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Ford Center for the Fine Arts

The Psychology Behind Awkward Family Photos

Psychology professor Frank McAndrew explains why families tend to have tension in family photos.

by Elise Goitia '18

Why do we look so awkward in family photos?

Knox College Psychology Professor Frank McAndrew has a few ideas as to why. By drawing information from a psychology course he teaches at Knox, "Evolution and Human Behavior" (Psychology 369), McAndrew theorizes that the discomfort caught on camera between family members alludes to an evolution of tension that began with the initial interactions between people who have a special connection with one another.

"There are a lot of things that make our relationships with our families different from any other relationships that we have," said McAndrew, who is the Cornelia H. Dudley Professor of Psychology. "Because we share genes with these people, we care about them in a way that we don't care about anyone else."

McAndrew recently was asked to lecture at the "Awkward Family Photos" exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. In his lecture, "The Unavoidable Awkwardness of Family Life," McAndrew made connections between the exhibition—a traveling collection of awkward family photos—and the psychological influence of chemistry between family members and their reactions to each other.

McAndrew explains that the tension between family members is a reaction to the familial closeness people constantly share, defining it as a product of a cycle of competitiveness, dividing up limited resources within families, unequal parental attention toward siblings, and other internal factors.

"We're involved in a world where, if someone did you wrong, you can't forget that because you don't want to be taken advantage of again," McAndrew added. "The problem with relatives is there are so many opportunities for things to happen to cause grudges and you're going to be seeing these people your entire life."

McAndrew also discussed birth order and the different theories as to how first-borns and later-borns have alternate agendas that may influence the outcome of the awkwardness among family members. As first-borns and later-borns vie for attention, conflict can occur between them, adding to the melting pot of tension within families.

"You bring in all of these people together with their grudges and their histories on the very day where you want everything to be perfect: the wedding day, Christmas, whatever it happens to be, and that happens to be the time when everyone wants to take pictures," said McAndrew.

"We all have to appear to be civil here, so you soldier on in some awkward way."

(Photo at top of page: Frank McAndrew. Photo above courtesy of Awkward Family Photos.)

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Printed on Monday, May 20, 2024