Dark personality traits appear to influence self-presentation authenticity on Instagram

Those high in vulnerable narcissism and Machiavellianism are more likely to present a contrived self-image on Instagram, according to new research published in the journal Telematics and Informatics. The findings provide evidence that some dark triad traits are related to whether or not one’s self-presentation on Instagram reflects their true self.

Narcissistic tendencies have been found to predict inauthentic self-presentation on Facebook. But it was unclear whether narcissism and other dark personality traits influenced self-presentation on Instagram.

“The particular interest in the topic stemmed from prior self-presentation authenticity research (i.e., Grieve, March, & Watkinson, 2020), as applied to the Facebook platform and the dimensions of grandiose and vulnerable narcissism,” said study author Christina Geary, a masters of clinical psychology candidate at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

“Instagram use has been strongly associated with narcissism previously, so it was a natural extension to look at the relationship of these forms of narcissism with self-presentation authenticity on Instagram as a platform. We also included the other members of the dark triad to add further data on these traits for Instagram specifically, as prior literature for the relationship of these traits with self-presentation authenticity tended to focus on Facebook or be platform agnostic.”

In the study, 542 participants completed a psychological assessment of their true personality and a similar assessment of their personality on Instagram. For example, the true personality assessment asked to participants to indicate the extent to which “I feel reasonably satisfied with myself overall,” while the Instagram personality assessment asked them to indicate the extent to which “The persona I present on Instagram feels reasonably satisfied with themselves overall.”

The participants also completed measures of grandiose narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, primary psychopathy, secondary psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Grandiose narcissism is characterized by an exaggerated sense of superiority, extroversion, and domineering behavior, while vulnerable narcissism is characterized by excessive self-absorption, introversion and insecurity. Primary psychopathy is characterized by callous and remorseless behavior, while secondary psychopathy is characterized by impulsivity and antisociality. Machiavellianism is characterized by manipulative behavior and the belief that “the ends justify the means.”

Geary and her colleagues found that those who scored higher on the measures of vulnerable narcissism and Machiavellianism tended to have more inauthentic self-presentation on Instagram. In other words, participants with these specific dark personality traits tended to exhibit less congruence between their true self and their Instagram self.

“We found that vulnerable narcissism and Machiavellianism was significantly associated with inauthentic self-presentation on Instagram,” Geary told PsyPost. “For users with higher vulnerable narcissistic traits, their inauthenticity in self-presentation may be motivated by managing their perceived shortcomings through portraying themselves as more confident and attractive in their posts, and the very aesthetic, filtered and image-heavy Instagram platform may provide a rich environment for this to occur. For users with higher Machiavellian traits, their interactions with Instagram may be considered and strategic in order to achieve a particular goal (e.g., to increase audience reach and gain followers), which may then influence greater inauthenticity in their posts.”

The cross-sectional nature of the data precludes any determinations of causality. But, based on previous studies, the researchers believe it is more likely that dark personality traits influence self-presentation on Instagram rather than self-presentation on Instagram influencing personality traits.

The researchers noted that future research exploring authenticity on Instagram could examine whether self-presentation varies based on specific user behaviors.

“Our study assessed self-presentation authenticity on Instagram in a ‘general’ or overall nature,” Geary said. “Developments on the platform have led to a number of different mediums by which an Instagram user can present themselves, e.g., through Stories, Reels, or the classic Grid posts, which we did not differentiate between in our study. It would be of interest to explore self-presentation authenticity for Stories in particular, as their time-limited publication (i.e., disappearing from view after 24 hours – unless saved as a Highlight), may lead to differences in authenticity as compared to a Grid post which is permanently visible on a user’s profile, unless deleted or archived.”

“It’s also worth noting that data collection for the study occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, which provides an interesting ‘time vault’ for self-presentation on social media during a time when social distancing limited in-person forms of impression management,” Geary added.

The study, “Insta-identity: Dark personality traits as predictors of authentic self-presentation on Instagram“, was authored by Christina Geary, Evita March, and Rachel Grieve.

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