3. The Self

The Social Self: The Role of the Social Situation

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the concept of the looking-glass self and how it affects our self-concept.
  2. Explore the impact of the labeling bias, self-labeling, and internalized prejudice on people’s self-concepts, particularly in those from marginalized social groups.
  3. Define social comparison, and summarize how people use it to define their self-concepts and self-esteem.
  4. Give examples of the use of upward and downward social comparison and their influences on social cognition and affect.
  5. Explain the concept of social identity and why it is important to human behavior.
  6. Describe how self-evaluation maintenance theory helps to explain how we react when other people’s behaviors threaten our sense of self.
  7. Describe the concept of self-presentation and the various strategies we use to portray ourselves to others.
  8. Outline the concept of reputation management and how it relates to self-presentation.
  9. Discuss the individual-difference variable of self-monitoring and how it relates to the ability and desire to self-present.

To this point, we have seen, among other things, that human beings have complex and well-developed self-concepts and that they generally attempt to view themselves positively. These more cognitive and affective aspects of ourselves do not, of course, occur in a vacuum. They are heavily influenced by the social forces that surround us. We have alluded to some of these forces already; for example, in our review of self-verification theory, we saw how feedback from others can affect our self-concept and esteem. We also looked at ways that our sociocultural backgrounds can affect the content of our self-concept.

In this section, we will consider in more detail these and other social aspects of the self by exploring the many ways that the social situation influences our self-concept and esteem. The self is not created in isolation; we are not born with perceptions of ourselves as shy, interested in jazz, or charitable to others, for example. Rather, such beliefs are determined by our observations of and interactions with others. Are you rich or poor? Beautiful or ugly? Smart or not? Good or bad at playing video games? And how do you know? These questions can be answered only by looking at those around us. The self has meaning only within the social context, and it is not wrong to say that the social situation defines our self-concept and our self-esteem. We rely on others to provide a “social reality”—to help us determine what to think, feel, and do (Hardin & Higgins, 1996). But what forms do these social influences take? It is to this question that we will now turn.

The Looking-Glass Self: Our Sense of Self is Influenced by Others’ Views of Us

The concept of the looking-glass self states that part of how we see ourselves comes from our perception of how others see us (Cooley, 1902). We might feel that we have a great sense of humor, for example, because others have told us, and often laugh (apparently sincerely) at our jokes. Many studies have supported a basic prediction derived from the notion of the looking-glass self, namely that our self-concepts are often quite similar to the views that others have of us (Beer, Watson, & McDade-Montez, 2013). This may be particularly so with people from our own families and culture. Perkins, Wiley, and Deaux (2014), for example, found that, in the United States, how members of ethnic minority groups believed other members of the same culture perceived them significantly correlated with their self-esteem scores. In contrast, their perceived appraisal of European Americans toward them was only weakly related to their self-esteem.

This evidence is merely correlational, though, so we cannot be sure which way the influence is working. Maybe we develop our self-concept quite independently of others, and they then base their views of us on how we see ourselves. The work of Mark Baldwin and colleagues has been particularly important in demonstrating that how we think we are being perceived by others really can affect how we see ourselves.

For example, Baldwin and Holmes (1987) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that our self-concepts derive partly from the way we imagine that we would be perceived by significant others. In the first study, 40 women were instructed to visualize the faces of either two acquaintances or two older members of their own family. Later they were asked to rate their perceived enjoyableness of a piece of fiction with sexual content, and they typically responded in keeping with the responses they perceived the people they had visualized would have had. This effect was more pronounced when they sat in front of a mirror (remember the earlier discussion of self-awareness theory). In the second study, 60 men were exposed to a situation involving failure, and their self-evaluations to this setback were then measured. As with the women’s study, the men’s self-evaluations matched those they perceived that the people they were asked to visualize would have made, particularly when they were more self-aware. At least some of the time, then, we end up evaluating ourselves as we imagine others would. Of course, it can work both ways, too. Over time, the people around us may come to accept the self-concept that we present to others (Yeung & Martin, 2003).

Sometimes, the influence of other people’s appraisals of ourselves on our self-concept may be so strong that we end up internalizing them. For example, we are often labeled in particular ways by others, perhaps informally in terms of our ethnic background, or more formally in terms of a physical or psychological diagnosis. The labeling bias occurs when we are labeled, and others’ views and expectations of us are affected by that labeling (Fox & Stinnett, 1996). For example, if a teacher knows that a child has been diagnosed with a particular psychological disorder, that teacher may have different expectations and explanations of the child’s behavior than he or she would if not aware of that label. Where things get really interesting for our present discussion is when those expectations start to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and our self-concept and even our behavior start to align with them. For example, when children are labeled in special education contexts, these labels can then impact their self-esteem (Taylor, Hume, & Welsh, 2010).

