Psychology in the News

November 13, 2007

Will Tatoos make you happy?

Filed under: depression, social influence — Tags: , , , — intro2psych @ 5:22 am

by Psych 105 Student
Tattoos, body piercings, and other forms of body modification have existed among different cultures since humans have walked the earth. While these body alterations may have been looked favorably upon in ancient societies, in our current culture there is a social stigma associated with those who partake in tattoos and piercings.

my name is scott tatoo

In an study conducted at a German university, information was gathered by observing the incidence and relationship of psychological factors to tattoos and piercings in a large group of German citizens. In the experiment, 2043 citizens chosen at random were questioned in their homes. The data collected involved sociodemographic data, as well as self-reported mental health and quality of life questionnaires.

The results of the study showed that there was no significant difference between body-modified and non-body-modified respondents regarding depression or anxiety. However, the rating of personal mental health revealed that tattooed respondents felt significantly worse in terms of mental health than non-tattooed respondents. Also, both tattooed and body pierced respondents showed having significantly higher sensation-seeking behaviors.

In the study, those who had tattoos viewed themselves as being depressed and leading unhappier lives. Does body modification have strong ties to low self-esteem and a despondent self-perception? Do you usually make assumptions about people who have multiple piercings and/or tattoos and their mental health and sensation seeking behaviors compared to other people who do not?

[Editor’s note: There is a more recent post about tatoos and piercings.]


  1. This post caught my eye because a couple weeks ago at the mall, I made a last minute decision to get a second piercing in each ear (knowing that my mom didn’t want me to made it that much more appealing…we’ll see how that turns out over Thanksgiving…). I found an article that discusses first impressions of people with tattoos/piercings, focusing on a study at Loyola University in which researchers looked for a relationship between body modification and GPA in undergrad students. This was a directional experiment, because the hypothesis was that there would be a negative correlation – they predicted that the more body modifications the subject had, the lower their GPA. A T-test was conducted, and showed that there was a significant difference between the amount of males and females with body modifications.
    The article addresses certain stereotypes associated with tattoos and piercings, referencing a survey in which employers said they were less likely to hire someone with visible body modifications (Garza, 2001). Another study, showed that tattoos and piercings were associated with “somewhat deviant or risky behaviors” showing that people sporting them were generally more likely to smoke cigarettes, have more sexual partners (for males) or to have been arrested (for females) (Drews, Allison, & Probst, 2000). The results of this experiment however showed that there was no significant difference in the GPA between people with and without body modifications.


    -Garza, R. (2001). Marked For Unemployment. Daily Texan . Retrieved March 1, 2003, from

    -Drews, D.R., Allison, C.K., & Probst, J.R. (2000). Behavioral and Self-Concept Differences in Tattooed and Nontattooed College Students. Psychological Reports, 86, 475-481.

    Comment by Lauren Goldberg — November 14, 2007 @ 7:26 pm

  2. My younger sister just turned 16. She quit all activities she used to love when she was 14. She’s had some trouble fighting with bulimia, and not ‘being able to talk’. She’s the poster-teen for being mad at the world. She’s got beautiful long hair which she dies black every week because it’s so tenaciously blond. She’s researched the emancipation process. She began going into town (Geneva, Switzerland) with her friends and drinking in bars over a year ago. For the past couple months she’s wanted a tattoo on her lower back (it makes me cringe…), and my parents have put their feet down. However for her sixteenth birthday she managed to convince them to let her get an eyebrow piercing – let her try and realize it’s not for her, right? Wrong. A week later she snuck off and pierced her tongue without my parents knowing.

    I am constantly asking myself, why would anyone do that? But then again, my sister fits that profile quite well. She is very sensation seeking, and definitely knows her mental health needs a band aid. However, since the piercings she’s undertaken several sudden transformations; she’s starting a school newspaper, she’s in a musical, and she’s even been writing songs (one of which is called “You Could Be My Someone” – awwww!). BUT WHY!? Was this drastic transformation triggered by the piercings? She’s most definitely a happier little teenager now, so what brought about the change?

    I think that self expression offers a wonderful outlet for what’s inside. When she was at the height of her teenage angst, she NEVER communicated anything deeper than, “Shut up mom, the music is NOT too loud!” But now that she’s found a way to express herself through the way she looks, she suddenly feels more comfortable with who she is. So she may be sensation seeking and have a ‘despondent self perception’, but at least she’s figured out how to be happy with herself in her despondency. Piercings, tattoos, whatever – I’ll love her no matter what.

