in the supermarket do you reach for the same brand of toothpaste or tea every time? (personally I can’t live without Twinings Lady Grey!)
So you’d think that because you see your own face in the mirror all the time that means that actually you would really like seeing pictures of yourself?
Well no! The problem here is that the face you see in the mirror isn’t your true face (the one that everybody else sees). It’s a mirror image.
So the reflection you see isn’t the same as how the rest of the world sees you. And it isn’t the same as what you see when you look at a photograph of yourself.
The truth is, you’re not actually that familiar with your own face as you’ve always seen a reversal of it. Not only that, your face isn’t symmetrical which adds to the confusion when looking at non-mirrored images of yourself.
The mere exposure effect and mirror trickery
Psychologist Robert Zajonc coined the term ‘mere exposure effect’ which is a fancy way of saying people react better to things they see more often.
We like what we’re used to seeing, so it makes sense that we prefer the image we see of ourselves all the time – the flipped image in the mirror. When we see an un-flipped image – such as a photograph – it looks off-kilter and a little strange to us.
Funnily enough though – everybody else in the world prefers the non-flipped image of you.
A study from the 70s (Mita, Demer and Knight) showed people two images of themselves. One image of their actual face and a mirror image of their face. They found that people always preferred the mirror image of themselves. But the study also found that friends and family of the person always preferred the true image of a person.
The clever people who develop all our modern technology – such as smartphones – have also taken notice of this research. When you’re mindlessly scrolling through your social media have you ever noticed when people post selfies they often don't look quite right, or natural, to you? This is because some selfie cameras on your phone are mirror-reversal cameras (which means the selfie-taker loves them – pretty clever aye).
The other thing with mirrors is that when we look in the mirror we often stand in the same spot and get used to seeing ourselves from the same perspective and angle. Think about that last quick check in the mirror before you leave the house – I’ll bet you always check the exact same side and angle.
So when we see ourselves from a different angle or perspective – the way others see us such as when taking our photograph – it comes as a surprise.
Have you ever had that experience when someone close to you has made a major change to their appearance – like shave off a moustache – and you didn’t notice it straight away? This is because your brain does that shortcut thing and ‘sees’ what it expects to see rather than use up precious energy to really look.
It’s a bit the same when we look in the mirror. We usually focus on a particular part of our reflection and we just don’t ‘see’ the rest of us. But when we look at a photograph it lays it all out there in black and white (or colour) for us. We see everything and notice things we might not have noticed in the mirror.
We think we're more attractive than we actually are!
Before we move on from the subject of mirrors and looking at yourself, another peculiarity of humans is that we tend to think we’re more attractive than we actually are!
What! Wait – that can’t be right. My thoughts exactly.
When we think about ourselves we are prone to a bias called self-enhancement. It’s a tendency to evaluate our “own traits and abilities more favourably than is objectively warranted” (Epley & Whitchurch, 2008).
They undertook a study in which they asked people to identify photos of themselves. But they didn’t just show them true photos of themselves, they also showed them photos of themselves that had been manipulated to make them look more or less attractive (if you’re curious, they did this by morphing their picture with pictures of attractive and unattractive others).
What happened was that people consistently chose the attractively manipulated photograph of themselves! Interestingly though, others accurately chose the true photograph.
What all this is leading to is that our self-enhancement bias might be another reason why we don’t like pictures of ourselves. Because we perceive ourselves as more attractive than we really are – then the reality of our true appearance disappoints!
There’s a quote from Lou Holtz that says “you’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose” which we could probably apply to our own thinking about ourselves.
How the confirmation bias make you hate you
There’s another psychological bias that affects us when looking at pictures of ourselves. It’s called the confirmation bias. It’s the bias that makes you hate you.
The confirmation bias is our tendency to search for and find information that backs up our previously held beliefs. We want to be right (naturally)! So we look for information that will corroborate our thoughts.
Because we believe we know best, any information that confirms our beliefs takes precedence over information that goes against it.
We’re constantly following a fallacy – it’s quite a mind-bending idea isn’t it!
So how does this relate to our photographs? Well if you believe you’re always awkward in front of the camera and you never look good in photos, then you’ll be looking for evidence of that every time you look at a photo of yourself.
Cue your friend (or you) who can’t seem to see how beautiful a picture is and only sees all her perceived flaws. Worse, because of the way the brain works, nothing you, or anyone else, can say will change those thoughts.
Why? Because your memory for feedback is also dependent on confirmation bias. Our ability to remember feedback depends on whether that feedback fits with our own self-esteem. If one person makes an unflattering comment you’ll remember that, but if ten people say you look amazing you’ll forget about them.
How to beat the brain and learn to like our pictures
So, forearmed with all this knowledge, how can we use it to change the way we look at ourselves in photographs?
Confirmation bias and the peculiarities of the mere exposure effect come together to make you not like seeing photographs of yourself.
But – and this is a BIG, MASSIVE, HUGE but – you have to realise that you are the only person in the world that thinks this!
Can I just repeat that. The mere exposure effect, the confirmation bias, the negative self image – all of these are only in YOUR mind. Other people don’t care.
No one else has the same biases about you as you do. No one sees the mirrored you (unless you’re a selfie addict). You are the only one who is experiencing this when you look at photos
In fact, you could use the mere-exposure effect to your advantage by looking at photographs of yourself more often.