If we are repeatedly labeled and evaluated by others, then self-labeling may occur, which happens when we adopt others’ labels explicitly into our self-concept. The effects of this self-labeling on our self-esteem appear to depend very much on the nature of the labels. Labels used in relation to diagnosis of psychological disorders can be detrimental to people whom then internalize them. For example, Moses (2009) found that adolescents who self-labeled according to diagnoses they had received were found to have higher levels of self-stigma in their self-concepts compared with those who described their challenges in non-pathological terms. In these types of situation, those who self-label may come to experience internalized prejudice, which occurs when individuals turn prejudice directed toward them by others onto themselves. Internalized prejudice has been found to predict more negative self-concept and poorer psychological adjustment in members of various groups, including sexual minorities (Carter, 2012) and racial minorities (Szymanski & Obiri, 2011).

In other cases, labels used by wider society to describe people negatively can be positively reclaimed by those being labeled. Galinsky and colleagues (2013) explored this use of self-labeling by members of oppressed groups to reclaim derogatory terms, including “queer” and “bitch,” used by dominant groups. After self-labeling, minority group members evaluated these terms less negatively, reported feeling more powerful, and were also perceived by observers as more powerful. Overall, these results indicate that individuals who incorporate a formerly negative label into their self-concept in order to reclaim it can sometimes undermine the stigma attached to the label.


Social Comparison Theory: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by Comparisons with Others

Self-concept and self-esteem are also heavily influenced by the process of social comparison (Buunk & Gibbons, 2007; Van Lange, 2008). Social comparison occurs when we learn about our abilities and skills, about the appropriateness and validity of our opinions, and about our relative social status by comparing our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of others. These comparisons can be with people who we know and interact with, with those whom we read about or see on TV, or with anyone else we view as important. However, the most meaningful comparisons we make tend to be with those we see as similar to ourselves (Festinger, 1954).

Social comparison occurs primarily on dimensions on which there are no correct answers or objective benchmarks and thus on which we can rely only on the beliefs of others for information. Answers to questions such as “What should I wear to the interview?” or “What kind of music should I have at my wedding?” are frequently determined at least in part by using the behavior of others as a basis of comparison. We also use social comparison to help us determine our skills or abilities—how good we are at performing a task or doing a job, for example. When students ask their teacher for the class average on an exam, they are also seeking to use social comparison to evaluate their performance.

Research Focus

Affiliation and Social Comparison

The extent to which individuals use social comparison to determine their evaluations of events was demonstrated in a set of classic research studies conducted by Stanley Schachter (1959). Schachter’s experiments tested the hypothesis that people who were feeling anxious would prefer to affiliate with others rather than be alone because having others around would reduce their anxiety. Female college students at the University of Minnesota volunteered to participate in one of his experiments for extra credit in their introductory psychology class. They arrived at the experimental room to find a scientist dressed in a white lab coat, standing in front of a large array of electrical machinery. The scientist introduced himself as Dr. Zilstein of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, and he told the women that they would be serving as participants in an experiment concerning the effects of electrical shock. Dr. Zilstein stressed how important it was to learn about the effects of shocks, since electroshock therapy was being used more and more commonly and because the number of accidents due to electricity was also increasing!

At this point, the experimental manipulation occurred. One half of the participants (those in the high-anxiety condition) were told that the shocks would be “painful” and “intense,” although they were assured that they could do no permanent damage. The other half of the participants (those in the low-anxiety condition) were also told that they would be receiving shocks but that they would in no way be painful—rather, the shocks were said to be mild and to resemble a “tickle” or a “tingle.” Of course, the respondents were randomly assigned to conditions to assure that the women in the two conditions were, on average, equivalent except for the experimental manipulation.

Each of the women was then told that before the experiment could continue the experimenter would have to prepare the equipment and that they would have to wait until he was finished. He asked them if they would prefer to wait alone or with others. The outcome of Schachter’s research was clear: while only 33% of the women who were expecting mild shocks preferred to wait with others, 63% of the women expecting to get painful shocks wanted to wait with others. This was a statistically significant difference, and Schachter concluded that the women chose to affiliate with each other in order to reduce their anxiety about the upcoming shocks.

In further studies, Schachter found that the research participants who were under stress did not want to wait with just any other people. They preferred to wait with other people who were expecting to undergo the same severe shocks that they were rather than with people who were supposedly just waiting to see their professor. Schachter concluded that this was not just because being around other people might reduce our anxiety but because we also use others who are in the same situation as we are to help us determine how to feel about things. As Schachter (1959) put it, “Misery doesn’t just love any kind of company, it loves only miserable company” (p. 24). In this case, the participants were expecting to determine from the other participants how afraid they should be of the upcoming shocks.

In short, and as predicted by the idea of social comparison, the women in Schachter’s studies relied on each other to help them understand what was happening to them and to find out how they should feel and respond to their social situations. Again, the power of the social situation—in this case, in determining our beliefs and attitudes—is apparent.

