After a reader wrote in to "Dear Abby" to complain about the practice, a number of readers responded with their own theories for why they're used. I think the best explanation was this one:
DEAR ABBY: The reader who objected to people using old photos instead of recent ones in obituaries is obviously still young. When she looks at me, she sees the white hair, the sagging skin and other signs of aging, but my image of myself is still youthful, dark-haired and fit. I would like to use a younger picture for my obituary – it's who I am.
– Sometimes Shocked At The Mirror
In other words, a youthful picture would fit her "residual self-image." According to Wikipedia, "Residual self image is the concept that individuals tend to think of themselves as projecting a certain appearance." It's the way people look to themselves on the inside when they're not thinking about it. This idea was popularized in The Matrix, when Neo asked Morpheus why he looked different inside the Matrix than out of it, and Morpheus explained that it was because of Neo's residual self-image.
In my residual self-image, I'm not the old, fat, ugly dude that I am in real life. I'm 20 years younger, 50 pounds lighter, still good-looking. In my mind, I'm forever 27 years old.
In fact, not long ago, I had a funny experience (both funny/strange and funny/ha-ha) that pointed up the difference between my residual self-image and reality. I went to meet a couple of my internet friends. I've known them for years online, but this was the first time I'd ever met them in person. And the moment I saw them in real life, my first thought was, "Wait, that can't be them. They're too old. They're only around my age. ... Oh." Then I remembered, of course, how old I really am.
I think groups can have residual self-images as well. Back around 2000, I started participating heavily in several LDS-themed internet forums. I posted a lot in them. I had in the neighborhood of 10,000 posts in a couple of them, and a few thousand in a couple others.
Back in the day, those forums were freewheeling places, with all sorts of people, liberal, conservative, libertarian, pragmatic, idealistic, religious, atheist, agnostic, certain, questing, etc. The peak of this diversity and of the forums' activity was probably around 2002. Over time, though, forums closed, were taken over by people I didn't like, slowly drifted into inactivity, etc.
Finally, I was down to just one forum where I actively posted. Over time, most of the diversity disappeared from that forum, and it eventually evolved into a group of like-minded friends who agree on almost everything. Anyway, earlier this year I stopped posting in that one too, for reasons I won't go into in this post. Since I care about almost all the regulars there, though, I still lurk quite often to see what's going on in their lives.
Recently a newcomer showed up in the forum and, most unusually, was not immediately driven away by the regulars. That in itself was a bit of a surprise, but the big surprise was the way some regulars described the forum to her. They said things like, "Some of us are conservative, some are liberal..." and "We are a diverse bunch..." and "The LDS folk who visit here are varied...."
I don't think any of those things are true anymore. I was probably the last liberal* regular there when I left, and probably the last one before me was driven out around six months before that. There's really not much diversity or variation in thought there any longer. (And there's nothing at all wrong with that. I'm being descriptive, not prescriptive.)
And that's how I realized that groups can have residual self-images too. Just like the old lady who wrote to Dear Abby and I sometimes still envision ourselves the way we used to be rather than the way we are, members of that forum sometimes still think of it as it used to be and not as it is now. It's an interesting extension of a psychological phenomenon.
*By liberal, of course, I mean by American standards. Like Barack Obama, our "most liberal" senator, in much of Europe, say, or Australia, etc., I'd be considered centrist, or even center-right.