How do we truly see ourselves ?


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 also experience greater body image dissatisfaction.

But how do we actually see ourselves in our mind’s eye?

Psychologists at Bangor University and the University of London are the first to develop a method of visualizing these 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 our self-esteem.

In a paper published in at Psychological Science, Dr. Lara Maister of Bangor University’s School of Human and Behavioural Sciences demonstrates not only how the research team devised a way to access other people’s mental image of themselves, but also, for the first time, to compare that image against reality, and explore how that image 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.”

Mental pictures weren’t necessarily true-to-life

Intriguingly, the team 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.

Dr. Lara Maister of the School of Psychology at Bangor University and lead author of the paper says, “We asked participants to generate their own computer-generated ‘mental self-portrait,’ and also to answer personality and self-esteem questionnaires to reveal what type of person they believe themselves to be.

We found that their beliefs about themselves strongly affected how they pictured their own appearance. For example, if a person believed that they were an extrovert, they pictured their own faces as looking more confident and sociable than they appeared to other people.”

Professor Manos Tsakiris, from Royal Holloway, University of London and the Warburg Institute, says: “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.”

In a second study, the team used the same approach to visualize people’s mental pictures of their own body shape. They found not only that people had unrealistic mental pictures of their own bodies, but that these mental pictures were strongly influenced by their attitudes towards themselves rather than their true appearance.

People who had very negative emotional attitudes towards their own appearance tended to picture themselves as having a much larger body than in reality.

Professor Matthew Longo, from Birkbeck University of London, who was also part of the research team, said, “The work will help us understand more about body image. We can now, for the first time, gain an insight into how other people imagine they look, in healthy people and in those suffering from body image disorders like body dysmorphic disorder.”

Adapting this method could give clinicians supporting people with body image disorders a new tool to measure whether therapies have been successful. Currently this is commonly assessed using questionnaires which evaluate whether the patient’s negative beliefs about themselves have changed.

Developing such a tool could assess whether the individual’s mental picture of their appearance has also changed.

Previous research

There were three studies conducted in the 1970s with 85 married couples to examine how people perceive themselves versus how they perceive others (Taylor, Shelley, Koivumaki, & Judith, 2001). They were given questionnaires that had 3 socially desirable and 3 undesirable behaviors paired with each of 4 stimulus persons and asked to rate the extent to which the behavior was caused by situational or dispositional factors.

The main finding was that people had positive behavior when circumstantial reasons were used. When the circumstantial factors were present, negative behavior was apparent (Taylor, Shelley, Koivumaki, & Judith, 2001). This behavior was most strongly for perceptions of people close to the individual, such as a spouse and friends, and less strongly for strangers and liked and disliked acquaintances.

There was little evidence for the actor-observer difference, that people view their own behavior more based on specific circumstances than they view others behavior (Taylor, Shelley, Koivumaki, & Judith, 2001). It was concluded that both cognitive and motivational factors must be taken into consideration in predicting how people perceive and describe others.


The most well-known form of bias in perception involves people’s tendency to perceive themselves in a positive light, although the truth might be just the opposite. The same people also tend to see their futures as very bright and that every good thing that has ever happened to them is all because of how wonderful they are as individuals. Anything that points towards the opposite is ignored (Pronin, 2006).

According to Pronin (2006), despite the well documented role of self-enhancement bias in human judgment, people rarely recognize their susceptibility to it. People generally are not aware of the bias others have of them. They presume that people around them will perceive them in an extremely positive manner.

When the concept of bias is brought to the public there is a common notion that human behavior is directed by others inclination to see how beneficial another person’s action and judgment is for them (Pronin, 2006).

Individuals presume that they are more selfless and altruistic when compared to others and their motives are always directed from an inner feeling of wellness and goodness. This presumption in the long run is not beneficial or positive in any situation (Pronin, 2006).

All people in general have some sorts of prejudice, some that are more visible than others.

Due to these prejudices their behavior towards others will be different depending on the prejudices that they have. This behavior can also be manifested when meeting people in larger and small gatherings (Pronin, 2006).

Individuals commonly feel that they are not susceptible to prejudice. Even in situations where these signs of prejudice are shown they still tend to deny that they are prejudiced. If another person has another opinion we tend to perceive this individual as prejudiced. The more their opinions differ from our own the more prejudiced we perceive them to be (Pronin, 2006).

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, individuals that have a different view from us are considered more prejudiced and this is because of “ideology and personal experience” according to Pronin (2006). On the other hand when people with the same views as us also have these two factors, they are considered knowledgeable and not prejudiced.

Recently it has been proven that when people see others as prejudiced they also become more competitive and more conflicted according to Pronin (2006).

Social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Edward Jones developed a theory in 1972 about the basic mechanisms behind how you see yourself and how others see you (Pronin, 2008). This theory is also known as the “actor-observer” bias/ systematic divergence theory (Kugler & Pronin, 2010).

Their theory was based on the fact that most people see their own actions as bound by situations whereas one thinks that other people’s actions are based on their internal and stable inner self.

An example mentioned in Pronin´s article is that of a person arriving late for a job interview and informs the interviewer that the lateness was due to bad traffic while the interviewer blames it on the individual’s irresponsibility. Although this difference might appear self-serving, Jones and Nisbett pointed out that the fact that because it is not the same, it does not always promote a positive aspect for oneself and suggested that in part reflects basic and non-motivational qualities of perception (Pronin, 2008).