Although Schachter’s studies were conducted in relatively artificial lab settings, similar effects have been found in field studies in more naturally occurring settings. For instance, Kulik, Mahler, and Moore (1996) found that hospital patients who were awaiting surgery preferred to talk to other individuals who were expecting to have similar procedures rather than to patients who were having different procedures, so that they could share information about what they might expect to experience. Furthermore, Kulik and his colleagues found that sharing information was helpful: people who were able to share more information had shorter hospital stays.


Upward and Downward Comparisons Influence Our Self-Esteem

Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept—that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions—social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem. When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. This is one reason why good students who attend high schools in which the other students are only average may suddenly find their self-esteem threatened when they move on to colleges and universities in which they are no longer better than the other students (Marsh, Kong, & Hau, 2000). Perhaps you’ve had the experience yourself of the changes in self-esteem that occur when you have moved into a new year in school, got a new job, or changed your circle of friends. In these cases, you may have felt much better about yourself or much worse, depending on the nature of the change. You can see that in these cases the actual characteristics of the individual person have not changed at all; only the social situation and the comparison with others have changed.

Because many people naturally want to have positive self-esteem, they frequently attempt to compare themselves positively with others. Downward social comparison occurs when we attempt to create a positive image of ourselves through favorable comparisons with others who are worse off than we are. In one study Morse and Gergen (1970) had students apply for a job, and they also presented the students with another individual who was supposedly applying for the same job. When the other candidate was made to appear to be less qualified for the job, the downward comparison with the less-qualified applicant made the students feel better about their own qualifications. As a result, the students reported higher self-esteem than they did when the other applicant was seen as a highly competent job candidate. Research has also found that people who are suffering from serious diseases prefer to compare their condition with other individuals whose current condition and likely prognosis is worse than their own (Buunk, Gibbons, & Visser, 2002). These comparisons make them feel more hopeful about their own possible outcomes. More frequent use of downward than upward social comparison with similar others has been been shown to be a commonly used coping strategy for preserving self-esteem in the face of a wide variety of challenging life situations, including experiences of physical decline, rheumatoid arthritis, AIDS, occupational burnout, eating disorders, unemployment, educational difficulties, and intellectual disabilities (Buunk, Gibbons, & Buunk, 1997).

Although downward comparison provides us with positive feelings, upward social comparison, which occurs when we compare ourselves with others who are better off than we are, is also common (Blanton, Buunk, Gibbons, & Kuyper, 1999; Vrugt & Koenis, 2002). Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others. The power of upward social comparison to decrease self-esteem has been documented in many domains (Buunk, Gibbons, & Buunk, 1997). Thinking back to our case study at the beginning of this chapter, this power can sometimes be strongly felt when looking at social networking sites. Imagine someone who has had a bad day, or is generally unhappy with how life is going, then logs onto Facebook to see that most of his or her friends have posted very positive status updates about how happy they are, how well they are doing, or the wonderful vacations they are having. What would your prediction be about how that person would feel? Would that person take pleasure from knowing that the friends were happy, or would the friends’ happiness make the person feel worse? The research on upward social comparisons to similar others would suggest the latter, and this has been demonstrated empirically. Feinstein and colleagues (2013) investigated whether a tendency to make upward social comparisons on Facebook led to increased symptoms of depression over a three-week period. Sure enough, making more upward comparisons predicted increased rumination, which in turn was linked to increased depressive symptoms. 

Despite these negative effects of upward comparisons, they can sometimes be useful because they provide information that can help us do better, help us imagine ourselves as part of the group of successful people that we want to be like (Collins, 2000), and give us hope (Snyder, Cheavens, & Sympson, 1997). The power of upward social comparison can also be harnessed for social good. When people are made aware that others are already engaging in particular prosocial behaviors, they often follow suit, partly because an upward social comparison is triggered. This has been shown in relation to sustainable environmental practices, for example, with upward social comparisons helping to facilitate energy-saving behaviors in factory workers (Siero, Bakker, Dekker, & van den Berg, 1996) and hotel guests (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008).  As with downward comparisons, the effects of looking upward on our self-esteem tend to be more pronounced when we are comparing ourselves to similar others. If, for example, you have ever performed badly at a sport, the chances are that your esteem was more threatened when you compared yourselves to your teammates as opposed to the top professional athletes in that sport.

The outcomes of upward and downward social comparisons can have a substantial impact on our feelings, on our attempts to do better, and even on whether or not we want to continue performing an activity. When we compare positively with others and we feel that we are meeting our goals and living up to the expectations set by ourselves and others, we feel good about ourselves, enjoy the activity, and work harder at it. When we compare negatively with others, however, we are more likely to feel poorly about ourselves and enjoy the activity less, and we may even stop performing it entirely. When social comparisons come up poorly for us, we may experience depression or anxiety, and these discrepancies are important determinants of our self-esteem (Higgins, Loeb, & Moretti, 1995; Strauman & Higgins, 1988).

