On Facebook, the lives of others can seem so much more appealing than our own. Usually this is because people tend to post only the appealing bits – which is why you don’t often see pictures of them first thing in the morning.
But the “Facebook effect”, as it’s become known, is very real. Looking at what other people do – or just looking at their faces – has a profound influence on how we view or rate ourselves.
To demonstrate this, the psychologist Emily Balcetis invited several dozen male and female participants to her experimental psychology lab at New York University. She wanted to find out how social comparisons would affect the way they saw their own faces in a mirror or in a photograph.
She showed the male subjects photographs of very attractive men, and the female subjects photographs of very attractive women (sourced, appropriately, from the infamous HotOrNot.com attractiveness rating site). She then asked them to look in a mirror. Finally, she told them to select a photograph of their face that they thought best represented them.
The results were compelling: both the men and the women chose pictures of themselves that were distinctly unflattering. Then Balcetis re-ran the exercise, making one crucial change. She showed them photographs of people who were less attractive. This time after looking in the mirror, they chose pictures of themselves that were much more complimentary. Clearly, self-perception is more fluid than it seems.
Balcetis's experiment raises the intriguing idea that whenever you see your own reflection in a mirror or a shop window, you're perceiving not the person you are, but a warped representation based on the people you’ve recently met, or whose pictures you've recently looked at.
There are three lessons to learn here.
1. If you see a monster staring out at you when you're brushing your teeth in the morning, remember, it isn’t actually you, it’s just a mental morph. Tomorrow, it'll probably look different.
2. When you’re trying to decide which pictures to post on Facebook or Instagram, or on your 21Pictures profile, it’s always a good idea to choose a few group shots that show you having a great time with some of your more average-looking friends. If there are any hotties in the shot, frame them out, or photoshop them into aliens. There’s good science on this.
3. How you rate yourself in terms of attractiveness has some bearing on your choice of partner. Long-term couples tend to be of similar attractiveness (as rated by others). If your self-image is negatively skewed by over-exposure to all those apparently flawless creatures in Vogue or Grazia (or for that matter on Tinder), this could seriously distort your dating radar.
It’s worth noting that looking into a mirror is itself fraught with psychological danger. As the New York University researchers helpfully point out in their paper: “While the mirror creates visual, perceptual input, it can also increase self-awareness. Self-awareness is a psychological state in which people automatically compare themselves to internal standards and ideals, which can be unpleasant given that people often fail to match their ideals. For example, looking into a mirror can draw attention to the blemishes on one's face.”