The psychology of your selfies

Ramit Sethi

First, let’s get one thing straight. It’s not that you’re naturally photogenic or un-photogenic.

You can look better in photos. Looking good in photos is a skill. I know, because I’m the king of BAD PHOTOS.

On the left is me in 2009. It’s not embarrassingly bad, but a good photographer could point out multiple problems in about 5 seconds. On the right, a much better headshot from 2015.

As usual, most people talk about random tactics (“point the camera higher”) but the real win is in the psychology. Fix your psychology and you’ll fix your photos. Let’s start with an example.

I know a guy who doesn’t smile on camera. Let’s call him Jim. He’s a nice guy, and his wife smiles in all their photos, but strangely he never does. After you see 3, 4, 5, photos, it’s very noticeable.

Why do you think this is? Any guesses?

A couple weeks ago, Jim put a photo on Facebook. In the very first comment, I saw this: “Wow! Is Jim smiling?!”

I was also surprised – I’ve never seen him smile in a photo. Now, what was different about this photo than all the others?

Simple. Jim didn’t know he was being photographed. Somebody just snapped the picture while he was talking to his wife.

As a guy who didn’t smile for years (to the point where it cost me tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships), I found this fascinating. In fact, lots of Indian/Asian guys don’t smile in their photos. Have you noticed that?

Clearly, Jim’s non-smiling isn’t some biological flaw he was born with. He can smile on camera. It’s an emotional barrier – one I’d be willing to bet stretches back to childhood.

Some guesses:

  • Maybe his mom told him to stop smiling because “boys should act serious” (again, ask an Asian/Indian guy why many of them don’t smile in photos)
  • Maybe he had messed-up teeth in a school photo and stopped smiling after kids made fun of him and called him “chainsaw”

Whatever the reason, Jim DECIDED to stop smiling. And from that day forward, he created an identity for himself as “a guy who doesn’t smile.” Eventually, after years of repetition, it became a habit.

Can you think of anything in your life where you literally rewrote your identity…and soon it almost seemed “natural?”

Hints: People who are overweight, people who “aren’t good at reading” or “aren’t good at school,” and tall women who crouch down in photos.

Jim’s habit is so deeply ingrained that, if he changed, he’d have to face the overwhelming pressure of everyone’s reactions. Even though they would be positive!

Think about it — if 20 people tell him “Wow, you look amazing!” — now the spotlight is shining on something he hid for 20 years. That’s extremely uncomfortable. Plus, what would it say about how wrong he’s been this entire time?

It’s kind of like when I went through puberty, and some auntie heard my voice, which was suddenly deeper. “Beta (‘dear’), say something again! Ha ha!” I can remember being so self-conscious. Ugh.

In this way, Jim’s non-smiling is the same as our own self-development. We’ve all woven certain behaviors or ideas into our identity:

  • “I’m an overwhelmed single mother.”
  • “I’m too introverted to talk to women.”
  • “I hate emotional conversations.”

Technically, we could change these behaviors tomorrow. But it’s taken a lifetime to get here, and the change is overwhelming – even when the results of changing are positive.

One last thing: I know Jim. I know his wife would love for him to smile more. And with my knowledge of psychology, I could talk to him for less than 30 minutes and change his non-smiling habit forever.

But he’s never asked, so it’s not my place to say anything.

Part of going through the journey of life is doing it for yourself. People can teach you the right words and magical scripts, but nobody can walk through the fire of change for you.

Now, my question for you:

What’s one behavior that’s become part of YOUR identity without you necessarily wanting it to be there?

P.S. I got my better headshots by hiring Peter Hurley. Peter is one of the top headshot photographers in NYC, and he totally changed the way I think about my photos. Last month, I invited Peter into my studio to talk about what goes on with your face that you don’t even know – including the psychology of changing the way you look on camera.

I thought you might enjoy this excerpt from our talk. I especially love what Peter says (at 2:40) about the camera angle all bad selfies have in common:

Peter Hurley

Try to apply just one insight to your next photo. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes.

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  1. Kash

    Ramit, Great article as always !!

    I particularly like “Can you think of anything in your life where you literally rewrote your identity…and soon it almost seemed “natural?”.

    The deep rooted behaviors which we don’t know and don’t want to change can effect our professional and personal life in negative way.

    For me, when I was young I can easily speak to new persons and make new friends. But now I am totally on reverse order, I am neglected by most of the persons.

  2. Vera

    Great post, Ramit!

    How come most of us panic when it’s time to make new photos? It’s just like you say, one day we’ve decided we are not good with photos. That turns into the “I’m out of here” habit each time a camera enters the room.

    I guess the reason behind this avoidance is that we don’t want to face our imperfections. We want to hide them because they make us feel uncomfortable. That’s the language of low self-esteem.

    The moment we find peace with being imperfectly perfect, things get much easier.

    I remember my last headshot session (I really need to make new ones soon) started out horrible. I was so busy with trying to smile naturally but all that happened was FAKE smiles all over me.

    Then the photographer engaged me in a real nice, entertaining conversation. I was more focused on having a nice conversation than being photographed. That’s when the good photos happened. And that was the day I decided making photos can even be fun.

    Again, great post, I’m off to share it now, there are many people out there who run from their photos and your post and the video are of great help to change that!

  3. Fernanda

    Very interesting, Rami. In the video you linked you mentioned that you watched a video that you made you practice portrait “looks” and eventually changed how you take pics. Can you share the link to that video?