Although everyone makes social comparisons, both upward and downward, there are some sources of differences in how often we do so and which type we tend to favor. As downward social comparisons generally increase and upward ones generally decrease self-esteem, and the pursuit of high self-esteem, as we have seen, is more prominent in Western as opposed to Eastern cultures, then it should come as no surprise that there are cultural differences here. White and Lehman (2005), for example, found that Asian Canadians made more upward social comparisons than did European Canadians, particularly following failures and when the opportunity to self-improve was made salient. These findings, the authors suggest, indicate that the Asian Canadians were using social comparisons more as a vehicle for self-improvement than self-enhancement.

There are also some age-related trends in social comparison. In general, older adults tend to make more downward comparisons than do younger adults, which is part of the reason why their self-esteem is typically higher (Helgeson & Mickelson, 2000). Older adults also use more downward social comparisons to cope with feelings of regret than do younger adults, and these comparisons are often more effective for them (Bauer, Wrosch, & Jobin, 2008). In addition to these cultural and age differences in social comparison processes, there are also individual differences. People who score higher on a measure of social comparison orientation have been found to experience more positive affect following downward social comparisons and more negative affect following upward ones (Buunk, Zurriaga, Peiró, Nauta, & Gosalvez, 2005).


Social Identity Theory: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by the Groups We Belong To

In our discussion of social comparisons, we have seen that who we compare ourselves to can affect how we feel about ourselves, for better or worse. Another social influence on our self-esteem is through our group memberships. For example, we can gain self-esteem by perceiving ourselves as members of important and valued groups that make us feel good about ourselves. Social identity theory asserts that we draw part of our sense of identity and self-esteem from the social groups that we belong to (Hogg, 2003; Oakes, Haslam, & Turner, 1994; Tajfel, 1981).

Normally, group memberships result in positive feelings, which occur because we perceive our own groups and thus ourselves in a positive light. If you are an Arsenal F.C. fan, or if you are an Australian, or if you are a Muslim, for example, then your membership in the group becomes part of what you are, and the membership often makes you feel good about yourself. The list that follows presents a measure of the strength of social identity with a group of university students. If you complete the measure for your own school, university, or college, the research evidence would suggest that you would agree mostly with the statements that indicate that you identify with the group.

Figure 3.10 A Measure of Social Identity

This 10-item scale is used to measure identification with students at the University of Maryland, but it could be modified to assess identification with any group. The items marked with an R are reversed (so that low numbers become high numbers and vice versa) before the average of the scale is computed. The scale was originally reported by Luhtanen and Crocker (1992).

For each of the following items, please indicate your response on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) by writing a number in the blank next to the question.

  1. ___ I identify with the group of University of Maryland students.
  2. ___ I am glad to belong to the group of University of Maryland students.
  3. ___ I make excuses for belonging to the group of University of Maryland students.
  4. ___ I consider the group of University of Maryland students to be important.
  5. ___ I feel held back by the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  6. ___ I criticize the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  7. ___ I see myself as belonging to the group of University of Maryland students.
  8. ___ I try to hide belonging to the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  9. ___ I feel strong ties with the group of University of Maryland students.
  10. ___ I am annoyed to say that I am a member of the group of University of Maryland students. (R)


Kay Deaux and her colleagues (Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi, & Ethier, 1995) asked U.S. college students to list the groups that they identified with. As you can see in Table 3.1 ,”Varieties of Social Identities,” the students reported belonging to a wide variety of groups and claimed that many of these groups provided them with social identities. The categories that they listed included ethnic and religious groups (e.g., Asian, Jewish), political affiliations (e.g., conservative, Democrat), occupations and hobbies (e.g., gardener, tennis player), personal relationships (e.g., husband, girlfriend), and marginalized groups (e.g., gay, homeless). You can see that these identities were likely to provide a lot of positive feelings for the individuals.

Table 3.1 Varieties of Social Identities

Relationships Vocation/avocation Political affiliation Stigma Ethnicity/religion
Widow Intellectual Feminist Welfare recipient Jewish
Divorced person Bookworm Political independent Unemployed person Christian
Woman Military veteran Democrat Homeless person Catholic
Man Student Republican Retired person Southerner
Lover Collector Old person New Yorker
Friend Musician Fat person American
Girlfriend Gardener Deaf person Hispanic
Boyfriend Teacher Person with AIDS Asian American
Homemaker Supervisor Lesbian African American
Head of household Secretary Gay
Teenager Scientist Smoker
Child Psychologist Alcoholic
Wife Salesperson
Husband Business person
Son Athlete
This table represents some of the many social identities reported by a sample of college students. Data are from Deaux and colleagues (1995).

