New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and I’m not at all stoked to see the pictures of myself from that night. It’s not because I was captured doing something compromising, I just hate seeing myself on camera.
Don’t get me wrong, I think I’m a decent looking dude. It’s just that sometimes when I’m a little fugly on film. It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where Jerry’s girlfriend only looks good in the right light. I’m generally OK with the reflection I see in the mirror, but the camera casts a pall on my visage. To my surprise, science agrees that the mirror is to blame, but not for the reasons I’d thought.
It comes down to facial symmetry, and in this regard my face is skewed. My chin is crooked, my eyes don’t line up, and there’s a weird bay in my hairline on my left forehead. News flash: your face probably isn’t absolutely symmetrical either. Only a few people come close, and even some models and actors have crooked faces.
This matters because of an effect called “mere-exposure.” Formulated in 1968 by a psychologist named Robert Zajonc, it basically says that people react more favorably to things they seen more often. Zajonc tested this with everything from shapes, to facial expressions, even nonsense words. Since we see ourselves most frequently in the mirror, this is our preferred self-image. According to the mere-exposure effect, when your slight facial asymmetries are left unflipped by the camera, you see an unappealing, alien version of yourself.
So the mirror lies, and you might be more beautiful than you think. Then again, a 2008 study showed that people tend to think they’re more attractive than they actually are.
In this experiment, researchers altered pictures of participants to make them look more and less attractive by melding them with a photo of an attractive—or unattractive—person of the same gender. Then, they mixed these versions of each person in with photos of strangers and asked the subjects to pick themselves out of the line up. People were quicker to pick the photo of themselves when it was more attractive—as if they were quicker to recognize a more attractive version of themselves. (These findings, by the way, run contrary to research that suggests most people have a negative view of their own body. But that’s a story for another day.) So, in addition to mere-exposure, those pictures of your own face just aren’t living up to your own outsized expectations.
This makes sense to me: In my mind’s eye, I looked pretty dashing in the stories my friends told me, even though I was getting pie-eyed on whiskey, climbing on the bar top for the midnight countdown, high-fiving my way through a bar full of strangers (my own recollection of these details is kinda foggy). So friends, if you own pictures of any of these events, I ask that you flip them around before putting them on Facebook, and I’ll try to keep my vanity in check.