    Comment by 105 student — November 24, 2007 @ 1:11 am

  3. What interested me the most about this post is that it brought up a topic that has long been on my mind. I always wondered what led people to want to get a body piercing or a tattoo. My experience basically consisted of kids who either wanted to be included with or separate from the cool people. I got my lip pierced mainly because I was in transition between high school and college and I needed a change and I wanted to do something outside my norm. Body piercings and tattoos can also be indicative of other problems than just depression and low self-esteem.
    A study done by Salvador Ceniceros, M.D., chief resident in the department of psychiatry at East Tennessee State University, and his colleagues further explored the correlation between body modification and self-mutilation and dysfunctional social behavior in psychiatric patients. They rated the piercings and tattoos from one to five based on the total number, location, and theme. Interestingly, the researchers found that the tattooed and pierced group reported no more depressive symptoms than the group without body modification. The patients with more tattoos and piercings were, however, more likely to practice self-mutilation, have a criminal record, play Russian roulette, and they reported more anxiety symptoms.


    Comment by Leona Brannon — November 27, 2007 @ 6:00 pm

  4. Although the German study that this post referred to was conducted quite recently 2005 and thus can’t be dismissed as a “product of the times”, I don’t think tattoos should necessarily be associated with lifestyle categories such as unemployment, reduced mental health and church non affiliation. However, it is hard to argue with the data of the study, so instead of dismissing it, I would like to predict that in the near future the population of tattooed individuals won’t be as easy to lump together due to soaring numbers of people in new demographics that are becoming interested in tattoos and body piercings.
    A New York Times article details one especially surprising demographic, moms! Evidently, these mothers (mostly past their 20s) are getting their tattoo(s) as a tribute or permanent representation of the connection they have with their child. As sweet at that sounds, I feel like there has to be more of a reason for moms (yesterdays tattoo opponents) to begin volunteering to get inked. Many experts in sociology, psychology and the media weighed in on what they thought the cause was. One person said it was a way for these women to “flirt with the edge”, doing something sassy that is also socially acceptable. It was suggested that the moms were responding to stars like Angelina Jolie, who got the longitude and latitude of her children’s birth places tattooed on her body. My favorite suggestion purposed that mothers made an association between the pain of childbirth and the pain of getting a tattoo.

    Comment by Danielle Unger — November 30, 2007 @ 12:51 pm

  5. If a study among 2,043 participants proved that there is no significant difference between body-modified people and depression/anxiety levels, why is this still a debated issue? The study does reveal something interesting. Although it’s proved that there isn’t a difference in body-modified and non body-modified groups regarding depression and anxiety, there is evidence that the “inked” group is mentally unhappier. “The rating of personal state of mental health in both the GHQ and Subscale 8 of the SF-36 revealed that tattooed respondents felt significantly worse in terms of mental health.” According to the study, “the major reasons for body modification practices in the German population appear to be negatively perceived conditions of life, reduced social integration, and increased sensation-seeking behavior.” So does that mean a person with a tattoo is mentally unhappy? Is it more likely for a mentally unhappy person to get a tattoo?

    The study revealed how there was no significant difference in anxiety and depression levels in the tattooed and non-tattooed groups, and there shouldn’t be. I never saw getting a tattoo as a sign that a person was suffering severe anxiety or depression. Would a person suffering either (or both) really get a tattoo as a way to alleviate the suffering? I don’t think so. Also, the body-modified group has an “increased sensation-seeking behavior.” Depressed people don’t seem to want to seek sensation because they don’t think they can. Their attitude on life is very negative and cynical, why would they think they’re capable of seeking sensation?

    In my opinion, the key conclusion in this study is that although it was proved that body-modified people are mentally unhappier, they are not depressed or anxious. The motivations for getting a tattoo range from wanting to fit in to expressing yourself through body art. For some, getting a tattoo is a way to reject norms and show who they are. It’s not so extreme that they would suffer anything beyond this “unhealthy” state of mind. If getting a tattoo is the most “damage” a discontent person will do, I really doubt a correlation will ever be found between tattoos and depression.


