Impression Management: Erving Goffman Theory

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

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Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

On This Page:

  • Impression management refers to the goal-directed conscious or unconscious attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object, or event by regulating and controlling information in social interaction.
  • Generally, people undertake impression management to achieve goals that require they have a desired public image. This activity is called self-presentation.
  • In sociology and social psychology, self-presentation is the conscious or unconscious process through which people try to control the impressions other people form of them.
  • The goal is for one to present themselves the way in which they would like to be thought of by the individual or group they are interacting with. This form of management generally applies to the first impression.
  • Erving Goffman popularized the concept of perception management in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , where he argues that impression management not only influences how one is treated by other people but is an essential part of social interaction.

Impression Management

Impression Management in Sociology

Impression management, also known as self-presentation, refers to the ways that people attempt to control how they are perceived by others (Goffman, 1959).

By conveying particular impressions about their abilities, attitudes, motives, status, emotional reactions, and other characteristics, people can influence others to respond to them in desirable ways.

Impression management is a common way for people to influence one another in order to obtain various goals.

While earlier theorists (e.g., Burke, 1950; Hart & Burk, 1972) offered perspectives on the person as a performer, Goffman (1959) was the first to develop a specific theory concerning self-presentation.

In his well-known work, Goffman created the foundation and the defining principles of what is commonly referred to as impression management.

In explicitly laying out a purpose for his work, Goffman (1959) proposes to “consider the ways in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kind of things he may or may not do while sustaining his performance before them.” (p. xi)

Social Interaction

Goffman viewed impression management not only as a means of influencing how one is treated by other people but also as an essential part of social interaction.

He communicates this view through the conceit of theatre. Actors give different performances in front of different audiences, and the actors and the audience cooperate in negotiating and maintaining the definition of a situation.

To Goffman, the self was not a fixed thing that resides within individuals but a social process. For social interactions to go smoothly, every interactant needs to project a public identity that guides others’ behaviors (Goffman, 1959, 1963; Leary, 2001; Tseelon, 1992).

Goffman defines that when people enter the presence of others, they communicate information by verbal intentional methods and by non-verbal unintentional methods.

According to Goffman, individuals participate in social interactions through performing a “line” or “a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself” (1967, p. 5).

Such lines are created and maintained by both the performer and the audience. By enacting a line effectively, a person gains positive social value or “face.”

The verbal intentional methods allow us to establish who we are and what we wish to communicate directly. We must use these methods for the majority of the actual communication of data.

Goffman is mostly interested in the non-verbal clues given off which are less easily manipulated. When these clues are manipulated the receiver generally still has the upper hand in determining how realistic the clues that are given off are.

People use these clues to determine how to treat a person and if the intentional verbal responses given off are actually honest. It is also known that most people give off clues that help to represent them in a positive light, which tends to be compensated for by the receiver.

Impression Management Techniques

  • Suppressing emotions : Maintaining self-control (which we will identify with such practices as speaking briefly and modestly).
  • Conforming to Situational Norms : The performer follows agreed-upon rules for behavior in the organization.
  • Flattering Others : The performer compliments the perceiver. This tactic works best when flattery is not extreme and when it involves a dimension important to the perceiver.
  • Being Consistent : The performer’s beliefs and behaviors are consistent. There is agreement between the performer’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

Self-Presentation Examples

Self-presentation can affect the emotional experience . For example, people can become socially anxious when they are motivated to make a desired impression on others but doubt that they can do so successfully (Leary, 2001).

In one paper on self-presentation and emotional experience, Schlenker and Leary (1982) argue that, in contrast to the drive models of anxiety, the cognitive state of the individual mediates both arousal and behavior.

The researchers examine the traditional inverted-U anxiety-performance curve (popularly known as the Yerkes-Dodson law) in this light.

The researchers propose that people are interpersonally secure when they do not have the goal of creating a particular impression on others.

They are not immediately concerned about others’ evaluative reactions in a social setting where they are attempting to create a particular impression and believe that they will be successful in doing so.

Meanwhile, people are anxious when they are uncertain about how to go about creating a certain impression (such as when they do not know what sort of attributes the other person is likely to be impressed with), think that they will not be able to project the types of images that will produce preferred reactions from others.

Such people think that they will not be able to project the desired image strongly enough or believe that some event will happen that will repudiate their self-presentations, causing reputational damage (Schlenker and Leary, 1982).

Psychologists have also studied impression management in the context of mental and physical health .

In one such study, Braginsky et al. (1969) showed that those hospitalized with schizophrenia modify the severity of their “disordered” behavior depending on whether making a more or less “disordered” impression would be most beneficial to them (Leary, 2001).

Additional research on university students shows that people may exaggerate or even fabricate reports of psychological distress when doing so for their social goals.

Hypochondria appears to have self-presentational features where people convey impressions of illness and injury, when doing so helps to drive desired outcomes such as eliciting support or avoiding responsibilities (Leary, 2001).

People can also engage in dangerous behaviors for self-presentation reasons such as suntanning, unsafe sex, and fast driving. People may also refuse needed medical treatment if seeking this medical treatment compromises public image (Leary et al., 1994).

Key Components

There are several determinants of impression management, and people have many reasons to monitor and regulate how others perceive them.

For example, social relationships such as friendship, group membership, romantic relationships, desirable jobs, status, and influence rely partly on other people perceiving the individual as being a particular kind of person or having certain traits.

Because people’s goals depend on them making desired impressions over undesired impressions, people are concerned with the impressions other people form of them.

Although people appear to monitor how they come across ongoingly, the degree to which they are motivated to impression manage and the types of impressions they try to foster varies by situation and individuals (Leary, 2001).

Leary and Kowalski (1990) say that there are two processes that constitute impression management, each of which operate according to different principles and are affected by different situations and dispositional aspects. The first of these processes is impression motivation, and the second is impression construction.

Impression Motivation

There are three main factors that affect how much people are motivated to impression-manage in a situation (Leary and Kowalski, 1990):

(1) How much people believe their public images are relevant to them attaining their desired goals.

When people believe that their public image is relevant to them achieving their goals, they are generally more motivated to control how others perceive them (Leary, 2001).

Conversely, when the impressions of other people have few implications on one’s outcomes, that person’s motivation to impression-manage will be lower.

This is why people are more likely to impression manage in their interactions with powerful, high-status people than those who are less powerful and have lower status (Leary, 2001).

(2) How valuable the goals are: people are also more likely to impress and manage the more valuable the goals for which their public impressions are relevant (Leary, 2001).

(3) how much of a discrepancy there is between how they want to be perceived and how they believe others perceive them..

People are more highly motivated to impression-manage when there is a difference between how they want to be perceived and how they believe others perceive them.

For example, public scandals and embarrassing events that convey undesirable impressions can cause people to make self-presentational efforts to repair what they see as their damaged reputations (Leary, 2001).

Impression Construction

Features of the social situations that people find themselves in, as well as their own personalities, determine the nature of the impressions that they try to convey.

In particular, Leary and Kowalski (1990) name five sets of factors that are especially important in impression construction (Leary, 2001).

Two of these factors include how people’s relationships with themselves (self-concept and desired identity), and three involve how people relate to others (role constraints, target value, and current or potential social image) (Leary and Kowalski, 1990).


The impressions that people try to create are influenced not only by social context but also by one’s own self-concept .

People usually want others to see them as “how they really are” (Leary, 2001), but this is in tension with the fact that people must deliberately manage their impressions in order to be viewed accurately by others (Goffman, 1959).

People’s self-concepts can also constrain the images they try to convey.

People often believe that it is unethical to present impressions of themselves different from how they really are and generally doubt that they would successfully be able to sustain a public image inconsistent with their actual characteristics (Leary, 2001).

This risk of failure in portraying a deceptive image and the accompanying social sanctions deter people from presenting impressions discrepant from how they see themselves (Gergen, 1968; Jones and Pittman, 1982; Schlenker, 1980).

People can differ in how congruent their self-presentations are with their self-perceptions.

People who are high in public self-consciousness have less congruency between their private and public selves than those lower in public self-consciousness (Tunnell, 1984; Leary and Kowalski, 1990).

Desired identity

People’s desired and undesired selves – how they wish to be and not be on an internal level – also influence the images that they try to project.

Schlenker (1985) defines a desirable identity image as what a person “would like to be and thinks he or she really can be, at least at his or her best.”

People have a tendency to manage their impressions so that their images coincide with their desired selves and stay away from images that coincide with their undesired selves (Ogilivie, 1987; Schlenker, 1985; Leary, 2001).

This happens when people publicly claim attributes consistent with their desired identity and openly reject identities that they do not want to be associated with.

For example, someone who abhors bigots may take every step possible to not appear bigoted, and Gergen and Taylor (1969) showed that high-status navel cadets did not conform to low-status navel cadets because they did not want to see themselves as conformists (Leary and Kowalski, 1990).

Target value

people tailor their self-presentations to the values of the individuals whose perceptions they are concerned with.

This may lead to people sometimes fabricating identities that they think others will value.

However, more commonly, people selectively present truthful aspects of themselves that they believe coincide with the values of the person they are targeting the impression to and withhold information that they think others will value negatively (Leary, 2001).

Role constraints

the content of people’s self-presentations is affected by the roles that they take on and the norms of their social context.

In general, people want to convey impressions consistent with their roles and norms .

Many roles even carry self-presentational requirements around the kinds of impressions that the people who hold the roles should and should not convey (Leary, 2001).

Current or potential social image

People’s public image choices are also influenced by how they think they are perceived by others. As in impression motivation, self-presentational behaviors can often be aimed at dispelling undesired impressions that others hold about an individual.

When people believe that others have or are likely to develop an undesirable impression of them, they will typically try to refute that negative impression by showing that they are different from how others believe them to be.

When they are not able to refute this negative impression, they may project desirable impressions in other aspects of their identity (Leary, 2001).


In the presence of others, few of the behaviors that people make are unaffected by their desire to maintain certain impressions. Even when not explicitly trying to create a particular impression of themselves, people are constrained by concerns about their public image.

Generally, this manifests with people trying not to create undesired impressions in virtually all areas of social life (Leary, 2001).

Tedeschi et al. (1971) argued that phenomena that psychologists previously attributed to peoples’ need to have cognitive consistency actually reflected efforts to maintain an impression of consistency in others’ eyes.

Studies have supported Tedeschi and their colleagues’ suggestion that phenomena previously attributed to cognitive dissonance were actually affected by self-presentational processes (Schlenker, 1980).

Psychologists have applied self-presentation to their study of phenomena as far-ranging as conformity, aggression, prosocial behavior, leadership, negotiation, social influence, gender, stigmatization, and close relationships (Baumeister, 1982; Leary, 1995; Schlenker, 1980; Tedeschi, 1981).

Each of these studies shows that people’s efforts to make impressions on others affect these phenomena, and, ultimately, that concerns self-presentation in private social life.

For example, research shows that people are more likely to be pro-socially helpful when their helpfulness is publicized and behave more prosocially when they desire to repair a damaged social image by being helpful (Leary, 2001).

In a similar vein, many instances of aggressive behavior can be explained as self-presentational efforts to show that someone is willing to hurt others in order to get their way.

This can go as far as gender roles, for which evidence shows that men and women behave differently due to the kind of impressions that are socially expected of men and women.

Baumeister, R. F. (1982). A self-presentational view of social phenomena. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 3-26.

Braginsky, B. M., Braginsky, D. D., & Ring, K. (1969). Methods of madness: The mental hospital as a last resort. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Buss, A. H., & Briggs, S. (1984). Drama and the self in social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1310-1324. Gergen, K. J. (1968). Personal consistency and the presentation of self. In C. Gordon & K. J. Gergen (Eds.), The self in social interaction (Vol. 1, pp. 299-308). New York: Wiley.

Gergen, K. J., & Taylor, M. G. (1969). Social expectancy and self-presentation in a status hierarchy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5, 79-92.

Goffman, E. (1959). The moral career of the mental patient. Psychiatry, 22(2), 123-142.

  • Goffman, E. (1963). Embarrassment and social organization.

Goffman, E. (1978). The presentation of self in everyday life (Vol. 21). London: Harmondsworth.

Goffman, E. (2002). The presentation of self in everyday life. 1959. Garden City, NY, 259.

Martey, R. M., & Consalvo, M. (2011). Performing the looking-glass self: Avatar appearance and group identity in Second Life. Popular Communication, 9 (3), 165-180.

Jones E E (1964) Ingratiation. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.

Jones, E. E., & Pittman, T. S. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. Psychological perspectives on the self, 1(1), 231-262.

Leary M R (1995) Self-presentation: Impression Management and Interpersonal Behaior. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

Leary, M. R.. Impression Management, Psychology of, in Smelser, N. J., & Baltes, P. B. (Eds.). (2001). International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (Vol. 11). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and two-component model. Psychological bulletin, 107(1), 34.

Leary M R, Tchvidjian L R, Kraxberger B E 1994 Self-presentation may be hazardous to your health. Health Psychology 13: 461–70.

Ogilvie, D. M. (1987). The undesired self: A neglected variable in personality research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 379-385.

  • Schlenker, B. R. (1980). Impression management (Vol. 222). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Schlenker, B. R. (1985). Identity and self-identification. In B. R. Schlenker (Ed.), The self and social life (pp. 65-99). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schlenker, B. R., & Leary, M. R. (1982). Social anxiety and self-presentation: A conceptualization model. Psychological bulletin, 92(3), 641.