Which of our many identities is most accessible for us will vary from day to day as a function of the particular situation we are in (Yakushko, Davidson, & Williams, 2009). Seeing our national flag outside a government office may remind of us our national identity, whereas walking past our local soccer stadium may remind us of our identification with our team. Identity can also be heightened when it is threatened by conflict with another group—such as during an important sports game with a rival team. We each have multiple social identities, and which of our identities we draw our self-esteem from at a given time will depend on the situation we are in, as well as the social goals we have.

Football game crowd

Figure 3.11 Social identity refers to the positive emotions we experience as a member of an important social group.
Students rushing renovated Kinnick Stadium by Foxhunt king (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DSCN0602.JPG) used under CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)

In particular, we use occasions when our social groups are successful in meeting their goals to fuel our self-worth. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues (Cialdini et al., 1976) studied the idea that we can sometimes enhance our self-esteem by basking in the reflected glory of our ingroups, which occurs when we use and advertise our ingroups’ positive achievements to boost our self-esteem. To test this idea, they observed the clothes and clothing accessories that students at different U.S. universities wore to classes on Mondays. They found that when the university’s football team had won its game on Saturday, students were likely to emphasize their university membership by wearing clothing, such as sweatshirts and hats with the symbols of the university on them. However, they were significantly less likely to wear university clothing on the Mondays that followed a football loss. Furthermore, in a study in which students from a university were asked to describe a victory by their university team, they frequently used the term “we,” whereas when asked to describe a game in which their school lost, they used the term “we” significantly less frequently. Emphasizing that “we’re a good school” and “we beat them” evidently provided a social identity for these students, allowing them to feel good about themselves.

When people in our ingroups perform well, social identity theory suggests that we tend to make intergroup social comparisons, and by seeing our group as doing better than other groups, we come to feel better about ourselves. However, this is not generally what happens when we make intragroup comparisons—those between ourselves and other ingroup members. In this case it is often not advantageous to bask in the glory of others in our ingroups, because in some cases the other person’s successes may create an upward comparison and thus more negative emotions. Self-evaluation maintenance theory (Tesser, 1988) asserts that our self-esteem can be threatened when someone else outperforms us, particularly if that person is close to us and the performance domain is central to our self-concept. This theory leads to the interesting implication that these threats will often occur in the context of our family relationships, and they have been shown to be an integral part of both family functioning in general (Tesser, 1980) and marital relationships in particular (Beach et al., 1996).

When threats occur, the theory states that we will typically try to rebuild our self-esteem using one of three main strategies. The first is distancing, where we redefine ourselves as less close to the person in question. For example, if a close friend keeps beating you at tennis, you may, over time, seek out another playing partner to protect your bruised ego. Interestingly, people who are more narcissistic are more likely to use this tactic than people who are lower in these characteristics (Nicholls & Stukas, 2011). The second option is to redefine how important the trait or skill really is to your self-concept. For instance, you may decide that tennis ability just isn’t that important a part of who you are, and choose to take up another hobby instead. The third strategy is try to improve on the ability in question. In the current example, this would mean practicing more often or hiring a coach to improve your tennis game. Notice the clear parallels between these strategies that occur in response to threats to our self-esteem posed by the behavior of others, and those that are triggered by feelings of self-discrepancy, discussed earlier in this chapter. In both cases, we seek to rebuild our self-esteem by redefining the aspect of ourself that has been diminished.


Self-Presentation: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by the Audiences We Have

It is interesting to note that each of the social influences on our sense of self that we have discussed can be harnessed as a way of protecting our self-esteem. The final influence we will explore can also be used strategically to elevate not only our own esteem, but the esteem we have in the eyes of others. Positive self-esteem occurs not only when we do well in our own eyes but also when we feel that we are positively perceived by the other people we care about.


Figure 3.12 Being seen positively by others helps us to feel positive about ourselves. Source: Ralph Lauren getting in his orange 997 GT3 RS by Damian Morys (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ralph_Lauren_getting_in_his_orange_997_GT3_RS.jpg) used uncer CC BY 2.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en); Helping the homeless by Ed Yourdon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Helping_the_homeless.jpg) used under CC BY SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

Because it is so important to be seen as competent and productive members of society, people naturally attempt to present themselves to others in a positive light. We attempt to convince others that we are good and worthy people by appearing attractive, strong, intelligent, and likable and by saying positive things to others (Jones & Pittman, 1982; Schlenker, 2003). The tendency to present a positive self-image to others, with the goal of increasing our social status, is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life.

A big question in relation to self-presentation is the extent to which it is an honest versus more strategic, potentially dishonest enterprise. The sociologist Erving Goffman (1959) developed an influential theory of self-presentation and described it as a mainly honest process, where people need to present the parts of themselves required by the social role that they are playing in a given situation. If everyone plays their part according to accepted social scripts and conventions, then the social situation will run smoothly and the participants will avoid embarrassment. Seen in this way, self-presentation is a transparent process, where we are trying to play the part required of us, and we trust that others are doing the same. Other theorists, though, have viewed self-presentation as a more strategic endeavor, which may involve not always portraying ourselves in genuine ways (e.g., Jones & Pittman, 1982). As is often the case with two seemingly opposing perspectives, it is quite likely that both are true in certain situations, depending on the social goals of the actors.

