Unfiltered Science: Why We Hate Pictures of Ourselves


Even Kim K. takes a bad picture. Without all the filters and Photoshop that is.

We’ve all been there before: We order the most immaculate sushi, fat dripping cheeseburger or perfectly decorated cake. But it’s not enough to dig right in. No, we must waste the first ten minutes of our meals to take the perfect picture to share with our friends. In a rush to eliminate the time between getting our food and cramming it in our mouth holes, we whip out our phones, tap on the camera icon, and hover our phones in front of our faces, directed at the food. Nine times out of ten, our cameras are oriented to front-facing, meaning that instead of seeing our glorious food, we subject ourselves to seeing our own faces. “God do I really look this horrible?” we ask ourselves while shuttering and adjusting the phone to utilize the back camera.

The answer is yes. The problem isn’t the bad lighting in the restaurant or that we’re having a bad hair day. It is due to the fact that we are not accustomed to seeing pictures of ourselves.

If you are not Kim Kardashian snapping 6,000 selfies in a four day period (yes I researched that statistic), then we gather information about how we look, and specifically what our faces look like, from mirrors. And no, there aren’t magic mirrors out there that make us look much better than the average eye perceives us. It is because we look in the mirror far more times than looking at photographs of ourselves that we prefer our reversed looks in a mirror (don’t forget that mirrors present us with our reflections and not with what we actually look like straight on) in a phenomenon called the mere exposure effect.

The mere exposure effect was coined by psychologist by Robert Zajonc in 1968. He studied this effect, which states that we react more positively to things in which we have been exposed to before, with shapes, facial expressions, and nonsense words in numerous experiments. He found repeatedly that people significantly favored shapes that were more like basic shapes, facial expressions that resembled smiles (as in our experiences we have associated smiles with friendlier people), and nonsense words that look vaguely familiar to English words.

Researchers Moreland and Beach applied this concept of mere exposure to attraction in 1992. For their experiment, they enlisted the help of four research assistants with comparable features to sit in on their lectures. One assistant attended the class zero times, one attended five times, one attended ten times, and one attended the lecture 15 times in total. At the end of the semester, the researchers probed the students on which woman was the most familiar, most attractive, and most similar to themselves.


Results from Moreland and Beach’s experiment. Note that if you want someone to think you are attractive, stalking them is still probably a bad idea. 

Unsurprisingly, the research assistant who attended the class the most (15 lectures) was rated as the most attractive and the most similar. There were no significant differences in the ratings of familiarity of the women, demonstrating that the participants did not actively look at or judge the women when they attended class. Instead, the researchers validated that the mere exposure effect can happen subconsciously. That being said, we do not have be able to actively perceive a difference in our faces in the mirror and our faces in photographs, but being exposed more times to our reflective images is enough to create a bias.

I am sure that there are some of you thinking that poor self-esteem can mediate a hatred of our looks in photographs.  I am the first one to pick out the flaws in myself when looking back at family photos (while also wanting to believe that the camera really does add 10 pounds). Researchers examined this too, and found the opposite to be true.

In their paper Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition, researchers discovered that people, on average, regard themselves as more attractive than strangers. The study consisted of pictures of participants being altered to make them look more or less appealing by melding the photos with attractive and unattractive strangers. After some interesting Photoshop, the altered pictures of the participants were mixed with pictures of foreigners. When the subjects were asked to pick out pictures of themselves in a lineup, they were significantly quicker in identifying the pictures in which they were melded with the attractive stranger than the pictures that were altered with the unattractive stranger.


Paradigm used in self-recognition study. Notice how both unattractive male and female targets look like meth addicts while attractive targets look like Eastern European fashion models. 

These findings suggest that we actually perceive our visages as more attractive than they actually are, which can lead to additional disappointment when we look back on our vacation photos and see less than chiseled faces and perfectly coiffed hair.

It doesn’t help that most celebrities, a.k.a the most beautiful people alive, can easily delete and transform their most hated features in order to create symmetrical faces, hourglass shapes and bulging muscles, but we common folk can use technology as well.  New filter are being added to Snapchat regularly and even the most novice computer user can flip images to reveal their reverse. Also note that on most phones, if you have a “seflie mode” and are using the front-facing camera, the pictures reverse upon processing.  Or, you know, you can learn to live with the fact that nobody, even celebrities, have perfect faces. There’s a reason that most candidates for plastic surgery reside in Hollywood.

So next time you see a bad image of yourself on your friends’ timelines, take solace: they hate pictures of themselves on your timeline too.

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