Tedeschi, J. T, Smith, R. B., Ill, & Brown, R. C., Jr. (1974). A reinterpretation of research on aggression. Psychological Bulletin, 81, 540- 563.

Tseëlon, E. (1992). Is the presented self sincere? Goffman, impression management and the postmodern self. Theory, culture & society, 9(2), 115-128.

Tunnell, G. (1984). The discrepancy between private and public selves: Public self-consciousness and its correlates. Journal of Personality Assessment, 48, 549-555.

Further Information

  • Solomon, J. F., Solomon, A., Joseph, N. L., & Norton, S. D. (2013). Impression management, myth creation and fabrication in private social and environmental reporting: Insights from Erving Goffman. Accounting, organizations and society, 38(3), 195-213.
  • Gardner, W. L., & Martinko, M. J. (1988). Impression management in organizations. Journal of management, 14(2), 321-338.
  • Scheff, T. J. (2005). Looking‐Glass self: Goffman as symbolic interactionist. Symbolic interaction, 28(2), 147-166.

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Through the Looking Glass of Social Media. Focus on Self-Presentation and Association with Mental Health and Quality of Life. A Cross-Sectional Survey-Based Study

Jens christoffer skogen.

1 Department of Health Promotion, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, 5015 Bergen, Norway; [email protected] (G.J.H.); [email protected] (A.K.K.)

2 Centre for Evaluation of Public Health Measures, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, 0213 Oslo, Norway

3 Alcohol and Drug Research Western Norway, Stavanger University Hospital, 4010 Stavanger, Norway

4 Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Stavanger, 4021 Stavanger, Norway

Gunnhild Johnsen Hjetland

Tormod bøe.

5 Department of Psychosocial Science, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen, 5020 Bergen, Norway; [email protected]

Randi Træland Hella

6 Department of Work, Social Services and Housing, Bergen Municipality, 5020 Bergen, Norway; [email protected]

Ann Kristin Knudsen

7 Centre for Disease Burden, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, 5015 Bergen, Norway

Associated Data

The Norwegian Health research legislation and the Norwegian Ethics committees require explicit consent from the participants in order to transfer health research data outside of Norway. For the data employed in the present study, ethics approval was also contingent on storing the research data on secure storage facilities located at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, which prevents us from providing the data as supplementary information or to transfer it to data repositories. Individual requests for data access should be sent to research project leader: [email protected] .

Social media (SOME) use among adolescents has been linked to mental health and well-being. SOME self-presentation has been highlighted as an important factor to better understand the potential links. The aims of this study were to investigate the association between focus on SOME self-presentation and mental health and quality of life among adolescents. We used a cross-sectional survey, with n = 513 (56%; mean age 17.1 years; 58% boys) students from a senior high school in Norway. Associations between focus on SOME self-presentation and symptoms of anxiety and depression and quality of life were investigated using blobbograms, standardized mean difference (SMD), and gender-specific linear regression models. A high focus on SOME self-presentation was associated with more mental health problems and reduced quality of life. The strength of the associations with symptoms of depression (0.75SMD) and anxiety (0.71SMD) was large, while it was medium-large for quality of life (−0.58SMD). The association was similar across gender in relation to symptoms of anxiety. For symptoms of depression and quality of life, the association was stronger for girls compared to boys. Our findings yield preliminary evidence of a potential relationship between focus on SOME self-presentation and mental health.

1. Introduction

Adolescence is an important period in life characterized by increased independence from parents and an expanded social life dominated by one’s peers [ 1 ]. It is also a period with increased emotional upheaval [ 2 ], and many mental health problems commonly emerge during adolescence [ 1 ]. There is also evidence that suggest quality of life is lower during adolescence compared to earlier childhood years [ 3 ].

Today’s adolescents grow up in the age of social media use and online communication. Social media can be defined as “highly interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, co-create, discuss, and modify user-generated content” [ 4 ]. Social media use among adolescents has been linked to mental health and well-being [ 5 ], and some studies indicate that social media use is associated with more mental health problems and decreased well-being. For example, studies have found that more time spent on social media is associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety [ 6 , 7 , 8 ], conduct problems, and episodic heavy drinking [ 6 ]. However, by focusing primarily on frequency and duration of use [ 5 , 9 , 10 ], these studies provide little knowledge of how various types of social media activities may be differentially linked to mental health and well-being. Although a growing number of studies in general indicate that social media use should be considered multifaceted, and that distinct uses is differentially associated with adverse outcomes (see for instance [ 11 , 12 , 13 , 14 ]), there is still a dearth of studies taking this into consideration. Thus, there is a call for more novel quantitative studies investigating the relationship between what adolescents do on social media and how this is associated with mental health and well-being.

Self-presentation has been highlighted as one important social media activity by many researchers [ 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 ]. Self-presentation may be defined as individual practices related to how one present oneself to others [ 20 ] and is generally thought to be motivated by a wish to make a socially desirable impression on others, while still remaining true to one’s own beliefs and ideals.

Self-presentation practices on social media include sharing of self-created content, posting of opinions, and promoting online content that one is interested in (like news, music, and movies), and adolescents are reported to be more engaged in these activities than any other age-group (see instance Herring and Kapidzic [ 18 ]). Social media gives adolescents control over what, where (on which platform), how, and when they self-present to others. The immediacy of social feedback (e.g., likes and comments) provides cues about social desirability and direction for adjusting future presentations to be in alignment with how adolescents ideally would like to present themselves. These feedback mechanisms and other features of social media, such as the potential to reach multiple audiences, seems to facilitate self-presentation on social media [ 21 ]. Given the focus many social media platforms puts on likes, other "nano-level interactions" [ 22 ], number of followers, and comments, it seems likely that issues related to how one present oneself online is a potent factor in many adolescents’ life. This may be further accentuated by engagement in social comparison on social media [ 23 ].

A few previous studies have shown that activities of self-presentation on social media are associated with well-being and mental health. Frison and Eggermont found, for instance, that adolescents that actively self-presented by posting content on social media reported fewer depressive symptoms compared to those who used social media to more passively observe (i.e., consume) other’s content [ 24 ]. Similarly, a recent longitudinal study following participants at 10, 12, and 14-years-of age, reported that more passive, “other-oriented” social media use (i.e., merely commenting or “liking” others’ posts) versus actively self-presenting on social media had a differential effect on self-esteem related to physical appearance [ 25 ]. Specifically, the authors found that increased other-oriented social media use was associated with reduced subsequent appearance self-esteem, but this was not found for actively engaging in self-presenting on social media. They did, however, also report important gender differences. In gender-specific analyses they found that the relationship between earlier other-oriented social media use on later appearance self-esteem was strong among girls but absent among boys [ 25 ]. They also reported that girls were consistently more likely to engage in other-oriented social media use across all time points. Several other authors have also reported that there are gender differences in relation to self-presentation on social media [ 18 , 26 , 27 ]. Herring and Kapidzic reported for instance that adolescent girls are more likely to present their friendship ties on social media, while boys post updates more related to technology, sports, and humor [ 18 ]. Adolescent boys are also more likely to join or identify with online social groups that differ from their offline social groups [ 18 ]. Furthermore, adolescent girls use social media more to communicate with their peers and maintain or reinforce preexisting relationships, while boys on the other hand more actively seek out new people and make new friends online [ 18 ].

Previous studies also indicate a relationship between the authenticity of the self-presentation and mental health and well-being [ 9 , 28 ]. In 2017, Twomey and O’Reilly authored a systematic review of self-presentation on Facebook and mental health and personality [ 28 ]. They identified 21 studies of mostly adult and young adult participants, and among other things, found support for associations between false self-presentation and low self-esteem and higher levels of social anxiety, and true self-presentation and increased levels of self-esteem. In relation to primary studies, Jang and colleagues reported that a true self-presentation style led to greater self-reported happiness among high self-esteem users using an experimental approach in an adult sample [ 29 ]. Conversely, the use of instrumental or strategic (i.e., only presenting your “best self”) self-presentation were associated with more self-reported happiness regardless [ 30 ] of self-esteem level [ 29 ]. Additionally, among college students, strategic self-presentation has been reported to be associated with increased subjective well-being [ 31 ]. Furthermore, Reinecke and colleagues found that authenticity in self-presentation on social media was longitudinally associated with increased positive affect and decreased negative affect among adults [ 32 ]. In one of the few studies of adolescent participants, Xie and colleagues reported that online authentic self-presentation was associated with lower levels of depression symptoms as part of a mediation model [ 33 ]. On the other hand, false self-presentation behaviors is reported to be associated with negative mental health among adults, as indicated by higher symptom levels of depression, anxiety, and stress [ 34 ].

Although there are some studies investigating the potential consequences of different aspects of self-presentation on social media, most previous studies have focused on the antecedents or motivations for self-presentation [ 29 ]. Most of the studies we were able to identify, however, with the exception of Xie and colleagues [ 33 ], consisted of young adult or adult samples. This is also reflected by the included primary studies in Twomey and O’Reilly’s systematic review [ 28 ]. Furthermore, a recent narrative review highlighted that self-presentation may be an important factor to investigate in order to better understand the link between use of social media and well-being among adolescents [ 9 ]. Based on these considerations, there is a need for further studies investigating aspects of self-presentation on social media and associations with mental health and well-being among adolescents. Based on previous studies indicating the relevance of personal investment and emotional involvement in relation to social media use and mental health [ 35 ], one important aspect could be the focus (i.e., focus in terms of the attention and importance the adolescents give to their self-presentation activities) adolescents put on self-presentation on social media. We are not aware of any previous studies that have investigated the association between focus on self-presentation on social media and mental health and well-being.

The aims of the present study were to investigate the association between focus on self-presentation on social media and mental health and quality of life among adolescents. Specifically, we aimed to investigate the overall and gender-stratified associations between self-presentation and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as a general measure of quality of life.

2. Materials and Methods

2.1. study design, setting, and participants.

The present study employs cross-sectional data from an online survey of adolescents recruited from a senior high school in Vestland County, Norway. All students aged 16 or more enrolled at the high school were invited to the survey, and n = 513 (56%) participated. The data were collected in March 2020. The students were first informed about the study from their teacher one day prior to participation, and the next day they received a survey-specific web address (uniform resource locator; URL) containing written online information about the study as well as the possibility to consent to participate. One school hour was allotted to completing the questionnaire. Four participants did not complete the survey and were therefore excluded from the present study. The mean age of the participants was 17.1 years (1.1 standard deviations), and 58% were boys. The study was approved by the regional ethics committee and is in agreement with the General Data Protection Regulation (See also “Institutional Review Board Statement” below for more information).

2.2. Variables

Age and Gender Were Reported by the Participants

2.2.1. Independent Variables: Focus on Self-Presentation on Social Media

The majority of the questions regarding focus on self-presentation on social media were generated using an inductive approach based on qualitative interviews [ 36 ], while one question came from an existing survey [ 37 ]. The remaining items developed were based on four focus group interviews with adolescents related to use of social media and mental health. The transcripts of the interviews were analysed using thematic analysis, and items were generated to cover the identified themes (more details can be found in the online preprint: (accessed on 19 March 2021)). To create items that sounded familiar to the respondents (of the questionnaire), items were worded as similar to what the interview subjects expressed as possible. The use of focus groups ensure that the instrument is relevant to the population in question and that issues considered important for adolescents were not left out, i.e., they ensure the content validity of the instrument [ 38 ]. Candidate items were reviewed and discussed by members of the research team before being included in the questionnaire. Next, a small group of psychology students and a resource group of consisting of adolescents completed a draft of the questionnaire and provided oral feedback to the proposed questions. The questionnaire was revised according to their feedback, which mainly pertained to the wording of some of the items. One of the emergent sub-themes identified was self-presentation on social media. Participant’s focus on self-presentation on social media was measured by seven questions:

  • I use a lot of time and energy on content I post on social media.
  • It is important for me that my posts receive many likes and/or comments.
  • It is important for me to have many followers on social media.
  • I delete posts on social media that do not receive enough likes and/or comments.
  • I retouch pictures of myself to look better before I post them on social media.
  • What other’s post (images/status updates/stories) makes me less satisfied with myself and my life.
  • The response I get for what I post (images/status updates/stories) impacts how I feel.

The response categories were “not at all”, “very little”, “sometimes/partly true”, “a lot” and “very much”, coded 1 to 5. The questions are used separately and as a summed mean score (Cronbach’s alpha of 0.88) in the present study.

The participants were also asked which social media platforms they used, where they could choose from a list of 19 platforms: “Facebook”, “Instagram”, “Snapchat”, “LinkedIn”, “Twitter”, “YouTube”, “Pinterest”, “Messenger”, “WhatsApp”, “Jodel”, “TikTok”, “Discord”, “Twitch”, “Spond”, “Houseparty”, “Reddit”, anonymous platforms (for instance “Ask”, “Sarahah”), dating platforms (for instance “Tinder”, “Match”, “Grindr”, “Yubo”), and “other”. The participants could indicate as many of these platforms as necessary.

2.2.2. Dependent Variables: Measures of Mental Health and Quality of Life

Symptoms of anxiety.