Different self-presentation strategies may be used to create different emotions in other people, and the use of these strategies may be evolutionarily selected because they are successful (Toma, Hancock, & Ellison, 2008). Edward Jones and Thane Pittman (1982) described five self-presentation strategies, each of which is expected to create a resulting emotion in the other person:

  1. The goal of ingratiation is to create liking by using flattery or charm.
  2. The goal of intimidation is to create fear by showing that you can be aggressive.
  3. The goal of exemplification is to create guilt by showing that you are a better person than the other.
  4. The goal of supplication is to create pity by indicating to others that you are helpless and needy.
  5. The goal of self-promotion is to create respect by persuading others that you are competent.

Figure 3.13 Attempts to impress and intimidate others to gain status are not unique to humans.
Angry Old Lion by Koorosh D (https://www.flickr.com/photos/50823081@N08/5551283305/) used under CC BY 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/). Brazilian Federal Highway Police by Fabio Pozzebom (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brazilian_Federal_Highway_Police.jpg) used under CC BY 3.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en). Mad Dog by Josh Plueger (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mad_dog.jpg) is in the public domain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain). Angry Man by Chris Gallager (http://www.flickr.com/photos/61081643@N05/5564664701/) used under CC BY-ND 2.0 license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/).

No matter who is using it, self-presentation can easily be overdone, and when it is, it backfires. People who overuse the ingratiation technique and who are seen as obviously and strategically trying to get others to like them are often disliked because of this. Have you ever had a slick salesperson obviously try to ingratiate him- or herself with you just so you will buy a particular product, and you end up not liking the person and making a hasty retreat from the premises? People who overuse the exemplification or self-promotion strategies by boasting or bragging, particularly if that boasting does not appear to reflect their true characteristics, may end up being perceived as arrogant and even self-deluded (Wosinska, Dabul, Whetstone-Dion, & Cialdini, 1996). Using intimidation can also often backfire; acting more modestly may be more effective. Again, the point is clear: we may want to self-promote with the goal of getting others to like us, but we must also be careful to consider the point of view of the other person. Being aware of these strategies is not only useful for better understanding how to use them responsibly ourselves, it can also help us to understand that other people’s behaviors may often reflect their self-presentational concerns. This can, in turn, facilitate better empathy for others, particularly when they are exhibiting challenging behaviors (Friedlander & Schwartz, 1985). For instance, perhaps someone’s verbally aggressive behavior toward you is more about that person being afraid rather than about his or her desire to do you harm.

—Now that we have explored some of the commonly used self-presentation tactics, let’s look at how they manifest in specific social behaviors. One concrete way to self-promote is to display our positive physical characteristics. A reason that many of us spend money on improving our physical appearance is the desire to look good to others so that they will like us. We can also earn status by collecting expensive possessions such as fancy cars and big houses and by trying to associate with high-status others. Additionally, we may attempt to dominate or intimidate others in social interactions. People who talk more and louder and those who initiate more social interactions are afforded higher status. A businessman who greets others with a strong handshake and a smile, and people who speak out strongly for their opinions in group discussions may be attempting to do so as well. In some cases, people may even resort to aggressive behavior, such as bullying, in attempts to improve their status (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996).

Self-promotion can also be pursued in our online social behaviors. For example, a study in Taiwan conducted by Wang and Stefanone (2013) used survey methodology to investigate the relationship between personality traits, self-presentation and the use of check-ins on Facebook. Interestingly, narcissism was found to predict scores on a measure of exhibitionistic, self-promoting use of Facebook check-ins, which included items like “I check in so people know that I am with friends,” and “I expect friends to like or leave comments on my check-in status on Facebook.”

Other studies have also found associations between narcissistic traits and self-promotional activity on Facebook. Mehdizadeh (2010), for example, found that narcissistic personality scores were positively correlated with the amount of daily logins on Facebook and the duration of each login. Furthermore, narcissistic traits were related to increased use of self-promotional material in the main photo, view photos, status updates, and notes sections of people’s Facebook pages.

Analysis of the content and language used in Facebook postings has also revealed that they are sometimes used by individuals to self-promote. Bazarova, Taft, Choi, and Cosley (2013) explored self-presentation through language styles used in status updates, wall posts, and private messages from 79 participants. The use of positive emotion words was correlated with self-reported self-presentation concern in status updates. This is consistent with the idea that people share positive experiences with Facebook friends partly as a self-enhancement strategy.