    Science Direct

    Comment by Isma Aslam — November 30, 2007 @ 6:53 pm

  6. While reading this post and the comments written it seems that it is possible the reason people get tattoos and body piercings may be as a form of self-medication. Perhaps instead of wanting to numb the pain, like a drug addict does, they want to increase the sensation of pain so as to remind themselves that they are indeed alive. I remember watching a television show, “Miami Ink”, and hearing from a customer on the show that getting a tattoo caused them to enter into a meditative state. This is possibly why ancient cultures held tattoos in high esteem. Tattoos may have been something of a religious ceremony, the intense pain causing the meditative state. As the German article points out not being affiliated with a church is positively correlated to people with tattoos. This shows that they may use tattoos and body piercings as a way to pray. Perhaps the sensations of pain in some people cause a rush of endorphins and an extreme sensation of pleasure. This could explain why some people enjoy S&M sexual endeavors and why others get many tattoos and piercings.

    Comment by Miles Fineburg — December 1, 2007 @ 6:54 pm

    • as a person with multiple tattoos, i have to say your comment is way off the mark. i am by now heavily tattooed, but i tend to get them at the rate of one per year. if you are inflicted with some kind of condition or trauma that requires self medication, you don’t need a yearly fix– you medicate on a daily to weekly basis. if it was all for the sensual experience, you would simply stick yourself with an empty needle.
      just because getting a tattoo involves some minor level of pain does not mean that people who get tattoos are masochists. the goal of getting inked is to have an image permanently in your skin, not to relish in the few hours of pain. maybe some people do find the process meditative, but that is not the primary reason for doing it, only a small pleasurable side effect.
      people who self medicate do it ritually and frequently. unless you are getting a new tattoo every couple days, you aren’t self medicating.

      Comment by Joe Lewis — July 14, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

      • I completely agree. I am heavily tatted up, and i have my share of piercings. I enjoy tats because they are beautiful works or art that correspond to evens in my life and beliefs. They all have stories and a lot of meaning to me. Yeah, getting tatted has some pain involved. I may not be self medicating to some but I do prefer to go in and get extra work done when i am highly anxious or upset, it gives me another pain to think about. It does let me know that i am still alive, it’s kind of like an emo kid cutting themselves, as some of my piercer and tattoo artist friends and i say. At least if it is work you have thought about and your getting it done to kill another pain its not pure m utilization. At least it isn’t leaving permanent ugly scares or giving you the chance to bleed to death. Your pain is being turned into a beautiful peace art and i think that it the best way for some of us.

        Comment by Sara — February 25, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  7. Miles’ comments regarding endorphins and “why some people enjoy S&M sexual encounters” reminded me of my experience attending the BDSM 101 workshop that was held about a week ago, led by the professional dominatrix and BDSM educator Suzanne SxySadist (). During the two hours of the workshop, which was basically an overview of BDSM practices and philosophy, Suzanne mentioned a wide range of activities that fall under the heading of BDSM. One of the most extreme examples was needle play. In the words of Suzanne’s website, “Play piercing [needle play] is an S/m technique that involves consensually inserting needles underneath the skin of another person for mutual erotic pleasure.” (Please note: performed correctly, needle play is completely hygenic.) People who enjoy needle play see it as a transcendent and cathartic exercise, a kind of release that they could not otherwise obtain. The endorphin charge that they get out of it has both physical and psychological effects.

    Comment by 105 student — December 12, 2007 @ 9:04 pm

  8. I love tattoos. Well, I love the art and on many requests I have drawn tattoos for my friends or even friends of friends. Yet, I don’t think I would ever get a tattoo. I wonder why this is. I don’t often think of myself as a discriminatory person, but maybe stereotypes of tattooed individuals have something to do with.

    In class we learned about stereotype threat and its effects on a subject’s participation in a study. A study by psychologist Viren Swami examined how college students rated physical attractiveness, sexual promiscuity, and alcohol consumption based on simple two dimensional drawings of a blonde or brunette woman with or without various degrees of tattoos. This study’s results showed a clear stereotype of tattooed women as being less attractive, more promiscuous, and consuming more drinking.

    Maybe this stereotype leads tattooed individuals to regard themselves as depressed and leading unhappy lives as mention in the experiment from the original post. Maybe the stereotype itself is disrupting the well being of tattooed people.