Anxiety was measured by the questionnaire General Anxiety Disorder 7 (GAD-7; Spitzer, Kroenke [ 39 ]). GAD-7 consists of 7 questions regarding symptoms of general anxiety scored from 1 (not at all) to 4 (almost every day). The questionnaire can be used as a continuous measure (total score, ranging from 0 to 21 in this study (28 maximum)) or as a dichotomous variable with a cut-off of 10. Cronbach’s alpha was 0.89 in the present sample.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression was measured by the questionnaire Short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (SMFQ; Turner, Joinson [ 40 ]). SMFQ consists of 13 statements related to symptoms of depression with the following response options 0 (not true), 1 (sometimes true), and 2 (correct). The questionnaire can be used as a continuous measure (total score, ranging from 0 to 26) or as a dichotomous variable with a cut-off at the 90th percentile. Cronbach’s alpha was 0.91 in the present sample.

Quality of Life

Quality of Life (QoL) was measured using the Warwick–Edinburgh Well-being Scale (WEMWBS; Tennant, Hiller [ 41 ]). WEMWBS consists of 14 statements related to well-being and quality of life scored from 1 (not at all) to 5 (all the time). WEMWBS can be used as a continuous measure (total score, ranging from 5 to 70), and as a dichotomous measure with median split as the cut-off point. Cronbach’s alpha was 0.92 in the present sample.

2.3. Statistical Analyses

Descriptive gender-specific statistics of the independent and dependent variables are presented in a table. For the first figure, the associations between each self-presentation item and symptoms of anxiety and depression and quality of life are presented as blobbograms [ 42 ]. Blobbograms were used as they provide information about individually estimated associations, the precision of the estimates, and statistical significance, as well as an overall effect estimate in a succinct manner. This approach is widely used in meta-analysis but also in health research studies in general [ 42 ]. For the first figure the mean of each self-presentation item for those below and above the cut-offs for anxiety, depression and quality of life was calculated, as well as the standardized mean difference.

In order to assess the structural validity of the items related to focus on self-presentation, exploratory (EFA), and confirmatory factor (CFA) analysis was used to examine the underlying structure. Maximum likelihood (ML) estimation was used for CFA, and model fit was assessed by the comparative fit index (CFI), the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), and the standardized root mean square residual (SRMR). A CFI of 0.95 or greater, RMSEA of 0.06 or less, and SRMR of 0.08 or less were collectively considered an indication of good model fit to data [ 43 ].

The overall standardized mean difference for self-representation as a summed mean score is presented for each dependent variable. In the second figure, the predicted mean gender-standardized score for symptoms of depression and anxiety and quality of life (QoL) is presented across integers of the summed mean score of self-presentation for boys and girls separately. Linear gender-specific regressions were calculated to obtain the coefficient for the association between the mean summed score of self-presentation and the dependent variables. The mean gender-standardized score for symptoms of anxiety and depression, and QoL was obtained by a gender-stratified Z-scoring of the summed self-presentation variables (total score). Thus, each gender-specific bar represents deviance in standard deviations from overall gender-specific mean across focus on self-presentation, and the error bars denotes 95% confidence intervals. In the third figure, the ten most frequently used social media platforms overall are presented across quartiles of the summed score of self-presentation. Differential proportions of used platforms across quartiles of self-presentation were analysed using logistic regression models while adjusting for gender, and in gender-stratified analyses. The gender-adjusted and gender-specific trend across the rank of quartiles are presented as average odds ratios.

The variables included in the present study had some missing values, ranging from n = 3 to n = 48. To retain the maximum level of information in the analyses employed in Figures 1–3, we employed pairwise deletion to handle missingness. The statistical analyses were performed using Stata/SE 15.0 for Windows [ 44 ], R version 3.6.0 [ 45 ] and RStudio version 1.2.1335 [ 46 ] including the R-packages “gtsummary” version 1.3.6 [ 47 ], “lavaan” version 0.6.8 [ 48 ], and “meta” version 4.12.0 [ 49 ] including dependencies.

3.1. Separate Items and Overall Standardized Mean Difference

Overall, girls indicated more focus on self-presentation on social media except for retouching of pictures of themselves ( p = 0.448 for gender difference, see Table 1 ). For boys, the proportion for at least some focus on self-presentation ranged from 4% (“response important”) to 20% (“time and energy”), and the corresponding range for girls were 13% (“retouching”) and 46% (“time and energy”). Girls were also more likely to be above the cut-off for anxiety and depression, while being below the cut-off for QoL. In relation to the association between self-presentation and anxiety, case-level anxiety was associated with higher mean levels across each self-presentation item ( Figure 1 ). The overall standardized mean difference was 0.71 (CI95% 0.47, 0.94). For depression, case-level depression was associated with higher mean levels for all but one item (retouching of pictures) of self-presentation. The overall standardized mean difference was 0.75 (CI95% 0.44, 1.06). For quality of life, high QoL (above median) was associated with lower mean levels for all items of self-presentation (overall standardized mean difference −0.58 (CI95% −0.76, −0.40)).

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Associations between quality of life, depression and generalized anxiety, and self-reported focus on self-presentation on social media presented as blobbograms. Horizontal lines represent 95% confidence intervals, while the black diamond represents the overall standardized difference.

Description of included study variables across gender. n = 509.

1 Statistics presented: n (%); mean (SD). 2 Statistical tests performed: chi-square test of independence; Fisher’s exact test; Wilcoxon rank-sum test. a Response categories “a lot” and “very much” collapsed to avoid cells <5.

3.2. Structural Validity of Self-Presentation Items

Exploratory factor analysis of the seven items related to focus on self-presentation on social media indicated a unidimensional scale, with an eigenvalue of 3.7 for factor 1 and a drop to 0.4 for factor 2. The Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin measure of sampling adequacy was 0.86, and factor loadings ranged from 0.49 to 0.90, with a mean of 0.72. CFA was performed for a unidimensional scale, and adequate fit was obtained for a one-factor-solution (CFI: 0.990, RMSEA: 0.055 (90% Confidence intervals 0.029–0.080), SRMR: 0.029) with correlated error terms between item 6 and 7 (correlation 0.40). Based on these assessment the seven items were used as a summed score to represent overall focus on self-presentation on social media.

3.3. Overall Focus on Self-Presentation and Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression and Quality of Life

For both girls and boys there was a significant positive association between focus on self-presentation on SOME and symptoms of anxiety and depression ( Figure 2 ). Having a high focus on self-presentation on SOME (“very much”) was associated with the highest predicted anxiety-symptom levels (1.2 SD and 1.1 SD for boys and girls, respectively) compared to the gender-specific mean. The average regression coefficient (trend) were comparable for boys (B: 0.35 SD, p < 0.001) and girls (B: 0.38 SD, p < 0.001).

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Associations between quality of life, depression and generalized anxiety, and self-reported focus on self-presentation on social media. Gender-stratified. Bars denote predicted deviation from gender-specific mean for symptoms of depression and anxiety and quality of life with 95% confidence intervals. Standardized score for average gender-specific coefficients (trend) in textboxes.

The same patterns were found for depression symptom-levels (1.0 SD and 1.5 SD for boys and girls, respectively). The average regression coefficient was 0.30 SD ( p < 0.001) for boys, and somewhat larger for girls (B: 0.53 SD, p < 0.001).

For quality of life, increased focus on self-presentation on social media was associated with decreased levels for girls (−1.2 SD for those with a high focus) and boys (−0.7 SD for those with high focus). The average regression coefficient was −0.21 SD ( p = 0.012) for boys compared to −0.42 SD ( p < 0.001) for girls.

3.4. Use of Different Platforms across Overall Focus on Self-Presentation

Figure 3 present the proportions of social media platforms used by the participants across quartiles of focus on self-presentation. Overall, there were modest differences across the quartiles. Statistically significant positive trends across the rank of quartiles of self-presentation were found for use of Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, while a significant negative trend was found for Discord. In gender-specific analyses positive trends were found for Instagram and TikTok and negative trends were found for Discord for both girls and boys. For boys, the use of Instagram increased from 82.0% in the lowest quartile group to 95.1% in the highest quartile group, while use of TikTok went from 50.4% to 73.2% and use of Discord decreased from 52.3% to 31.7%. For girls, the corresponding differences were 84.6% to 100% for use of Instagram, 38.5% to 82.9% for use of TikTok, and 26.9% to 6.6% for use of Discord.

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Gender-adjusted proportions of social media platforms used by the participants across quartiles of focus on self-presentation.

4. Discussion

The present study investigated the association between focus on self-presentation on social media and mental health and quality of life among adolescents. Overall, a high focus on self-presentation was associated with more mental health problems and reduced quality of life. The strength of the associations with symptoms of depression and anxiety was large, while it was medium to large for quality of life according to suggested guidelines on magnitude of effect [ 50 ]. In the gender-stratified analyses, the association was similar for boys and girls in relation to symptoms of anxiety. For symptoms of depression and quality of life, the association was stronger for girls compared to boys. In relation to the overall proportion of different platforms used across quartiles of focus on self-presentation, the differences were mostly modest. We did, however, find an increased proportion of use of Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok with increasing focus on self-presentation, and a corresponding decreased use of Discord. For both girls and boys, increased focus on self-presentation was associated with increased proportion of use of the highly visually focused platforms Instagram and TikTok, and decreased use in the gaming-related platform Discord.

In sum, our findings are preliminary evidence of a robust relationship between focus on self-presentation on social media and symptoms of anxiety and depression for both genders, albeit with potential important gender differences. This is in accord with recently reported associations between types of social media use and mental health indicators among adolescents and young adults [ 25 , 51 ]. Although we report an association between focus on self-presentation on social media and poor mental health and lower quality of life, we cannot assert the direction of the association. So, while it may be that increased focus on self-presentation is related to poorer mental health, it may also be true that pre-existing mental health problems lead to an increased focus on self-presentation. It is also just as likely that both relationships co-exist, so that both factors form part of a self-reinforcing cycle, which lead to both increased focus on self-presentation and poorer mental health.

Importantly, the present study investigated to what degree self-reported attention to self-presentation on social media and the importance of feedback was associated with mental health, rather than just how much time the participants spent engaged in self-presentation behavior. Our results do not necessarily indicate that engaging in self-presentation behavior per se is associated with poor mental health and well-being, but rather that the focus on these aspects of social media are important factors to gauge. Although the frequency and duration of self-presentation behaviors is likely to be closely related to the time spent engaging in these behaviors, it is also possible that adolescents may engage in self-presentation behavior without caring much about the feedback they receive. In fact, Frison and Eggermont [ 24 ] found that adolescents that actively presented themselves on social media reported fewer depressive symptoms than those who did not. Thus, self-presentation on social media in itself may not be harmful, but preoccupation with presenting oneself in a manner that elicit a wanted feedback from others may be detrimental to mental health. Differential associations with mental health and well-being is also likely to be related to true versus strategic self-presentation practices as reported by Jang and colleagues [ 29 ]. This notion is further echoed by a qualitative study of adolescent girls which reported on the importance put on self-presentation on social media in relation to self-esteem and insecurity by the participants [ 52 ]. The participants reported, for instance, that they would delete posted photographs with few likes out of frustration or embarrassment.

Only one of the items used in the present study explicitly asked about appearance-related self-presentation (retouching selfies to look better), while the other items asked about content and reactions in general. One underlying mechanism for the negative association between self-presentation and mental health found in this study may be related to appearance-related self-presentation. In line with this, a recent study found that social media engagement and behaviors involving appearance comparisons and judgements thereof is of particular importance for symptoms of depression and anxiety among adolescents and young adults [ 51 ]. This may be due to the immediacy of comparison facilitated by pictures as compared to other media [ 53 ], as well as the importance put on—females’ in particular—appearance and attractiveness emphasized in most cultures [ 54 ]. Furthermore, posting pictures of themselves may leave them more vulnerable to negative feedback or lack of feedback. In line with this, we found that increased focus on self-presentation was associated with an increased use of the highly visually-focused platforms Instagram and TikTok.

Self-presentation on social media was recently highlighted as a potentially important part of the puzzle to increase our understanding of the relationship between social media use and mental health and well-being among adolescents [ 9 ]. In our sample, a relatively large proportion reported at least some focus on self-presentation on social media, but for six out seven indicators (except “retouching”), the girls reported more focus on these aspects compared to boys. This is in line with other findings, where adolescent and young adult women report higher preoccupation with self-presentation on social media compared to boys [ 51 ], but are somewhat at odds with findings from younger age groups, where boys and girls displayed similar levels of self-oriented social media activity [ 25 ]. A study investigating selfie-taking and posting patterns found, however, consistent gender differences across broad age groups (aged 12 to 50 years). In that study, adolescents (aged 12 to 19 years) were found to be more likely than older aged groups to take own- and group-selfies, post their own selfies, and use filters. Furthermore, females were in general more likely to take personal and group selfies, post personal selfies, crop photos, and use filters compared to males, a gender-difference that was more pronounced during in the adolescent group [ 55 ]. Based on these findings, it may be that one of the underlying mechanisms for our observed gender differences the relationship between self-presentation and mental health are due to differences in the selfie-culture between boys and girls. If so, the differences in selfie-culture must be understood in light of the prevailing general gender culture, where female physical attractiveness is highly valued [ 56 ].

The present results should also be juxtaposed to findings suggesting a link between false self-presentation and poor mental health [ 28 ]. It is possible that adolescents who are preoccupied with self-presentation and the feedback they receive on social media are more likely to present themselves in a way that generates positive feedback, which may not correspond to their true self. This may be particularly true for use of social media platforms that very much are based on visual self-presentation, and thus may confer more use of retouching of self-portraits.