Online self-presentation doesn’t seem to be limited to Facebook usage. There is also evidence that self-promotional concerns are often a part of blogging behaviors, too. Mazur and Kozarian (2010), for example, analyzed the content of adolescents’ blog entries and concluded that a careful concern for self-presentation was more central to their blogging behavior than direct interaction with others. This often seems to apply to micro-blogging sites like Twitter. Marwick and Boyd (2011) found that self-presentational strategies were a consistent part of celebrity tweeting, often deployed by celebrities to maintain their popularity and image.

You might not be surprised to hear that men and women use different approaches to self-presentation. Men are more likely to present themselves in an assertive way, by speaking and interrupting others, by visually focusing on the other person when they are speaking, and by leaning their bodies into the conversation. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be modest; they tend to create status by laughing and smiling, and by reacting more positively to the statements of others (Dovidio, Brown, Heltman, Ellyson, & Keation, 1988).

These gender differences are probably in large part socially determined as a result of the different reinforcements that men and women receive for using particular self-presentational strategies. For example, self-promoting by speaking out and acting assertively can be more effective for men than it is for women, in part because cross-culturally consistent stereotypes tend to depict assertiveness as more desirable in men than in women. These stereotypes can have very important consequences in the real world. For instance, one of the reasons for the “glass ceiling” existing in some occupations (where women experience discrimination in reaching top positions in organizations) may be attributable to the more negative reactions that their assertive behaviors, necessary for career advancement, receive than those of their male colleagues  (Eagly & Carli, 2007).

There are also some cultural differences in the extent to which people use self-presentation strategies in social contexts. For instance, when considering job interviews, Konig, Haftseinsson, Jansen, & Stadelmann (2011) found that individuals from Iceland and Switzerland used less self-presentational behavior than people from the United States. Differences in self-presentation have also been found in job interviews involving individuals from Ghana, Turkey, Norway, and Germany, with the former two groups showing higher impression management scores than the latter two (Bye et al., 2011).

So far we have been talking about self-presentation as it operates in particular situations in the short-term. However, we also engage in longer-term self-presentational projects, where we seek to build particular reputations with particular audiences. —Emler & Reicher (1995) describe the unique capacity humans have to know one another by repute and argue that, accordingly, we are often engaged in a process of reputation management, which is a form of long-term self-presentation, where individuals seek to build and sustain specific reputations with important audiences. According to this perspective, our behaviors in current social situations may not only be to serve our self-presentational goals in that moment, but also be based on a consideration of their longer-term repercussions for our reputations. As many politicians, for example, know only too well, a poor decision from their past can come back to haunt them when their reputation is being assessed during a campaign.

The concept of reputation management can be used to help explain a wide variety of social and antisocial behaviors, including corporate branding (Smith, Smith, & Wang, 2010), sociomoral debate (Emler, Tarry, & St. James, 2007), and teenage criminal activity (Lopez-Romero & Romero, 2011). In the last example, it is argued that a lot of teenage antisocial behavior results from a desire to build a reputation for toughness and rebelliousness with like-minded peer audiences (Emler & Reicher, 1995). Similarly, antisocial and self-destructive online actions, like people posting to Facebook their involvement in illegal acts during riots, or individuals engaging in life-threatening activities in Internet crazes like Neknominate, may make more sense if they are considered partly as stemming from a desire to project a particular reputation to specific audiences. Perhaps the perceived social kudos from doing these things outweighs the obvious personal risks in the individuals’ minds at the time.

People often project distinct reputations to different social audiences. For example, adolescents who engage in antisocial activity to build reputations for rebelliousness among their peers will often seek to construct very different reputations when their parents are the audience (Emler & Reicher, 1995). The desire to compartmentalize our reputations and audiences can even spill over into our online behaviors. Wiederhold (2012) found that, with some adolescents’ Facebook friends numbering in the hundreds or thousands, increasing numbers are moving to Twitter in order to reach a more selective audience. One critical trigger for this has been that their parents are now often friends with them on Facebook, creating a need for young people to find a new space where they can build reputations that may not always be parent-friendly (Wiederhold, 2012).

Although the desire to present the self favorably is a natural part of everyday life, both person and situation factors influence the extent to which we do it. For one, we are more likely to self-present in some situations than in others. When we are applying for a job or meeting with others whom we need to impress, we naturally become more attuned to the social aspects of the self, and our self-presentation increases.

