copyright Alan Conrad 

What do you think this hyena at the Toronto Zoo was looking at?

If the expression on its face suggests that it was seeing something odd, well, maybe it was. As I was taking that photo, a group of 4-5 adult people on my left were talking animatedly as they engaged in taking selfies, and portraits of each other, with the hyena compound in the background.

I’m not sure they even knew a hyena was there. Though it was only a couple of meters away from them, they never looked at it. But their choice of location may demonstrate that they recognized the well-planted, roomy hillside hyena compound to be one of the most beautiful animal residences at the zoo.

Selfie culture still mystifies me. One reader (cpluzc, commenting on Selfies on the Brooklyn Bridge), says people take selfie pics now because they have the technology to do it now, and they didn’t have it before. Well, true enough, I can imagine the Romans taking selfies, if they had our digital camera/phones, and I can imagine it too in every decade since I was born in 1946.

But that leaves me unsatisfied. The concept of the selfie is very old, at least as old as the Greek fable about Narcissus seeing his image in the surface of a pond. Isn’t the current infatuation with selfie portraits a large-scale breakout of narcissism? Well, there has already been some research on it and, so far, the answer seems to be – not necessarily.

In an August 27/2016 post in the online version of Psychology Todaypsychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne describes research done at the University of Florida.

In a nutshell, they found that narcissists are more likely than other people to take selfies, but not all narcissists do it, and many non-narcissists do. Narcissism isn’t the only reason for it. Many other people who perceive selfie-taking as “socially-normative” behavior (since almost everyone seems to be taking selfies), and who see that it can be fun and/or useful in enhancing their image, will do it too.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne proposes that it might be beneficial for some people. Re the posting of selfie-images on Instagram, she says:

People with narcissistic tendencies need to construct a self-image that they believe others will regard favorably. Because selfie-posting provides a way to do that, it can have therapeutic effects. No one gets harmed in the process, no one is forced to look at all those selfies, and perhaps, over time, the individual can feel affirmed enough to be able to move on to other ways to express his or her self-image.  

Tens of thousands of years ago when we were all hunter-gatherers, there were no photos, so we didn’t have to think about this. We could keep our eye on the hyenas. But now we have photos, and bad photos can be bad for your self-esteem. Passport photos are notorious for that. So I have no problem with people wanting to correct that with good photos that are self-affirming.

But ten or twenty years from now, will people at the zoo still be taking pictures of themselves rather than photographing the hyenas and other animals? Or will we eventually return to being as interested in the rest of the world as we are in ourselves?

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