4.1. Implications and Public Health Relevance

For adolescents, our findings highlight the importance of awareness regarding how different types of activities on social media may be related to mental health outcomes. Today’s adolescents are social media "natives" [ 57 ], i.e., they have grown up in an “online world”. In contrast, many adults are “social media immigrants”, and this native/immigrant distinction may reduce parents’ understanding of and insight into adolescents’ online lives [ 58 ]. Parental involvement in relation to social media use has been reported to be stronger in younger ages [ 59 ]. Continued parental involvement during late childhood and early adolescence may therefore be important to mitigate potential negative effects of social media use [ 59 , 60 ]. Gómez and colleagues encourages for instance the empowerment of parents to moderate their offspring [ 59 ]. Similarly, the schools and teachers may play an important role in increasing awareness and knowledge about the use of social media. Chua and Chang suggest that educational programs that increase social media literacy can be beneficial when they also target negative consequences due to excessive peer comparison and the need for online feedback [ 52 ].

Our findings suggest that not only the amount of use on social media should be considered but also the role of self-presentation. A recent review covering the association between social media use and well-being among adolescents highlighted among other things the negative association between well-being and social media use through high investment and negative feedback [ 35 ]. They also asserted the need for intervention programs and educational programs that could address potential risks of social media relation to subjective well-being [ 35 ]. Specifically, they listed improved education and awareness among adolescents themselves, as well as the school as an optimal place to facilitate critical thinking about social media use and potential consequences.

4.2. Strengths and Limitations

The present study holds some strengths. First, the measures of mental health and quality of life are widely used and validated scales [ 39 , 40 , 41 ]. Second, the questions related to focus on self-presentation on social media were specifically developed for the purposes of the survey. Specifically, the questions related to focus on self-presentation were derived from four focus-groups where social media, mental health, and well-being was the overarching topic. Third, the survey is recent and included both girls and boys. Several limitations are also important to mention. First, the study is cross-sectional, and causality cannot be inferred. Second, the sample size is relatively small, limiting the meaningfulness of subgroup analyses, and the inclusion of potential confounders and moderators in our analyses due to lack of statistical power. For instance, the finding of a non-significant association between retouching and symptoms of depression may reflect the true relationship between the variables, be due to limited statistical precision, or due to confounding factors. Third, the survey did not include measures of frequency or duration of social media use among adolescents. However, such measure are likely to be inaccurate and biased [ 61 , 62 ], and may be non-germane [ 5 , 9 , 10 , 25 ]. It should also be noted that we were not able to differentiate between the frequency and duration of use of different social media platforms, which would have been beneficial in the comparison of platforms used across levels of self-presentation. For instance, over 97% of the sample reported any use of Snapchat, but how much they use this, and other platforms, probably varies substantially between different subgroups. Fourth, the study population was limited to one senior high school in Norway, which is likely to reduce the generalizability of our findings. Related to this, the participation rate was moderate, and this may impact the validity of our findings vis-à-vis the study population. However, several studies have indicated that low participation rate is more detrimental to prevalence estimates than estimates related to associations between variables [ 63 ]. Fifth, only a small proportion of the sample reported retouching pictures, and given the general availability of different photo-filters in different social media apps, our numbers seem low. Although we cannot confirm it, there is a strong possibility that this question was taken as editing of photos which goes beyond built-in filters and more along the lines of manually editing particular parts of the photos.

4.3. Future Research and Scope

Given the preliminary nature of the present findings, our findings needs to be investigated in other samples. Specifically, there is a need to investigate the proposed associations in larger and more diverse study samples. This would increase the precision of the estimates as well as enable investigations into potential confounding and interaction effects. Longitudinal data would also be beneficial, as this could get us a step closer to disentangling the temporal association between self-presentation and mental health and well-being, as well as open up for an exploration of mediation effects. The present study demonstrate the advantage of considering specific aspects of social media use, unravelling the diverse effects of social media use as indicated by conflicting previously reported study results [ 30 ].

5. Conclusions

The present study is the first study we are aware of that have examined the association between focus on self-presentation on social media and mental health and quality of life among adolescents. The study contributes with new knowledge about a specific aspect of social media use, highlighted as potentially particularly important to increase our understanding of the link between social media use and mental health among adolescents. Our findings indicate that there is a medium-strong and consistent relationship between focus on self-presentation and symptoms of anxiety and depression and quality of life among adolescents, and that there may be gender differences. The reported relationship could have important public health implications for adolescents, especially due to the way many social media platforms actively encourages a focus on self-presentation, social comparison, and presentations of the “perfect life”. Due to the limitations of the present study, future studies should investigate the relationships reported in larger study samples, in more diverse samples of adolescents and in a longitudinal rather than cross-sectional design.


We would like to thank the students for participating in this study. We would also like to thank Bergen municipality and Hordaland County Council for their collaboration and help with this study. A big thank you to the resource group who have contributed with useful input and discussions through the work with the knowledge summary, focus group interviews, questionnaire development and interpretation of results from the pilot survey. The present study is associated with a larger innovation-project lead by Bergen municipality in Western Norway related to the use of social media and mental health and well-being. The innovation project is funded by a programme initiated by the Norwegian Directorate of Health and aims to explore social media as platform for health promotion among adolescents.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, J.C.S.; methodology, J.C.S. and G.J.H.; formal analysis, J.C.S.; writing—original draft preparation, J.C.S., G.J.H. and A.K.K.; writing—review and editing, J.C.S., G.J.H., T.B., R.T.H. and A.K.K.; visualization, J.C.S. and T.B.; project administration, J.C.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted according to the guidelines of the Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Regional Ethics Committee (REK) in Norway (REK#65611). All participants gave their informed consent upon participation and were informed about the general purpose of the survey as well as the opportunity to withdraw from the study even after initial participation. Since all adolescents invited were 16 years or older, they were deemed competent to consent on their own behalf, and additional consent from parents or guardians was not required.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

Conflicts of interest.

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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What does self presentation mean?

What are self presentation goals, individual differences and self presentation.

How can you make the most of the self presentation theory at work?  

We all want others to see us as confident, competent, and likeable — even if we don’t necessarily feel that way all the time. In fact, we make dozens of decisions every day — whether consciously or unconsciously — to get people to see us as we want to be seen. But is this kind of self presentation dishonest? Shouldn’t we just be ourselves?

Success requires interacting with other people. We can’t control the other side of those interactions. But we can think about how the other person might see us and make choices about what we want to convey. 

Self presentation is any behavior or action made with the intention to influence or change how other people see you. Anytime we're trying to get people to think of us a certain way, it's an act of self presentation. Generally speaking, we work to present ourselves as favorably as possible. What that means can vary depending on the situation and the other person.

Although at first glance this may seem disingenuous, we all engage in self-presentation. We want to make sure that we show up in a way that not only makes us look good, but makes us feel good about ourselves.

Early research on self presentation focused on narcissism and sociopathy, and how people might use the impression others have of them to manipulate others for their benefit. However, self presentation and manipulation are distinct. After all, managing the way others see us works for their benefit as well as ours.

Imagine, for example, a friend was complaining to you about   a tough time they were having at work . You may want to show up as a compassionate person. However, it also benefits your friend — they feel heard and able to express what is bothering them when you appear to be present, attentive, and considerate of their feelings. In this case, you’d be conscious of projecting a caring image, even if your mind was elsewhere, because you value the relationship and your friend’s experience.

To some extent, every aspect of our lives depends on successful self-presentation. We want our families to feel that we are worthy of attention and love. We present ourselves as studious and responsible to our teachers. We want to seem fun and interesting at a party, and confident at networking events. Even landing a job depends on you convincing the interviewer that you are the best person for the role.

There are three main reasons why people engage in self presentation:

Tangible or social benefits:

In order to achieve the results we want, it often requires that we behave a certain way. In other words, certain behaviors are desirable in certain situations. Matching our behavior to the circumstances can help us connect to others,   develop a sense of belonging , and attune to the needs and feelings of others.

Example:   Michelle is   a new manager . At her first leadership meeting, someone makes a joke that she doesn’t quite get. When everyone else laughs, she smiles, even though she’s not sure why.

By laughing along with the joke, Michelle is trying to fit in and appear “in the know.” Perhaps more importantly, she avoids feeling (or at least appearing) left out, humorless, or revealing that she didn’t get it — which may hurt her confidence and how she interacts with the group in the future.

To facilitate social interaction:

As mentioned, certain circumstances and roles call for certain behaviors. Imagine a defense attorney. Do you think of them a certain way? Do you have expectations for what they do — or don’t — do? If you saw them frantically searching for their car keys, would you feel confident with them defending your case?

If the answer is no, then you have a good idea of why self presentation is critical to social functioning. We’re surprised when people don’t present themselves in a way that we feel is consistent with the demands of their role. Having an understanding of what is expected of you — whether at home, work, or in relationships — may help you succeed by inspiring confidence in others.

Example:   Christopher has always been called a “know-it-all.” He reads frequently and across a variety of topics, but gets nervous and tends to talk over people. When attending a networking event, he is uncharacteristically quiet. Even though he would love to speak up, he’s afraid of being seen as someone who “dominates” the conversation. 

Identity Construction:

It’s not enough for us to declare who we are or what we want to be — we have to take actions consistent with that identity. In many cases, we also have to get others to buy into this image of ourselves as well. Whether it’s a personality trait or a promotion, it can be said that we’re not who   we   think we are, but who others see.

Example:   Jordan is interested in moving to a client-facing role. However, in their last performance review, their manager commented that Jordan seemed “more comfortable working independently.” 

Declaring themselves a “people person” won’t make Jordan’s manager see them any differently. In order to gain their manager’s confidence, Jordan will have to show up as someone who can comfortably engage with clients and thrive in their new role.

We may also use self presentation to reinforce a desired identity for ourselves. If we want to accomplish something, make a change, or   learn a new skill , making it public is a powerful strategy. There's a reason why people who share their goals are more likely to be successful. The positive pressure can help us stay accountable to our commitments in a way that would be hard to accomplish alone.

Example:   Fatima wants to run a 5K. She’s signed up for a couple before, but her perfectionist tendencies lead her to skip race day because she feels she hasn’t trained enough. However, when her friend asks her to run a 5K with her, she shows up without a second thought.

In Fatima’s case, the positive pressure — along with the desire to serve a more important value (friendship) — makes showing up easy.

Because we spend so much time with other people (and our success largely depends on what they think of us), we all curate our appearance in one way or another. However, we don’t all desire to have people see us in the same way or to achieve the same goals. Our experiences and outcomes may vary based on a variety of factors.

One important factor is our level of self-monitoring when we interact with others. Some people are particularly concerned about creating a good impression, while others are uninterested. This can vary not only in individuals, but by circumstances.   A person may feel very confident at work , but nervous about making a good impression on a first date.

Another factor is self-consciousness — that is, how aware people are of themselves in a given circumstance. People that score high on scales of public self-consciousness are aware of how they come across socially. This tends to make it easier for them to align their behavior with the perception that they want others to have of them.

Finally, it's not enough to simply want other people to see you differently. In order to successfully change how other people perceive you, need to have three main skills: 

1. Perception and empathy

Successful self-presentation depends on being able to correctly perceive   how people are feeling , what's important to them, and which traits you need to project in order to achieve your intended outcomes.

2. Motivation

If we don’t have a compelling reason to change the perception that others have of us, we are not likely to try to change our behavior. Your desire for a particular outcome, whether it's social or material, creates a sense of urgency.

3.  A matching skill set

You’ve got to be able to walk the talk. Your actions will convince others more than anything you say. In other words, you have to provide evidence that you are the person you say you are. You may run into challenges if you're trying to portray yourself as skilled in an area where you actually lack experience.

How can you make the most of the self presentation theory at work?

At its heart, self presentation requires a high-level of self awareness and empathy. In order to make sure that we're showing up as our best in every circumstance — and with each person — we have to be aware of our own motivation as well as what would make the biggest difference to the person in front of us.

Here are 6 strategies to learn to make the most of the self-presentation theory in your career:

1. Get feedback from people around you

Ask a trusted friend or mentor to share what you can improve. Asking for feedback about specific experiences, like a recent project or presentation, will make their suggestions more relevant and easier to implement.

2. Study people who have been successful in your role

Look at how they interact with other people. How do you perceive them? Have they had to cultivate particular skills or ways of interacting with others that may not have come easily to them?

3. Be yourself

Look for areas where you naturally excel and stand out. If you feel comfortable, confident, and happy, you’ll have an easier time projecting that to others. It’s much harder to present yourself as confident when you’re uncomfortable.

4. Be aware that you may mess up

As you work to master new skills and ways of interacting with others,   keep asking for feedback . Talk to your manager, team, or a trusted friend about how you came across. If you sense that you’ve missed the mark, address it candidly. People will understand, and you’ll learn more quickly.

Try saying, “I hope that didn’t come across as _______. I want you to know that…”

5. Work with a coach

Coaches are skilled in interpersonal communication and committed to your success. Roleplay conversations to see how they land, and practice what you’ll say and do in upcoming encounters. Over time, a coach will also begin to know you well enough to notice patterns and suggest areas for improvement.

6. The identity is in the details

Don’t forget about the other aspects of your presentation. Take a moment to visualize yourself being the way that you want to be seen. Are there certain details that would make you feel more like that person? Getting organized, refreshing your wardrobe, rewriting your resume, and even cleaning your home office can all serve as powerful affirmations of your next-level self.