They also noticed that people tend to take in different information when it comes to the perception of themselves and how they see others. Considering the structure of the human visual system, people can use far less visual aid to themselves and their actions than to others and others’ actions.

They have the information concerning their own feelings and intentions, which has to do with their own actions and it is precise and accurate information. As a result, people know when these actions are not able to correspond to their inner thoughts and wishes because of specific situations .When it comes to another individual, the knowledge of their intentions is not as precise and many times it can be wrong ( Nisbett & Jones, 1972)

Nisbett and Jones also argued that observers focus more on dispositional and less situational circumstances in accounting for the observed individuals’ responses than they offer themselves as mentioned in the previous paragraph. It may in some cases reflect the observed individuals need to justify his or her actions. One might think that this might have something to do with one’s own self-worth but this process seems to have no correlation at all. (Ross et al., 2004)

Perception of oneself and others

Recent research has built upon Nisbett’s and Jones theory as mentioned earlier, and that builds on the fact that that we generally have access to internal feelings when perceiving ourselves and our own behavior. When it comes to the perception of others, one main sense is used and that is our vision. We only have the ability to see their external behavior and we have no clue what feelings or inner needs that motivate people to act or think the way they do (Pronin, 2008).

As a result, we tend to perceive ourselves via something known as “introspection”, which means looking inwards to our inner feelings and thoughts. On the other hand while perceiving others we use something known as “extrospection”, looking outwards to observable and external behavior.

It also seems that people may value those sources of information in a different manner when considering themselves versus others according to Pronin (2009). To sum it up, we judge others based on what we see, but ourselves based on our thoughts and feelings (Pronin, 2009).

This difference in information that people possess when perceiving themselves versus perceiving others affects how people evaluate their own and others’ behavior.

For example during a job interview, people think others can only get a glimpse of them from such encounters. In general, people feel they know others better than others know them (Pronin, 2008).

During social gatherings, people are aware that most of their own internal thoughts and feelings and others’ observable behavior and this is known as interpersonal knowledge.

Another point of view that is worth mentioning is the one where people often misconstrue the thoughts and motives of others. In these cases, also known as pluralistic ignorance the misconstruals occur even though others share one’s own motives and beliefs and act in the same way as oneself (Pronin, 2008).

The last two standpoints that will be mentioned in this context will be about miscommunications and conformity. When it comes to miscommunication, people often fail badly in their efforts to communicate. These communication failings often reflect the fact that people know what they intend or mean to communicate while others focus on what they actually say (Pronin, 2009).

Concerning conformity, people are influenced by those around them and the input from different media sources but they are in denial of this and see themselves as one of kind according to Pronin (2009).

The consequences of the given facts that people’s perceptions of themselves versus others are based on very different information, whereas for self-assessments that information is largely bases on feeling and thoughts and for others it is largely an external perception of them based solely on their actions (Pronin, 2008).

Although there is a difference in these two sources of information, they still have one thing in common for the person depending on them. Each involves accurate and precise data concerning one’s internal state or about others external appearances. This information is more easily accessed than information about others mental states or one’s own external appearances.

(Fang et al., 2007)

The biological and psychological aspect

Experiments in neuroscience have been made to see how the brain reacts when perceiving oneself and when perceiving others. These experiments have identified neural activity specifically involved when individuals perceive both themselves and others. Areas of the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain have been shown to activate when people make judgments about both their own internal feelings and intentions. This is applicable even for other people’s feelings and intentions (Pronin, 2008).

This research points to common brain processes uniquely involved in the perception of self and others. They suggest when observing others, people automatically imitate the mental processes behind others’ actions according to Pronin (2008).

On a very basic level, people may quench their interest in knowing others’ thoughts and feelings by thinking about what they themselves would think or feel were they that other person, rather relying on that other’s inward feelings.

This idea is in line with behavioral experiments indicating that people form and get a picture of others mental states by first understanding their own mental state. Then some tweaking and adjusting is done on their own mental state. Due to the absence of opposite data, people project their own traits and attitudes onto others according to Robbins & Kreuger (2005).

If we go back to Nisbett and Jones actor-observer bias, it is often understood as the inclination for people to make circumstantial reason for others actions.

Unfortunately this does not give the complete picture of the true phenomenon known as the actor observer bias. It leads us to believe that people perceive themselves as scattered individuals that are bound by circumstances. Another aspect of it would be that people see their actions as actively chosen responses to the circumstance and not bound by the circumstance (Kugler & Pronin, 2010).

The idea of the actor-observer bias that is mentioned suggests that persons that are being observed focus on the reasons, inner desire and intentions that they have in response to ongoing circumstances and that and because of this they are only inclined to making “situational” attributions when they feel that they have consciously responded to the situation (Kugler & Pronin, 2010)

The actor-observer bias coincides with the concept that people see their behavior as not affected by circumstantial indicators in social situations where they can escape social awareness according to Kugler & Pronin (2010).


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More information: Lara Maister et al, The Self in the Mind’s Eye: Revealing How We Truly See Ourselves Through Reverse Correlation, Psychological Science (2021). DOI: 10.1177/09567976211018618


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