There are also individual differences. Some people are naturally better at self-presentation—they enjoy doing it and are good at it—whereas others find self-presentation less desirable or more difficult. An important individual-difference variable known as self-monitoring has been shown in many studies to have a major impact on self-presentation. Self-monitoring refers to the tendency to be both motivated and capable of regulating our behavior to meet the demands of social situations (Gangestad & Snyder, 2000). High self-monitors are particularly good at reading the emotions of others and therefore are better at fitting into social situations—they agree with statements such as “In different situations and with different people, I often act like very different persons,” and “I guess I put on a show to impress or entertain people.” Low self-monitors, on the other hand, generally act on their own attitudes, even when the social situation suggests that they should behave otherwise. Low self-monitors are more likely to agree with statements such as “At parties and social gatherings, I do not attempt to do or say things that others will like,” and “I can only argue for ideas that I already believe.” In short, high self-monitors use self-presentation to try to get other people to like them by behaving in ways that the others find desirable, whereas low self-monitors tend to follow their internal convictions more than the demands of the social situation.

In one experiment that showed the importance of self-monitoring, Cheng and Chartrand (2003) had college students interact individually with another student (actually an experimental confederate) whom they thought they would be working with on an upcoming task. While they were interacting, the confederate subtly touched her own face several times, and the researchers recorded the extent to which the student participant mimicked the confederate by also touching his or her own face.

The situational variable was the status of the confederate. Before the meeting began, and according to random assignment to conditions, the students were told either that they would be the leader and that the other person would be the worker on the upcoming task, or vice versa. The person variable was self-monitoring, and each participant was classified as either high or low on self-monitoring on the basis of his or her responses to the self-monitoring scale.

As you can see in Figure 3.14, “Self-Monitoring and Behavioral Mimicry,” Cheng and Chartrand found an interaction effect: the students who had been classified as high self-monitors were more likely to mimic the behavior of the confederate when she was described as being the leader than when she was described as being the worker, indicating that they were “tuned in” to the social situation and modified their behavior to appear more positively. Although the low self-monitors did mimic the other person, they did not mimic her more when the other was high, versus low, status. This finding is consistent with the idea that the high self-monitors were particularly aware of the other person’s status and attempted to self-present more positively to the high-status leader. The low self-monitors, on the other hand—because they feel less need to impress overall—did not pay much attention to the other person’s status.

Self-Monitoring and Behavioral Mimicry

Figure 3.14: Self-Monitoring and Behavioral Mimicry



High self-monitors imitated more when the person they were interacting with was of higher (versus lower) status. Low self-monitors were not sensitive to the status of the other. Data are from Cheng and Chartrand (2003).

This differential sensitivity to social dynamics between high and low self-monitors suggests that their self-esteem will be affected by different factors. For people who are high in self-monitoring, their self-esteem may be positively impacted when they perceive that their behavior matches the social demands of the situation, and negatively affected when they feel that it does not. In contrast, low self-monitors may experience self-esteem boosts when they see themselves behaving consistently with their internal standards, and feel less self-worth when they feel they are not living up to them (Ickes, Holloway, Stinson, & Hoodenpyle, 2006).

Key Takeaways

  • Our self-concepts are affected by others’ appraisals, as demonstrated by concepts including the looking-glass self and self-labeling.
  • The self-concept and self-esteem are also often strongly influenced by social comparison. For example, we use social comparison to determine the accuracy and appropriateness of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
  • When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others through downward social comparison, we feel good about ourselves. Upward social comparison with others who are better off than we are leads to negative emotions.
  • Social identity refers to the positive emotions that we experience as a member of an important social group.
  • Normally, our group memberships result in positive feelings, which occur because we perceive our own groups, and thus ourselves, in a positive light.
  • Which of our many category identities is most accessible for us will vary from day to day as a function of the particular situation we are in.
  • In the face of others’ behaviors, we may enhance our self-esteem by “basking in the reflected glory” of our ingroups or of other people we know.
  • If other people’s actions threaten our sense of self according to self-evaluation maintenance theory, we may engage in a variety of strategies aimed at redefining our self-concept and rebuilding our self-esteem.
  • The tendency to present a positive self-image to others, with the goal of increasing our social status, is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life. Different self-presentation strategies may be used to create different emotions in other people.
  • We often use self-presentation in the longer term, seeking to build and sustain particular reputations with specific social audiences.
  • The individual-difference variable of self-monitoring relates to the ability and desire to self-present.


Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe some aspects of your self-concept that have been created through social comparison.
  2. Describe times when you have engaged in downward and upward social comparison and the effects these comparisons have had on your self-esteem. To what extent do your experiences fit with the research evidence here?
  3. What are your most salient social identities? How do they create positive feelings for you?
  4. Outline a situation where someone else’s behavior has threatened your self-concept. Which of the strategies outlined in relation to self-evaluation maintenance theory did you engage in to rebuild your self-concept?
  5. Identify a situation where you basked in the reflected glory of your ingroup’s behavior or peformance. What effect did this have on your self-esteem and why?
  6. Describe some situations where people you know have used each of the self-presentation strategies that were listed in this section. Which strategies seem to be more and less effective in helping them to achieve their social goals, and why?
  7. Consider your own level of self-monitoring. Do you think that you are more of a high or a low self-monitor, and why? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages for you of the level of self-monitoring that you have?


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