Self presentation is defined as the way we try to control how others see us, but it’s just as much about how we see ourselves. It is a skill to achieve a level of comfort with who we are   and   feel confident to choose how we self-present. Consciously working to make sure others get to see the very best of you is a wonderful way to develop into the person you want to be.

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Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Associate Learning Experience Designer

Impression management: Developing your self-presentation skills

How to make a presentation interactive and exciting, 6 presentation skills and how to improve them, what is self-preservation 5 skills for achieving it, how to give a good presentation that captivates any audience, how self-knowledge builds success: self-awareness in the workplace, 8 clever hooks for presentations (with tips), developing psychological flexibility, self-management skills for a messy world, similar articles, how self-compassion strengthens resilience, what is self-efficacy definition and 7 ways to improve it, what is self-awareness and how to develop it, how to not be nervous for a presentation — 13 tips that work (really), what i didn't know before working with a coach: the power of reflection, manage your energy, not your time: how to work smarter and faster, building resilience part 6: what is self-efficacy, why learning from failure is your key to success, stay connected with betterup, get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research..

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The Oxford Handbook of Social Influence

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The Oxford Handbook of Social Influence

13 Self-Presentation and Social Influence: Evidence for an Automatic Process

Purdue University, Department of Psychological Sciences

  • Published: 10 September 2015
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Self-presentation is a social influence tactic in which people engage in communicative efforts to influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others as related to the self-presenter. Despite theoretical arguments that such efforts comprise an automatic component, the majority of research continues to characterize self-presentation as primarily involving controlled and strategic efforts. This focus is theoretically challenging and empirically problematic; it fosters an exclusionary perspective, leading to a scarcity of research concerning automatic self-presentations. With the current chapter, we examine whether self-presentation involves an automatic cognitive mechanism in which such efforts spontaneously emerge, nonconsciously triggered by cues in the social environment.

In his classic work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life , Erving Goffman (1959) popularized the concept of self-presentation, describing social life as a series of behavioral performances that symbolically communicate information about the self to others. Since the publication of this seminal work, research on self-presentation has bourgeoned, emerging as a fundamental topic in social psychology, as well as numerous other disciplines ranging from communication to organizational behavior and management. The breadth of work ranges from examining “the targets of people’s self-presentation attempts to the levels of awareness at which self-presentation efforts may be enacted” ( DePaulo, 1992 , p. 204).

Although theorists frame self-presentation from slightly different theoretical perspectives, there is agreement that the overarching goal of self-presentation falls under the umbrella of social influence, in that people’s self-presentations are aimed at influencing how others perceive them and behave toward them. Leary and Kowalski (1990) succinctly capture this goal in their characterization of self-presentation as including “all behavioral attempts to create impressions in others’ minds” (p. 39). The reason why people self-present is built on their recognition that the impressions others hold of them have important influences on desired outcomes ranging across a variety of life domains. Conveying desired identity-images provides a framework for people’s social relationships, holds direct and indirect implications for the achievement of occupational and financial goals, and satisfies important intra- and interpersonal functions ( Leary, Allen, & Terry, 2011 ; Schlenker, 2003 ). In all, self-presentation is a social influence tactic in which people engage in efforts to influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of others as applied and related to the self-presenter.

There is abundant research examining various aspects of self-presentation; however, the literature remains replete with a number of entrenched misconceptions. One particularly persistent belief that continues to plague self-presentation research involves the implicit or explicit assumption that most if not all self-presentation involves conscious and deliberate efforts. The definitional words that researchers use to characterize self-presentation typically emphasize and focus on words like controlling, deliberate , and strategic . Self-presentation efforts are also frequently described as people trying to or attempting to influence the impression others form of them. Even Goffman (1959) defined self-presentation as a process in which people strategically control the inferences that others draw about them. We argue that the obvious face value of these types of words are heavily skewed toward controlled and deliberate efforts, and as such have exerted both an unbalanced and inaccurate influence on the resulting direction that most empirical research lines follow.

Although there has been a good deal of theoretical discussion focused on automatic self-presentation, there is a scarcity of empirical work, and the degree to which this work supports the viability of an automatic self-presentational component has not been fully vetted or reviewed. In this chapter, we focus on evaluating the hypothesis that the self-presentation process involves an automatic cognitive mechanism in which people spontaneously engage in automatic self-presentational efforts. We examine whether automatic self-presentations emerge of their own accord nonconsciously triggered by context cues, in the absence of direct instructional prompts. We also seek to actively draw attention to the dearth of empirical work examining automatic self-presentation; by doing so we hope to encourage researchers to more fully explore this vitally important feature of interpersonal behavior. To foreshadow our overall conclusion, although some evidence supports the general tenets of automatic self-presentation, it remains unclear empirically whether such efforts are truly emerging via a nonconscious mechanism. The key elements concerning such a mechanism relate primarily to the awareness (i.e., behavior is activated outside of conscious awareness) and involuntary (i.e., behavior is initiated by certain cues or prompts in the situation) features of automaticity as described by Bargh (1996) .

Our summary to date clearly begs the question: Why is construing self-presentation as primarily involving controlled and strategic actions, while giving short shrift to nonconscious efforts, necessarily a problem? To reiterate, self-presentations are typically described as involving controlled and deliberate actions that are grounded in the implicit or explicit belief that self-presentation includes only conscious efforts that are meant to explicitly influence others’ impressions. We argue that characterizing self-presentation as solely deliberate has the negative consequence of fostering an exclusionary research perspective, which results in severely limiting research attention to a narrower bandwidth of social situations. Such a narrow conceptual approach characterizes self-presentation as primarily occurring only in limited situations in which people are deliberately trying to control the conveyance of self-information to others. Put differently, if people are not consciously trying to communicate a desired image, it is simply assumed they are not engaging in self-presentation at all (see Schlenker, 2003 ).

These fundamental constraints shape and impact the theoretical and conceptual foundations of most self-presentation research. The majority of paradigms explicitly and directly provide participants with self-presentational instructions, narrowly focusing empirical attention on controlled and deliberate self-presentational efforts. Participants are instructed to consciously think about the particular impression they are trying to convey, and of importance, the impression per se becomes the focal goal, rather than framing the presented identity as a means to achieve another type of valued goal ( Leary et al., 2011 ).

Emphasizing that self-presentations comprise only controlled and strategic efforts also further promotes one of the most widespread misconceptions about self-presentation, which holds that such efforts are inherently false, manipulative, and duplicitous. Although certainly self-presentations can involve deception, for the most part, people’s efforts reflect an accurate, if slightly embellished portrayal of themselves ( Back et al., 2010 ; Leary & Allen, 2011 ; Wilson, Gosling, & Graham, 2012 ).

Our summary is not meant to suggest that examining controlled self-presentations has been an unproductive strategy; such approaches have generated useful and valuable findings concerning basic self-presentational processes. Nonetheless, we argue that adopting a limited conceptualization of self-presentation as primarily involving controlled efforts results in an artificially narrow empirical framework. This serves to restrict the field of inquiry to arguably only a small and specific slice of self-presentation behavior, while relatively ignoring the broader automatic component ( Leary et al., 2011 ; Schlenker, 2003 ). Focusing on the strategically controlled aspects of self-presentation has left a lingering theoretical residual, resulting in forceful, but misguided assumptions that continue to reinforce and propagate the common misperception that all, or at least most of self-presentation involves conscious and deliberate efforts.

However, like most other social behaviors, self-presentation has also been characterized in theoretical terms as comprising dual processes involving conscious and nonconscious behaviors (e.g., Leary & Kowalski, 1990 ; Paulhus, 1993 ; Schlenker, 2003 ). In that spirit, theorists argue that self-presentations more often occur in an automatic rather than controlled fashion, and that the intentions underlying the initiation of such efforts do not necessarily have to be conscious. For instance, Paulhus (1993) suggests an automatic path for self-presentation that focuses on people’s tendency to communicate overly positive self-descriptions; Hogan (1983) proposed that self-presentational efforts often involve automatic and modularized behavior, unfolding in a nonconscious fashion; Baumeister (1982) posited that the intention behind self-presentation need not be conscious; while Leary and Kowalski (1990) suggest that people nonconsciously monitor others’ impressions of them and engage in automatic self-presentation when impression-relevant cues are detected.

Schlenker (2003) also proposed that context cues guide self-presentations outside of conscious awareness and trigger interpersonal goals, behavior, and motivation, and once activated, these nonconscious efforts continue until the desired goal or outcome is achieved. Schlenker goes on to argue that many self-presentations are characteristic of goal-dependent forms of automatic behavior. Evidence concerning social behavior, in general, shows that “goal pursuit can arise from mental processes put into motion by features of the social environment outside of conscious awareness … with the assumption that goals are represented in mental structures that include the context, the goal, and the actions to aid goal pursuit, and thus goals can be triggered automatically by relevant environmental stimuli” ( Custers & Aarts, 2005 , p. 129). The goal activation sequence and the operations to obtain a particular goal can unfold in the absence of a person’s intention or awareness.

In much the same manner, self-presentations can be conceptualized as being nonconsciously activated by features of the social environment ( Schlenker, 2003 ). This suggests that self-presentations comprise cognitive structures that include the context, the goal, and the actions to achieve the goal, and like other social behaviors, these efforts can be automatically triggered by environmental stimuli. People strive to achieve a self-presentation goal, although they are often not aware that such efforts have been activated. As a result, they do not characterize their behavior as self-presentation, in that they do not view themselves as self-consciously and purposefully trying to achieve impression-oriented goals. A key element underscoring automatic self-presentations is the assertion that such efforts comprise “behaviors that consist of modulated, habit-formed patterns of action” or consist of “an individual’s most well-practiced set of self-attributes” ( Paulhus, 1993 , p. 576; Schlenker & Pontari, 2000 , p. 205). Characterizing automatic self-presentations as habitual patterns of behavior finds broad conceptual support from the more general theorizing on habitual responding. For example, theorists’ perspective concerning the relationship between context-cueing and self-presentational efforts dovetails nicely with the general framework of habit performance as outlined in Wood and Neal’s (2007) habit model. We will highlight conceptual areas of relevance where appropriate, focusing attention on propositions drawn from Wood and Neal’s model. In summary, theorists argue that self-presentations can unfold in an automatic or habitual manner via a context-cueing process; these efforts are guided outside of conscious awareness when interpersonal goals, behavior, and motivation are automatically triggered by context cues in the social environment. Once activated, people’s self-presentations persist until the desired goal is achieved.

Our goal, in the sections to follow, is to examine the degree to which relevant literature supports the proposition of an automatic self-presentational process (for more controlled aspects, see Schlenker, Britt, & Pennington, 1996 ; Schlenker, & Pontari, 2000 ). Before delving into the empirical evidence, we first briefly outline one theoretical perspective—the self-identification theory—that provides a succinct and integrative framework to conceptualize and illustrate the processes and mechanisms thought to be involved in automatic self-presentation (Schlenker, 1985 , 2003 ). Although there are other automatic self-presentation models (e.g., Paulhus, 1993 ), the self-identification theory is arguably the most comprehensive one; areas of overlap with other approaches will be noted where appropriate.

Self-Identification Theory

Self-identification theory characterizes self-presentation as a common and pervasive feature of social life in which self-identification is broadly described as the process with which people attempt to demonstrate that they are a particular type of person. More formally, self-presentation is defined as a “goal-directed activity in which people communicate identity-images for themselves with audiences by behaving in ways that convey certain roles and personal qualities. They do so in order to influence the impressions that others form of them” ( Schlenker, 2003 , p. 492). The communication of identity-images provides a framework for people’s relationships, holds direct and indirect implications for the outcomes and goals that people receive, and satisfies valued intra- and interpersonal functions. Self-identification theory posits that communicating specific identity-images, via self-presentation, is a key aspect of interpersonal interactions.

Identity-images are desirable in that they typically embody what people would like to be within the parameters of their abilities, appearance, and history. These images often involve beneficial self-identifications that are structured to serve a person’s interpersonal goals ( Schlenker, 2003 ). In the parlance of self-identification theory the combination of a desired identity-image and a corresponding behavioral script is defined as an agenda , which is activated by context cues in the social environment ( Schlenker, 2003 ).

Although people are frequently motivated to achieve multiple agendas, the limits of cognitive capacity minimize the number of agendas that can simultaneously occupy the foreground of attention ( Paulhus, 1993 ). Some agendas necessarily receive greater attention, effort, and monitoring than others, with those considered more relevant operating in the foreground and those of less concern unfolding in the background. Imagine a computer running numerous programs—some open, contents displayed and attentively monitored and examined, whereas others are minimized, operating behind the scenes, working on tasks but not distracting the operator unless a reason or purpose to check them arises (this metaphor is borrowed from Schlenker & Pontari, 2000 ). In a similar fashion, agendas focusing on self-presentation concerns, involving the goal of communicating a particular impression to an audience, can be more or less in the foreground of conscious awareness. This leads us directly to an overview of background-automatic and foreground-controlled modes of self-presentation as described in the self-identification theory.

Foreground Self-Presentation

Self-presentation agendas that operate in the foreground are characterized as involving consciously controlled attention, with people exerting significant cognitive resources to plan and implement their behaviors. Such efforts consume cognitive attention by requiring people to first access self-information, after doing so they must synthesize and integrate the information in a manner relevant to an interaction and prepare it for expression; people make judgments about what to say and about how to communicate it to others. In doing so, people stay more alert and aware, consciously scanning and monitoring the environment to assess their behaviors and audience reactions. They engage in these efforts, in part, to accomplish the goal of communicating desired identity-images. Foreground self-presentations represent those occasions that people are most likely to report being on stage and consciously concerned with the impression they project to others ( Schlenker, 2003 ).

