Ever wonder why people sometimes hate looking at photos of themselves? The era of Facebook has brought this phenomenon into sudden relief: now when some random party photo of you is "tagged," not only do you have to look at it, but everyone you know on Facebook can see it too, increasing your "that's a bad picture of me" displeasure. But why does this happen in the first place? Because, it turns out, most people aren't as attractive as they think they are. A recent study called "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Enhancement in Self-Recognition" bears this out. The authors begin by summarizing the established results of past papers and studies:

Such self-enhancement effects are not simply mindless attempts for people to "see" what they want to see but rather represent a more thoughtful -- albeit biased -- processing of self-relevant information. Ambiguous traits are defined in ways that enable favorable self-evaluations. Negative stereotypes about others are selectively activated and applied to make oneself look better. Flattering information is evaluated more critically and ultimately derogated. These and other deliberate reasoning strategies are the tools that frequently enable people to form a more desirable image of their traits and abilities than reality might allow.

The authors' experiment was telling -- they took photos of undergrad students with neutral expressions, then had them look at a range of 11 photographs a few weeks later and try to pick out their own face among them. The surprising result: most students couldn't identify their own face. That's because their pictures had been morphed to greater or lesser degrees with either very attractive or unattractive faces of the same gender, and the students were choosing the "more attractive" morphed versions of their own faces. It seems that's what we see in our mind's eye, and when that self-image doesn't match up with a randomly tagged party picture version of ourselves on Facebook, we grumble and groan about "bad pictures."

It's interesting, though, that this study only used undergrads -- people in their early 20s. I wonder if the results would've been any different with older people. Every once in a while I hear an older person complain about how young people are "too vain" these days; that between blogging their inmost thoughts about their cat and carefully curating their images and updates on Facebook and Twitter, young people have become more inward looking -- the "me me me" generation. I'm not sure I agree with this, but it would be fascinating to see a wider age sampling done in this type of face-recognition study.

Link to study via Bering in Mind.