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Psychologists reveal how we truly see ourselves by generating “mental selfies”

NOMIS Awardee Manos Tsakiris and colleagues show that our “mental selfies” can be affected by our beliefs about our personalities and our self-esteem. Their findings were published in Psychological Science.

Manos Tsakiris (Photo: Ines Njers)

Never has there been a time when we were so obsessed with appearance than our current “selfie” age. Many argue that the obsession with selfies and manipulation of images may turn some of us into narcissists, while others may experience greater body image dissatisfaction. But how do we actually see ourselves in our mind’s eye?

Psychologists at the University of London and Bangor University are the first to develop a method of visualizing the mental “self-portraits” we hold in our minds. They explored how far these internal images may deviate from what others see, and demonstrated how they can be affected by our beliefs about our personalities and self-esteem.

In their Psychological Science paper, the authors demonstrate how the research team devised a way to access other people’s mental image of themselves. And also, for the first time, to compare that image against reality, and explore how it may be affected by their beliefs about their own character traits.

In the team’s research, the participants’ mental images of their own faces were reconstructed using a computer-based technique that has been employed in the past to help psychologists visualize how we mentally see things. To create a mental selfie, participants see two random faces and each time they must choose the one that looks more like their own face, a process repeated several hundred times. At the end, the researchers can average all the images that people thought looked more like themselves, and that allows them to visualize the participants’ “mental selfies.”

Intriguingly, they found that people’s mental pictures of what they look like weren’t necessarily true-to-life, and rather were influenced by what kind of personalities they believed themselves to have.

Professor Manos Tsakiris from Royal Holloway, University of London, and the Warburg Institute, where this research was conducted notes that “When we see a new face, within a fraction of a second, we have formed an impression about that person, based on what we see. Independently of whether such impressions are correct or not, they color our views about people’s personalities. In a similar but reversed way, we have now shown that our impressions of our own character affects how we see ourselves in our mind’s eye.”

Continue reading this School of Advanced Study release

Read the publication: The Self in the Mind’s Eye: Revealing How We Truly See Ourselves Through Reverse Correlation


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Professor of Psychology
Royal Holloway University of London, The Warburg Institute
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