The antecedent conditions that direct self-presentation agendas to operate in the foreground involve broad features of the situation, the audience, and people’s interaction goals. People more thoroughly process a social situation when they perceive that the situation is important, in that their performance bears on their desired identity; involves positive or negative outcomes; or is relevant to valued role expectations. The motivation to process a situation is also more likely to increase when people expect or encounter a potential impediment (e.g., critical audience) to achieving their desired self-presentation goals ( Schlenker et al., 1996 ). This outline of foreground self-presentations is consistent with Paulhus’s (1993) description of controlled self-presentations; he posits that such efforts require attentional resources to consider one’s desired self-presentation goal and the target audience, prior to the delivery of any particular self-description. In summary, self-presentation agendas become salient, moving from the background to the foreground when the context is perceived as important or when obstacles impede the successful communication of a desired identity-image ( Schlenker et al., 1994 ).

Background Self-Presentation

In contrast and key to the current chapter, self-presentation agendas that operate in the background are conceptualized as automatically guided by goal-directed behavior, operating with minimal conscious cognitive attention or effort. This representation is akin to Bargh’s (1996) proposition that “automatic processes can be intentional; well-learned social scripts and social action sequences can be guided by intended, goal-dependent automaticity,” which refers to an autonomous process that requires the intention that an action occur, but requires no conscious guidance once the action begins to operate (p. 174). Like Bargh, Schlenker (2003) argues that self-presentations with familiar others, or those involving well-learned behavioral patterns and scripts, are characteristic of an intended, goal-dependent form of automaticity. Here, self-presentations involve an automatic process in which cues in the social milieu direct self-presentations in the absence of conscious awareness and trigger interpersonal goals, behavior, and motivation. Once activated, these efforts are maintained until the desired goal or outcome is achieved ( Paulhus, Graf, & Van Selst, 1989 ; Schlenker, 2003 ).

Theorists propose that background self-presentation agendas are automatically activated based on overlearned responses to social contingencies. This description is similar to Paulhus’s (1993) idea that automatic self-presentation is a residual of overlearned situationally specific self-presentations. These overlearned responses include scripts that provide an efficient and nonconscious guidance system to construct a desired identity-image. Context-contingent cues (e.g., audience) converge in the background to trigger automatic self-presentation agendas. People are often not aware that these efforts have been activated and, as a result, do not characterize their communications or behavior as self-presentation, in that they do not view themselves as self-consciously and effortfully attempting to achieve impression-oriented goals ( Schlenker et al., 1996 ).

While background self-presentation agendas unfold, people nonconsciously monitor their behavior and the audience’s responses to ensure a proper construal of a desired impression. For these automatic efforts to be overridden by conscious, controlled processing, at least two requirements need to occur. First, people must be motivated to think or act differently than what occurs automatically, and second, they must have the cognitive resources to support the flexible, relatively unusual sequence of actions ( Schlenker, 2003 ). If a deviation from a social script or an impediment is detected, the agenda can pop into the foreground. As a result, attention is drawn to conscious awareness to correct the misimpression and to achieve one’s self-presentation goals, shifting self-presentation agendas from a background to a foreground mode of operation. This attention-drawing process is akin to Paulhus’s (1993) automatic self-presentation model, where affect regulates that attention is directed toward any glitch in an activity that is currently unfolding via an automatic process.

Characterizing automatic self-presentation as habit-like is also consistent with theoretical descriptions of habits in general, as outlined in Wood and Neal’s (2007) habit model. They argue that the “automaticity underlying habits builds on patterns of repeated covariation between the features of performance contexts and responses—that is, habits are defined as learned dispositions to repeat past responses” (Wood & Neal, p. 843). Once the habitual response is created, it can be triggered when an individual perceives relevant cues that are embedded in the performance context. Even though habits are not necessarily mediated by a goal, they can also advance the original goal that first impelled people to repetitively perform the context-response, which in effect resulted in the formation of the habit ( Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 2000 ; Verplanken & Aarts, 1999 ). Habits and goals interface, in that habit associations are initially formed under the guidance of goals: “goals direct control of responses prior to habit formation, and thus define the cuing contexts under which a response is repeated into a habit” (p. 851). Theorists posit that self-presentations can become so well practiced that they operate like mindless habits that are triggered nonconsciously by environmental cues and unfold in an automatic fashion, similar to the operational processes associated with habit responding as described by Wood and Neal.

Having outlined the theoretical foundation for automatic self-presentations, we now examine research germane to the key question underscoring the current chapter: Do automatic self-presentations emerge of their own accord nonconsciously triggered by context cues, in the absence of direct instructional prompts? Following a review of this evidence, we provide discussion and critical assessment.

Evidence for Automatic Self-Presentation

Although the self-presentation literature includes a voluminous number of studies, the vast majority does not include measurements or manipulations that can be interpreted as depicting automatic self-presentation. Rather, previous work primarily centered on identifying self-presentation strategies, discerning when self-presentation will or will not occur, and determining whether such efforts communicate self-beliefs accurately or in a self-serving manner, promote self-consistency or maximize self-esteem, or depict self-enhancement or self-protective purposes (see Schlenker et al., 1996 ). There are a number of studies, however, that either directly involve the manipulation of self-presentational automaticity or focus attention on self-presentation behaviors that can be viewed as unfolding via an automatic process. Review of these studies will be divided into sections; the first four relate to the availability of cognitive resources during self-presentation and its effect on recall, self-presentation effectiveness, reaction times , and self-description , followed by sections focused on the availability of self-regulatory resources during self-presentations and the implicit activation of self-presentational efforts.

The first four sections examine the cognitive effects of automatic self-presentation, beginning with the general concept that there is a limit to people’s cognitive resources, and effectively attending to simultaneous activities that require cognitive effort is difficult ( Bargh, 1996 ). These limitations in cognitive capacity enable researchers to use empirical methods to investigate the differences between automatic and controlled self-presentations. Introducing a second, cognitively effortful activity generates nominal interference with a concurrent task if a process is automatic; however, this second task significantly interrupts the ongoing efforts if the process is controlled.

The Availability of Cognitive Resources during Self-Presentation and Its Effect on Recall

Given the proposition that automaticity consumes minimal cognitive resources, it follows that people should be able to more efficiently process information when delivering automatic self-presentations. To override these automatic efforts, however, more controlled self-presentations require an increase in cognitive resources ( Schlenker, 2003 ). As a result, controlled rather than automatic self-presentations may disrupt the processing of information ( Schlenker, 1986 ). To demonstrate empirically the presence of automatic self-presentations, the studies in this first section focus on the differential effects of automatic and controlled self-presentations on subsequent recall.

It is important to preface the studies that address this issue by emphasizing that Western norms typically favor positive self-presentations (e.g., Schlenker, 1980 ; see also Baumeister & Jones, 1978 ; Jones & Wortman, 1973 ). People are far more practiced at conveying a self-promoting identity-image (i.e., automatic self-presentation) rather than a self-depreciating one (i.e., controlled self-presentation). Self-promotion efforts would be expected to leave more cognitive resources available to process information and ultimately should have less negative impact on recall. However, engaging in self-deprecation—a controlled self-presentation—should remove the automaticity of self-presentation, increasing the demand for cognitive resources. These expectations found support across a series of studies in which participants displayed significantly better recall of interaction details when their social interaction comprised automatic compared to controlled self-presentations ( Baumeister, Hutton, & Tice, 1989 ).

Evidence also indicates that a key determinant of people’s self-presentations is whether an interaction involves strangers or friends ( Tice, Butler, Muraven, & Stillwell, 1995 ). From this work we know that certain constraints and contingencies position the communication of a favorable image as the optimal way to self-present to strangers, whereas a more modest identity approach prevails among friends. If these self-presentation patterns are habitually used, they should be relatively automatic, requiring minimal cognitive resources for encoding, leading to more accurate recall. Violation of these patterns, however, should trigger controlled self-presentations, requiring more cognitive resources, consequently impairing accurate recall. Like Baumeister et al., (1989) , this work also shows that when participants engaged in automatic self-presentations— they interacted with a stranger in a self-promoting manner or with a friend in a modest manner —their recall of interaction details was significantly better compared to when they engaged in controlled self-presentations— they interacted with a stranger in a modest fashion or with a friend in a self-promoting manner . Follow-up studies replicated these results and additionally demonstrated that even when recalling a stranger’s behavior people made fewer recall errors when engaged in automatic self-presentations rather than controlled ones ( Tice et al., 1995 ).

The Availability of Cognitive Resources during Self-Presentation and Its Effect on Self-Presentational Effectiveness

The studies in the prior section demonstrate that the automatic-controlled self-presentation process involves the availability of cognitive resources and, in part, familiarity with the self-presentational context. Automatic self-presentations are characterized by familiar and habitual self-presentations, which require minimal cognitive resources. It follows that under low cognitive demand people should be able to engage effectively in the self-presentation of familiar identity-images but also unfamiliar ones as well. In contrast, controlled self-presentations are characterized by unfamiliar and atypical self-presentations, which require increased cognitive resources. It can then be reasoned that under high cognitive demand people’s capacity to engage effectively in the self-presentation of unfamiliar identity-images will be negatively impacted, whereas the effectiveness of self-presenting a familiar identity-image should not suffer. To demonstrate an automatic self-presentation process, the studies in the second section focus on the effect that automatic and controlled self-presentations have on people’s self-presentational effectiveness.

In this first set of studies, Pontari and Schlenker (2000) interviewed extraverted and introverted individuals under low- or high-cognitive load conditions. As part of the instructions, these individuals were told to convey either an extraverted or introverted identity-image to the interviewer. It was thought that participants who enacted congruent self-presentations, for example, an extravert acting as an extravert, were acting consistently with their self-schemata. They delivered familiar and relatively automatic self-presentations, requiring minimal cognitive resources. In contrast, those who enacted incongruent self-presentations, for example, an extravert acting as an introvert, were acting inconsistently with their self-schemata. They delivered unfamiliar and relatively controlled self-presentations, requiring an increase in cognitive resources.

The results from these studies indicated that for extraverts and introverts alike, the self-presentation of congruent and familiar identities was successfully achieved in both the high- and low-cognitive-load conditions. Extraverts were also successful at self-presenting incongruent identities when they had sufficient cognitive resources available, that is, in the low-cognitive-load condition. However, extraverts were unable to successfully self-present incongruent and unfamiliar identities when they lacked the requisite cognitive resources, that is, in the high-cognitive-load condition. By comparison, an unexpected finding showed that introverts were successful at self-presenting incongruent and unfamiliar identities even when they lacked available cognitive resources. Pontari and Schlenker (2000) posited that the increased cognitive load interrupted introverts’ dysfunctional thoughts, which would have otherwise interfered with their capacity to engage effectively in controlled self-presentations. The additional mental tasks in the high-cognitive-load condition may have shifted introverts’ attention from negative self-ruminations to more dispassionate thoughts. This shift in attention may have allowed introverts to successfully enact a social performance that was relatively incongruent with their automatic pattern of self-presentational responses.

The Availability of Cognitive Resources during Self-Presentation and Its Effect on Reaction Times

A set of studies consistent with Pontari and Schlenker’s (2000) notion of self-presentations as congruent or incongruent with self-schema were carried out by Holden and colleagues ( 1992 , 2001 ). These studies focused on reaction times rather than self-presentational effectiveness to demonstrate automatic and controlled self-presentation processes. Participants were instructed to respond quickly to self-descriptive personality items in a manner that would make them appear either very well adjusted or not well adjusted. When participants made responses that were incongruent with a self-schema—conveying a favorable impression via socially undesirable items or an unfavorable impression via socially desirable items—their reaction times were slower. When they made responses that were congruent with a self-schema—conveying a favorable impression via socially desirable items or an unfavorable impression via socially undesirable items—their reaction times were faster.

These findings show that responding in a manner incongruent with a self-schema requires the availability of cognitive resources, whereas responding in a congruent manner consumes minimal cognitive resources and attention. The data also support the presence of a cognitive mechanism that is fast and efficient, and a cognitive override mechanism that is slower and intentional, which they suggest are consistent with the processes described in Paulhus’s (1993) automatic and controlled self-presentation model ( Holden, Wood, & Tomashewski, 2001 ). In Paulhus’s work, “automatic processes are those that are so well rehearsed that they are fast, oriented toward positive self-presentations, and operate without attention, whereas controlled processes are much slower and require increased attention” ( Holden et al., 2001 , p. 167).

The Availability of Cognitive Resources during Self-Presentations and Its Effect on Self-Descriptions

Other programs of research (e.g., Paulhus & Levitt, 1987 ) also posit that controlled self-presentations occur when attentional capacity is available, whereas automatic self-presentations emerge when attentional capacity is relatively limited. Controlled self-presentations are thought to involve conscious self-descriptions that are adjusted to fit situational demands with such efforts requiring available cognitive resources and attentional capacity. Automatic self-presentations, in contrast, are posited to involve nonconscious default responses that are characterized by the communication of overly positive self-descriptions. These efforts require minimal cognitive attention and resources, primarily because they consist of well-practiced and chronically activated self-descriptions ( Paulhus, 1993 ).

