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It’s not often that psychologists get to observe cultural evolution in the making – but with the selfie, here’s our chance. Right before our eyes we’ve seen a behavior emerge that has changed social interaction, body language, self awareness and public behavior. And it’s affecting marketing too. On social media, selfies have proliferated in their millions, and on Instagram they are the influencers’ stock-in-trade. For influencer marketers, the selfie is worth taking seriously. And for everybody else, it’s not quite as simple or superficial as you may think.

Selfie to selfie

To begin with, it’s important to understand that the selfie is essentially a form of communication. In the influencer world, selfies are often composed with an audience in mind. They serve as a conversation starter and can channel a degree of emotion and authenticity which brands otherwise may struggle to achieve.

Here are three of my favorite insights from the emerging field of ‘selfie science’ – whether you’re a marketer, an influencer or just a casual snapper – and each can potentially do wonders for your selfie game.

1. Eye to eye

There’s a lot to be said for eye contact in everyday interactions, and research suggests that selfies may be no different. Selfies in which influencers look the viewer in the eye, rather than off to the side, above or below, achieve greater follower engagement – and even increase followers’ intention to buy the advertised product.

Why might we favor such direct gaze in our selfie-takers? Well, it’s still an open question. But research on eye contact more generally seems to suggest that it has something to do with heightened arousal. Direct gaze makes us quicker to detect the face in the first place, faster to identify whose face it is, and less likely to be distracted from the face by peripheral stimuli – all elements associated with more focused attention, greater recognition and recall, and an increased receptivity for your message.

2. Left-cheek bias

When posing for a portrait, photo or selfie, people show a bias to display their left rather than right cheek. Everybody talks about having a ‘good side’, right? But there’s no reason to believe that the ‘good side’ would so consistently favor the left across the population (and throughout history too – we’re also talking paintings here).

So what’s going on?

Well, it’s not because everyone’s left side is more beautiful, for starters. And, if we look at the selfie-takers themselves, it’s got nothing to do with whether or not they are left or right handed, or favor portrait over landscape pics. Instead, it seems to be connected to how we express emotion.

Interestingly, when asked to display emotion in a photo we’re more likely to offer the photographer the left than the right cheek – the opposite is true when asked to conceal emotion, or appear emotionless. What’s also strange is that people judge the left side of the face to be more emotive than the right. Models who presented their left cheek to the audience were rated as more emotionally expressive and open than their right-sided counterparts – and Instagram selfies showing the left cheek gained up to 10% more likes than those showing the right.

Researchers have speculated that this may in part be the result of the way facial muscles are represented in the brain – with an overlap between emotion regions and left-sided fine motor control. Essentially, emotion is a predominantly right-sided matter – neurologically speaking – and it is this side of the brain that controls the left hemiface. Ultimately, this means that the left cheek may well be more expressive, and that model intuition here may be tapping into the laterality inherent in our cognition and action.

3. Face-ism

You’ll probably recognize that this is present in almost all TV shows, movies, magazines and traditional ads – but it turns out that selfies are no different. Face-ism is the tendency for women’s faces to be given less prominence than the rest of their bodies in popular media. And it’s insidious enough to translate into a person’s own self-conception and presentation, even when you’re an influencer and have complete control over your image – if you’re a man, it’s likely you’ll show more face and less body; a woman, vice versa.

This is probably the result of gender norms and stereotypes – sexist beliefs that objectify the female body and exalt the male mind. That old canard about women being more emotional, and men more rational.

But all is not lost.

The face-to-body ratio in selfies doesn’t seem to be fixed – rather it is context (and campaign) sensitive. So women promoting a mental health campaign are more likely to emphasize their face than those promoting a sports event. Theoretically, then, the more women influencers are given a chance to promote ‘head-focused’ products and brands, the less we’ll see of this bias in self-presentation.

Who knows, maybe influencers and brands who break the mold will drive deeper engagement. In the end, though, maybe we could all do with a little bit more selfie-care.

To learn more about Selfie Science – and other key drivers of influence – head to Tailify’s Influence Lab, where I’ll be discussing my field guide to influence with Tailify’s marketing director Esme Rice.

Alan Gray, senior research psychologist at Tailify.