    Whatever the case, I don’t see myself getting a tattoo anytime soon.

    Comment by Taylor Petruccelli — December 13, 2007 @ 4:27 am

  9. Though the article is quite interesting, one must keep in mind the social norms and habits/environment of Germany is much different than that of North America (assuming most of the posts are coming from that area. I find that people definately have a pre conceived notion of what to think about other people-especially younger ones-with tattoos. I have one on my right arm that is a symbol of brotherhood dedicated to my 2 younger brothers, while the one on my left is a scroll covered in vines with a poem dedicated to my dad. Neither of them go below the elbow, but both are visible with a t shirt on. I find when I’m walking around my school (Brock University for any of you who may know it?) people give you strange looks, as it seems around here that a person with a tattoo is somewhat of a “troubled youth”. My brother has one with a cross and the word “Hope” inscirbed across it on his chest, but not visible unless he is without a shirt. Either way, it is unfortunate that their is a negative stero type that links troubled people with tattoos. I personaly have mine as a reminder of my past, who I am and what is close to my heart. But there are a variety of reasons as to why people decide to get tatoos, as they are very personal pieces of art

    Comment by Ryan Larouche — December 24, 2007 @ 6:52 pm

  10. It would make some sense that tattoos could be slightly indicative of some depression or anixety. That “empty” mood or feelings of restlessness and irritability could lead to impulsivity. Most of the people I know who don a tattoo (or many) have, however, come away from the experience years later with some regret about the tattoo. In an NYtimes article, tattoo regret is likened to ‘buyer’s remorse.’ The article speaks of cognitive dissonance as a way of fending off buyer’s remorse where we embrace the choice we’ve made simply to reduce self-critical dissonance in our minds. This regret under the surface, however, could perpetuate a vicious cycle of depression and resulting impulsivity. After I got my tattoo, the artist told me to be careful of what he called ‘tattoo addiction’ that would result in me having more urges to get tattooed now that I had already done it once. The urge did come a few times, but I never caved in. However, I do know many people who’ve not been able to resist the urge and now they have one or two tattoos they really just didn’t want. The cycle of impulsivity lead to tattoos, leading to ‘tattoo addiction’ leading to some regret, which could possibly perpetuate feelings of depression.

    Comment by Avey Venable — March 6, 2008 @ 7:56 am

  11. Many people i know who have recently gotten tattoos have done so as a remembrance of a lost loved one, or past experience that they wish to hold close to them permanently. The notion of permeanence is what attracted me to getting my tattoo. What’s interesting about the German study listed in this post, is that the prevalance of tattoos was correlated with a perception of mental illness, or a reduced mental health.

    What i wonder is whether the subject’s mental health changed from prior to after getting the tattoo. This srudy seems to assume that the act of tattooing somehow coincides with a poor mental health, or state of anxiety or depression, but is it possible that the act of getting a tattoo can act as a sort of cure? A deciding factor would seem to be what the tattoo is of, and the reason for getting it.

    For a good portion of my life, i identified with having depression. Though i never was diagnosed, in fear of actually hearing those words “You have depression,” my mother being a social worker who specializes in depression among women, and having extremely prolonged symptoms, I was relatively certain. Going away to college proved to make it even worse.

    After my first semester, struggling with the decision of whether or not to transfer home, I decided to take the matter into my own hands and “fix myself” once and for all. My best friend had always told me, “Shari, there is always hope,” and for the four years of knowing him, it meant nothing to me. It was just his cliched way of trying to make me feel better. But, suddenly the words started to speak to me and I wondered if perhaps there was in fact always hope. My decision to get those words tattooed on my foot, where I could easily read them as many times a day as I needed, turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Almosty immediately after getting it, in December, i started feeling less depressed. i could not leave it to coincidence, especially after feeling one way for the majority of my life. Even now, months after getting it done, if I ever feel upset or start having my old hopeless thoughts, I simply look down to my foot and read the words, and remember how certain I felt about them when i had it done, and when i felt better. It has worked, and this has been the longest continuous time in my life that i haven’t felt depressed at all.