To examine these ideas, a series of studies were conducted in which participants provided self-descriptive ratings on positive, negative, or neutral traits while in a high- or low-cognitive-load condition ( Paulhus, 1993 ; Paulhus et al., 1989 ; Paulhus & Levitt, 1987 ). Results showed that participants in the high-cognitive-load condition endorsed more positive than negative traits. They were also significantly faster at both endorsing positive and denying negative traits when their resources and attention were focused on other tasks. Put differently, when cognitive attention was diverted, only a default set of positive self-descriptions was left available for automatic self-presentations. Paulhus (1993) concluded that increasing cognitive demands can trigger automatic self-presentations in which people are more likely and quicker to claim positive traits and deny negative ones.

In a similar fashion, cognitive capacity is also required for honest trait responding—it takes attentional resources to scan one’s memory for accurate responses. If cognitive demands are increased, attention is diverted and honest trait responding can be disrupted. But the subsequent responses are not random; they are systematically more positive and emerge from the positive automatic self. Evidence from a number of studies shows that participants instructed to engage in controlled self-presentations produced more positive self-descriptions in a high- compared to low-cognitive-load condition (e.g., Paulhus & Murphy, unpublished data ). These findings support the assertion that automatic self-presentations are activated when controlled self-presentations are disrupted by an increase in cognitive demands.

To examine this idea further, a second study experimentally created automatic self-presentation patterns and then tested whether these patterns reappeared under cognitive load ( Paulhus, Bruce, & Stoffer, 1990 ). To induce a new automatic-self, participants practiced communicating overly positive self-descriptions, negative self-descriptions, or honest self-descriptions by repeatedly responding to a set of 12 traits. Subsequently, participants were told to forget what they did during this practice phase and to instead respond honestly to the 12 traits (i.e., controlled self-presentation). During a first test, participants were given as much time as they wanted to respond, a low-cognitive-load condition, whereas in a second test they were told to answer as fast as possible, a high-cognitive-load condition. Results showed that the automatization effects that were created in the initial practice phase emerged in the high-cognitive-load condition but not in the low-cognitive-load condition. When controlled self-presentations were disrupted, automatic self-presentations appeared, as evidenced by the automatic self emerging only during the high-cognitive-load condition.

Another line of evidence also shows that people positively bias their descriptions of self-associated stimuli, and they do so without conscious awareness ( Koole, Dijksterhuis, & van Knippenberg, 2001 ). Theorists posit that early self-descriptions shape later self-descriptions by structuring self-relevant cognitions and behavior into working models, which can be nonconsciously activated ( Mikulincer, 1995 ). These models are conceptualized as an integral part of automatic self-presentations, typifying people’s most well-practiced and chronically activated self-descriptions ( Paulhus, 1993 ). When encountering self-associated stimuli, people’s positively biased self-descriptions can be automatically triggered and, as such, can be characterized as automatic self-presentations. If people lack available cognitive capacity, their self-descriptions of self-associated stimuli may reflect implicit and automatic efforts, whereas, if sufficient cognitive resources are available, self-descriptions may reflect more explicit and controlled efforts ( Koole et al., 2001 ).

These ideas were tested in two studies by examining the relationship between implicit self-positivity and explicit self-descriptions. Implicit self-positivity was measured by the name-letter bias ( Kitayama & Karasawa, 1997 ) and explicit self-description by participants’ self-ratings on positive, negative, or neutral trait words ( Paulhus & Levitt, 1987 ). With respect to the explicit measure, quickly delivered self-descriptions were characterized as automatic self-presentations, and slowly delivered self-descriptions were characterized as controlled self-presentations, primarily because automatic processing requires less time than controlled processing. It was expected and found that implicit self-positivity only matched the explicit self-descriptions when the trait self-ratings were quickly delivered but not when they were slowly delivered.

A second study mirrored the results of the first by manipulating the availability of cognitive resources rather than the delivery speed of explicit self-descriptions. Specifically, participants under a high cognitive load (vs. low cognitive load) displayed greater congruence between implicit and explicit self-descriptions. When cognitive resources were limited, it increased the self-positivity of explicit self-descriptions, in that the congruence between implicit and explicit self-descriptions only increased when controlled efforts were undermined, that is, in the high-cognitive-demand condition. But when participants were in a situation in which they possessed sufficient cognitive resources, their explicit and implicit self-descriptions did not match. When responding explicitly, participants presumably were aware of the self-presentation implications of responding in an overly positive manner and, as such, managed their responses accordingly. Their responses were far less positive when they were explicitly versus implicitly measured. In contrast, when participants lacked sufficient cognitive resources, they presumably were unable to consciously control the delivery of their explicit self-descriptions, which essentially then became automatic self-presentations. As result, their implicit and explicit self-descriptions were congruent in the high-cognitive-load condition; both showed positively biased self-descriptions, which is characteristic of automatic self-presentations.

Related studies also examined whether the automatic self-descriptions that underlie the self-positivity bias can be inhibited by consciously controlled efforts ( Koole et al., 2001 ). Here, participants were instructed to judge self-associated stimuli while focusing on either cognitive reasoning , which was thought to require more controlled efforts, or feeling , which was thought to require less controlled efforts. If greater preference for self-associated stimuli results from automatic self-presentation, a positive bias for such stimuli should increase when the focus is on feelings, an automatic response, compared to deliberate reasoning, a controlled response. In line with this reasoning, participants delivered more positively biased judgments for self-associated stimuli when they were focused on feelings rather than reasoning. This suggests that controlled efforts inhibit the emergence of automatic self-presentations. Participants also reported no awareness that they were displaying a positivity bias toward self-associated stimuli. In all, implicit self-positivity responses, based on overlearned self-descriptions, may be representative of automatic self-presentations.

The Availability of Self-Regulatory Resources during Self-Presentations

The first four sections focused on studies that essentially involved either low or high cognitive demands as a means to demonstrate, respectively, automatic or controlled self-presentations. We now turn to a set of studies that addressed the relationship between self-presentation and the consumption of self-regulatory resources ( Vohs, Baumeister, & Ciarocco, 2005 ). The logic underlying this relationship basically mimics the argument underscoring how the availability of cognitive resources impacts the degree to which self-presentations emerge via automatic or controlled efforts. When people engage in unfamiliar patterns of self-presentation, it requires increased self-regulatory efforts to override their habitual responses and to effortfully control their behavior. Carrying out “these effortful self-presentations drain[s]‌ more self-regulatory resources compared with presenting oneself in a standard, familiar, or habitual manner of self-presentation” ( Vohs et al., 2005 , p. 634). In four studies that examined this idea, participants were instructed to present themselves in a manner that was based either on familiar/habitual and less effortful patterns of self-presentations or on patterns that were unfamiliar/atypical, which called for more deliberate and thoughtful efforts.

The results across all four studies consistently demonstrated that engaging in habitual self-presentations demanded less regulatory efforts than carrying out an atypical or unfamiliar self-presentation, which required an increase in regulatory efforts, and subsequently depleted the self’s resources. As with cognitive demands, these findings suggest that automatic self-presentations emerge when the situation is perceived as more familiar and routine, and hence does not require exerting an increase in regulatory efforts. In contrast, more effortful and controlled self-presentations emerge when the situation calls for patterns of responding that are not typical or habitual, thus requiring more regulatory resources to be consumed. The results from these studies are consistent with the cognitive demand studies in the previous sections, again demonstrating that self-presentational efforts can assume different forms, and that conveying an image that is in conflict with one’s typical, habitual response patterns consumes greater regulatory resources than responses that follow one’s familiar self-presentational patterns. Automatic self-presentations require less regulatory resources than controlled self-presentations, which is theoretically consistent with the broad sentiment of the first four sections.

Cued Activation of Automatic Self-Presentation and Its Effect on Self-Description

For the most part, automatic self-presentations involve the conveyance of relatively favorable identity-images. Paulhus (1993) describes these efforts as “consisting of the individual’s most well-practiced, and hence, most chronically activated set of self-attributes,” which he posits are typically positive due to a lifetime of practice (p. 576). He argues that there are copious sources that underlie the widespread prevalence of the positivity that follows from a lifetime of practice. From childhood, people actively learn that they should provide more positively oriented self-descriptions and explanations for their social behavior. These ideas fit well with Schlenker’s (2003) description of background self-presentation agendas, which involve the construction of desired images of the self and are based on overlearned and habitual responses to social contingencies.

It is also important to note that although the majority of peoples’ automatic self-presentations are indeed characterized by positive self-representations, they are not necessarily restricted to just positive images. Certainly not all early life lessons and habits will reflect or result in only positive representations of the self. Some context cues can serve to trigger habit-molded patterns of behaviors that result in the conveyance of a less than favorable image of the self.

These automatic instances of less favorable images emerge from “people’s repertoire of relational schemas, or cognitive structures representing regularities in patterns of interpersonal relatedness involving a range of common interpersonal orientations: from expecting that another person will be consistently accepting, for example, to expecting that others will be evaluative or judgmental” ( Baldwin, 1992 , p. 209). Theorists propose that these relationships become internalized, in part, via the development of relation-oriented schemas. These schemas are thought to represent patterns of interpersonal behavior, consisting of interaction scripts including schemas for self and other as experienced within that interaction, which also include inference processes for communicating self-descriptions ( Baldwin, 1992 ). Researchers suggest, for example, that an individual can anticipate a negative evaluation because negative memories and knowledge structures have become activated, which influences how one anticipates and interprets a forthcoming or ongoing social interaction ( Baldwin & Main, 2001 ).

Theoretically any cue that has become linked with a particular interpersonal experience can trigger relational constructs and knowledge, and as such it can impact one’s current behavior ( Baldwin & Main, 2001 ). It is plausible that these cued activation procedures could impact automatic self-presentations, in that such efforts may involve more positive self-descriptions if the activated relational knowledge is associated with acceptance/favorability, and more negative self-descriptions if associated with rejection/unfavorability.

In a series of studies, researchers examined the idea that cued knowledge activation may differentially impact interpersonal behavior depending on the context of the activated relational schema. Although the direct intent of these studies was not focused on automatic self-presentations, the results, involving participants’ self-descriptions, can be construed as such ( Baldwin & Main, 2001 ). At the outset of these studies, participants underwent a conditioning procedure that surreptitiously paired expectations of acceptance and rejection with distinct aural tones ( Baldwin & Meunier, 1999 ). These conditioned tones were later used to nonconsciously activate the knowledge structures associated with acceptance and rejection. Specifically, during an interpersonal interaction one of the two tones from the conditioning procedure was repeatedly emitted from a computer terminal. The results indicated that participants communicated more positive self-descriptions in the acceptance compared to rejection condition and, conversely, more negative self-descriptions in the rejection versus acceptance condition. The conditioned tones to cue acceptance or rejection may have nonconsciously triggered automatic self-presentations, even to the degree that some of these efforts resulted in negative self-descriptions (see Swann, 1983 ).

In a similar fashion, other studies have examined the implicit motivational effects that significant others can have on automatic self-presentations (e.g., Shah, 2003 ). This research suggests that people’s self-representations incorporate the goals, values, and expectations that close others hold for them, and that the cued activation of these internal representations automatically influences people’s behavior via the other’s association to a variety of interpersonal goals ( Moretti & Higgins, 1999 ). The implicit effect of close others may extend to goal-directed behavior in which others influence people’s interpersonal behavior during ongoing social interactions. In other words, the implicit influence of significant others may serve to trigger automatic self-presentations.

To examine this idea, researchers covertly acquired the names of significant others, either an accepting or a critical other’s name ( Baldwin, 1994 ; Shah, 2003 ). These names were used at a later point to prime subliminally participants’ interpersonal goals. Following the priming manipulation, participants completed an ego-threatening task, after which they completed self-descriptive questionnaires. The results indicated that participant’s self-descriptions were influenced by the critical and accepting others’ name, even though detailed manipulation checks showed that participants were not consciously aware of name exposure. When a critical other’s name was primed, self-descriptions were more negative; when an accepting other’s name was primed, self-descriptions were more positive. These findings suggest that self-descriptions were nonconsciously influenced by the cued activation of relational schemas that were associated with the accepting or critical other. Subliminally reminding people, for example, of a negative, demanding or positive, friendly other may automatically trigger a be friendly or be aggressive goal, as well as the corresponding self-presentation behavior associated with the activated relational schema.

Consistent with the idea of cued activation, Tyler (2012) utilized priming procedures across a set of three studies to assess directly the automatic nature of self-presentational efforts. In the first two studies, participants were primed with words associated with impression-oriented people or with a set of neutral words; the second study also included a condition in which participants received explicit self-presentation instructions to present themselves favorably. In the first study, the self-presentation measure involved participants answering a series of self-descriptive questions put forth by the experimenter. With the second study, each participant engaged in an unscripted conversation with a confederate, which was videotaped and later coded for how favorable the participants described themselves. The results across both studies revealed that participants in the impression condition self-presented a more favorable image compared to participants in the neutral condition. The results from the second study also showed that participants’ self-presentations in the explicit condition mimicked the favorability of participants’ self-presentations in the impression prime condition. Put differently, participants’ automatic self-presentations were very similar to their efforts when they were explicitly instructed to self-present a favorable persona. The third study was grounded on the idea that the participating audience one is interacting with might serve as a nonconscious self-presentation cue. Here, participants were primed with words associated with friends or strangers. Following the priming procedure, participants were instructed to write a self-description, which was later coded with regard to how favorable participants described themselves. Analysis in the friend prime condition showed that participants self-presented a more modest image, whereas in the stranger prime condition participants self-presented a more self-enhancing image. Taken together, the findings across these studies provide compelling support for the proposition that people’s self-presentations can be primed by environmental cues outside of their conscious awareness.