    So, in regard to this study, it seems impertive that the motives to get tattooed, as well as the aftermath of the tattoo, be studied further. To simply regard the act of tattooing as a reaction to feelings of social exclusion, or as a seek for attention, or as a sign of not belonging, is unfair. Additonally, to regard the act of getting a tattoo as an end, rather than as a means to an end, is also unfair. For me, as I’m sure for others, my tattoo was in fact in reaction to feelings of depression, but I dont feel that the presence of tattoos necessarily corresponds to or acts as a marker of a depressed, or mentally unhealthy person. Instead, it may be a marker of someone trying to, or like me, has gotten better.

    Comment by 105 student — May 1, 2008 @ 1:02 pm

  12. I turned 18 about 4 months ago, I’ve never felt like myself, I’ve always been afraid to be who i am and speak up and stand up for what i believe in. On my 18th birthday i decided to get a tattoo of cherry blossoms on my shoulder, For my first tattoo and being quite a whimp really it’s quite big, The size of a grown mans hand! As soon as i’d had it done i felt like a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders, I didn’t get it done for any particular reason i just felt like it but the second i walked out of that shop i changed. I’m a lot more confident in myself, i’ve started a college course to go into medicine and for the first time in my life i’m not afraid to speak up. I can’t explain it and i don’t know why it happened but it did. Having a tattoo changed me and for the better, so much so that even my friends and family have noticed. Only problem is that i’m struggling to cope with the addiction of them now! lol I can’t wait to get another one!!!

    Please don’t think people with tattoos are bad people or depressed or anything like that. People get tattoos for reasons that are personal to them, Not because they have mental problems :)

    Over and out

    Comment by FH — September 26, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  13. […] is certainly a lot of interest in body art, judging by the traffic here.  An earlier post on tatoos is far and away the most frequently visited page on this site.  Evidently people find that […]

    Pingback by Piercing and tatoos: Out of control? « Psychology in the News — November 20, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

  14. my name is actually scott, and that is sweet…i mean, i wouldnt do it, but go him.

    Comment by Scott a.k.a. Mr.215 — January 22, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  15. Gotta say, I always feel there’s some underlying pathology with tattooed and pierced folks. Especially in the case of multiples. I can’t say I’ve ever met a person for whom the axiom, “the more, the worse” didn’t apply in this context. Not saying there’s no exception to it, but I haven’t seen it.

    Comment by Camryn — April 9, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  16. It’s interesting reading this post as someone with several tattoos. To completely associate mental health with tattoos – therefore deeming someone incompetent or mentally unstable – seems overly deterministic. It’s such a personal decision, and related closely to personal / cultural values. Though I might see a slight correlation between tattoos and life struggles (especially in terms of marking oneself with life events), I also feel like there may be an interesting personality link — between getting a tattoo, the risk-taking behavior of getting a tattoo, and the tattoo placement. Obviously, like I said, these are very personal choices, and likely heavily based in social, cultural, and personal values (ex. perceptions of beauty). Even so, it may be interesting to note where the tattoo is and how the person feels about themselves and their lives. Many of the people who I know who are “risk-takers” and “sensation-seeking” (or are more open to their struggles) place their tattoos in quite overt places (forearms, shoulders, back, etc.), while many people who have quietly struggled with various things have more discreet tattoos that could be more hidden (ribs, wrist, etc.). I suppose it may also have to do with the individual’s perception of the meaning / weight behind their tattoo, in addition to how they feel about their own mental state, and whether the tattoo is aesthetic, symbolic, or both. (In other words, how personal the tattoo is and what it inherently means to the inked person). This may have total observational bias, but it might be an interesting investigation into personality and tattoos.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 8, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

  17. I hate to sound like an old fashioned codger and I’d like to preface this with saying that I love tattoos and enjoy others who have them. But I’m not certain as to why one would go so far as to get an entire sleeve tattooed or an entire leg tatted up. Pardon me but I just don’t get it and I really wish that I did. I mean how does one fully know that they’re clean and haven’t missed a spot when washing in the shower? Can someone please explain that to me? Also, from what I’ve heard those who do have tattoos are usually very emotionally damaged people. Is that true?
    I certainly hope not because I happen to be in love with a man who has five tattoos and counting. He’s informed me that they’re all done in tribute to members of his family. They’re very beautiful. Its just what people say about those who have tattoos is what bothers me the most. Because if its true, then I can’t help but wonder what pain he’s trying to cover up with these tattoos.
    Thank you for reading me… Marianna.

    Comment by Marianna — September 12, 2012 @ 10:24 am

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