Critical Assessment and Discussion

The driving logic underlying the proposal of an automatic self-presentational process is the same across all review sections, allowing for a straightforward interpretation of the findings. Recall that the goal of the current chapter is focused on determining if automatic self-presentations emerge of their own accord, triggered outside of conscious awareness by context cues in the absence of direct self-presentational instructions.

Automatic Self-Presentations and Context Cues

According to a number of influential models (e.g., Leary & Kowalski, 1990 ; Paulhus, 1993 ; Schlenker, 1985 , 2003 ), automatic self-presentations are predicated on habitual and routine response patterns that include scripts, overlearned responses, and well-practiced sets of self-attributes. For instance, Paulhus (1993) suggests “the default self-presentation, the automatic self, has it origins in a lifetime of self-presentation practice” (p. 580). Even more directly, Schlenker ( 1985 , 2003 ) posits:

Automatic self-presentations reflect modulated units of action that eventually “settle in” to become habits. These habitual patterns of behavior form self-presentation scripts that are triggered automatically by context cues and guide action unthinkingly, in relevant situations. Such scripts provide a rich store of knowledge and experience (i.e., relational knowledge), which can be automatically accessed to quickly and effectively communicate desired identity-images. When a script is triggered consciously or unconsciously by context cues, it provides a definition of the situation being encountered, a set of expectations about events, and a set of operations for thoughts and behaviors in the situation. (pp. 76, 495)

A common thread among these models underscores the notion that habitual self-presentation patterns are triggered by context cues and people are not consciously aware that their efforts are influenced by such cues. Although the exact nature of context cues varies from occasion to occasion, in general, “the situation or audience itself cues associated information about the self, social roles, and social expectations in memory and makes salient the context-contingencies between particular self-presentations and relevant outcomes” ( Schlenker, 1986 , p. 35). This description accentuates the context-contingent nature of the cues that can trigger automatic self-presentations and, as noted earlier, has a straightforward connection with Wood and Neal’s (2007) habit model, in that habits are characterized as learned dispositions to repeat past responses and are activated by context cues. In summary, theorists’ characterization of automatic self-presentations as habit responses, automatically triggered by context cues, unfolds in much the same fashion as Wood and Neal describe habit performances.

Describing automatic self-presentations as triggered by context cues is also consistent with the characterization of automatic processes as involuntary, such that people’s behavior is activated by prompts in the social environment ( Bargh, 1996 ). Schlenker and Pontari (2000) also argue that background self-presentations are guided by an intended, goal-dependent automatic process, characterized as “an autonomous process requiring the intention that it occur, and thus awareness that it is occurring, but no conscious guidance once put into operation” ( Bargh, 1996 , p. 174). Self-presentational efforts that emerge via an intended, goal-dependent automatic process comprise a well-learned, sequential set of actions that were previously associated with goal accomplishment. People are not consciously aware that context cues influence their social behavior; however, the goal-directed activity of structuring and maintaining a desired identity is nonetheless occurring. In summary, theorists contend that automatic self-presentations are activated nonconsciously by cues in the social situation and are founded on overlearned responses to behavioral-outcome contingencies.

Consistent with self-presentation theories and with support from more general models of habit responding, we argue that cues in the social environment, in and of themselves, are a necessary imperative and represent the fundamental cornerstone with which to establish the validity of an automatic self-presentation process. Although such a process has strong logical and theoretical footing, without corroborating evidence for context cuing, the process would nonetheless remain nothing but a conceptual proposition. If we fail to demonstrate empirically a context-contingent pathway for the nonconscious activation of automatic self-presentations, there is no other logical or clear mechanism with which to build and support an evidentiary foundation for such a process. As a result, we would necessarily be required to accept the notion outlined at the outset of this chapter: that the vast majority of self-presentations involve controlled and deliberate efforts, and as such only emerge during very specific sets of narrowly defined occasions. Without clear and sustaining evidence demonstrating that cues in the social environment trigger automatic self-presentations, identifying a mechanistic pathway for an automatic self-presentational process would be untenable. This leads directly to the key question underpinning our goal for this chapter: Do automatic self-presentations emerge of their own accord, triggered outside of conscious awareness by context cues in the absence of explicit self-presentation instructions? This issue relates to specific features of automatic processes in which self-presentations are thought to be involuntary responses initiated outside of conscious awareness by prompts in the social environment.

To shed light on this question, we look to the studies outlined in the research section. Although the evidence in support is quite limited, the findings suggest that automatic self-presentations are likely to emerge during situations involving familiar and routine patterns of responding, which require minimal cognitive and regulatory resources. Presenting oneself in accord with habitual response patterns required less effort, was delivered with greater speed, and was more likely to involve a favorable presentation of self. For instance, the studies that focused on recall measures demonstrate that automatic self-presentational efforts represent habitual patterns of responding that can be triggered automatically by features of the audience and situation ( Schlenker, 2003 ). To go against habitual patterns requires foregoing the benefits of automaticity, with the resulting use of controlled self-presentations then operating like cognitive load. Faced with the need to make conscious self-presentation decisions, people are then left with diminished cognitive resources, for example, to encode and recall information. The studies addressing the effect of cognitive resources on self-presentational effectiveness also illustrate that habitual self-presentations transpire with minimal resource demands, and they can unfold effectively even if an individual is faced with other cognitively demanding activities. Engaging in controlled self-presentations, however, requires increased cognitive resources and, as such, suffers if an individual is simultaneously engaged in other efforts that diminish his or her resources. These findings are consistent with Schlenker and Pontari’s (2000) notion of foreground self-presentations, which require available cognitive resources, and background self-presentations, which require minimal resources, primarily because background efforts are founded on repeatedly used scripts and over time have emerged as habitual aspects of a person’s personality and identity. In all, participants prompted to self-present in a typical or familiar manner displayed cognitive effects consistent with an automatic process.

It is important, however, to emphasize that the design of most of the studies involved the efficiency feature of automatic processes, which focused on the influence that available cognitive resources have on self-presentations. Such evidence only demonstrates that automatic self-presentational behavior may occur in the absence of controlled efforts; that is, once consciously activated, self-presentations may unfold in an autonomous manner. For the most part, participants were aware of the goal conditions, in that they received explicit instructions to engage in a specific type of self-presentation, typically one that was either congruent or incongruent with what would be expected in that particular situation, and with the implication that under certain conditions these different self-presentations would consume more or less cognitive resources. These research designs did not just rely on the presence of context cues to nonconsciously trigger automatic self-presentations, and because participants were explicitly given instructions to self-present in a particular manner, it is impossible to tease apart any effects being due to self-presentation instructions or to context cues. We argue that the majority of research cannot unequivocally confirm an automatic process; the data do not allow for definitive conclusions in that we cannot determine whether self-presentations were triggered outside of conscious awareness by context cues in the absence of explicit self-presentation instructions.

However, the few studies outlined in the cued activation section may offer plausible evidence supporting the proposition that self-presentation involves an automatic cognitive mechanism in which people’s efforts are nonconsciously triggered by context cues. Together, these studies demonstrate that cued knowledge activation, the implicit influence of significant others, and the subliminal priming of self-presentation cues can influence people’s self-presentational efforts. For instance, as a context cue, the conditioned aural tones triggered self-presentations outside of conscious awareness, in that positive or negative self-descriptions emerged, respectively, when participants were surreptitiously cued with a tone that had been previously paired with either acceptance or rejection ( Baldwin & Meunier, 1999 ). Results from Shah (2003) also showed that participants’ self-descriptions were more negative when primed with a critical other’s name and more positive when primed with an accepting others’ name. He proffered that this effect occurred because the self-descriptions were nonconsciously influenced by the cued activation of relational schemas, which had become cognitively and emotionally linked over time to an accepting or critical other. In the same vein, Tyler’s (2012) data revealed that participants primed with an impression word self-presented a more favorable persona, which not incidentally mimicked self-presentations in an explicit self-presentation control condition. Tyler’s findings, which are consistent with Tice et al. (1995) , also showed that participants primed with friend-oriented words self-presented a more modest image, whereas those primed with stranger-oriented words conveyed a more self-enhancing image.

The findings outlined in the cued activation section are theoretically consistent with the concept of a background self-presentation agenda in which an individual’s behavior is automatically guided based on repeatedly used scripts that have been successful in the past. The behaviors that ensue comprise patterns of action that are habit-formed and emerge without conscious awareness. In a background mode, impression-relevant cues prompt or activate self-presentations, although people are not consciously aware that their efforts are, in part, fashioned by the social environment and their activated self-presentation scripts ( Schlenker & Pontari, 2000 ). These automatic self-presentations typically represent positive characterizations of the self, but as the studies in the final review section illustrate, they can also involve more negatively oriented self-descriptions.

Although we tender our comments with a healthy degree of caution, we are optimistic that the results utilizing very subtle or subliminally primed context cues offer the strongest, albeit limited evidence in support of the proposition that self-presentations can be activated by environmental cues outside of conscious awareness. What these few studies seriously lack, however, is an examination of the effect during an actual ongoing social interaction.

Future work is sorely needed to not only conceptually replicate the cued context and priming effects but also to move the examination of these effects into more real-life types of situations ( Leary et al., 2011 ). To do so will require the use of creative designs to offset the fact that in real-life settings the context cues may often exist within the boundaries of people’s conscious awareness. People are cognizant of an audience, for instance, and as such, their self-presentations may be guided by an intended, but goal-dependent, automatic process, which is consistent with background self-presentations as proposed in the self-identification theory.

We also emphasize that any research designs utilizing context cues or primes to trigger automatic self-presentations need to take particular care to ensure that the cues/primes are not transparent, and that their influence occurs, indeed via a nonconscious mechanism. Clarifying the mechanism underlying automatic self-presentation is of key import, in part, because research designs may unintentionally neglect cues in the experimental setting that nonconsciously trigger or motivate self-presentational behavior, which of course, would inadvertently affect the subsequent results. This concern has historical precedent; during the 1970s, a significant amount of self-presentation research was aimed at providing alternatives to the currently held explanations for a variety of interpersonal phenomena. Results from numerous studies, spanning wide domains within social psychology, provided evidence demonstrating that people’s interpersonal behavior (e.g., helping behavior, conformity, cognitive dissonance, voting behavior) was influenced by their desire that others view them in a particular fashion (e.g., Tedeschi, Schlenker, & Bonoma, 1971 ; see Leary, 1995 ). For the most part, the self-presentation perspective argued, “that the people we use as the sources of behavioral data are active, anticipatory, problem-solving, role-playing, and impression-managing beings ( Page, 1981 , p. 59; see Adair, 1973 ). Page further argued that experimental subjects “may feel very much as if they are on stage ( Goffman, 1959 , ), and they may control and calculate their own behavior so as not to receive what in their own eyes would be a negative evaluation of their performance” (p. 60). At the time, these contentions were directly aimed at participants’ consciously, controlled self-presentational efforts and were viewed by traditional social psychology as methodological artifacts that could be ameliorated (see Kruglanski, 1975 ). The degree to which these issues have actually been remedied is well beyond the scope of the current chapter. If theorists’ proposition is correct, however, and automatic self-presentations are a ubiquitous feature of people’s daily life, it would behoove researchers to assiduously examine their experimental design and protocols to determine if potential cues in the laboratory setting are unintentionally triggering participants’ automatic self-presentational efforts. If this were the case, the concerns are obvious and meaningful, in that such cued behavior would severely confound any subsequent results and data interpretation.

An essential ingredient of the research that directly examines automatic self-presentations is the development of tightly designed control or comparison conditions; at the least, such conditions must demonstrate that the absence of a particular cue leads to less self-presentational efforts compared to the presence of the cue. Such research designs must also keep potential self-presentational motivations, for example, goal importance and audience status, constant across all experimental conditions, while manipulating the context-cued condition. If the design fails to adequately do so, it is nearly impossible to determine if participants’ self-presentation efforts are unfolding in a background mode or whether other motivational factors have shifted participants’ efforts to the foreground. It is important to evaluate implicit self-presentation cues, not only for their effectiveness at triggering automatic self-presentations, but also to ensure that they are able to do so in a nonconscious manner.

Integrating elements from a number of the reviewed studies may also prove useful in examining automatic self-presentations, particularly during the course of an ongoing interpersonal interaction. In a number of studies, various self-presentations were characterized as comprising or inducing different levels of cognitive demand, which combined with information processing measures, enabled researchers to infer automatic self-presentations. Much of the evidence indicated that when cognitive attention was diverted only a default set of positive self-descriptions remained available for automatic self-presentations. By turning the notion around that different self-presentations induce high or low cognitive load, one could predict that high- or low-cognitive-load circumstances would lead to automatic or controlled self-presentations, respectively. It would be fruitful to manipulate the level of cognitive demand during an ongoing interpersonal interaction in the absence of any explicit self-presentation instructions, with the expectation that automatic self-presentations (i.e., default set of positive self-descriptions) should emerge in the high- compared to low-cognitive-load condition. Rather than assess self-ratings or recall, it would also be more externally valid and informative to measure and/or code people’s self-descriptions or behaviors.

Although Pontari and Schlenker’s extravert-introvert study (2000) involved explicit self-presentation instructions, it followed a design similar to the one proposed herein; they directly manipulated cognitive demands during an interaction. Automatic self-presentations were presumed to have occurred under conditions in which participants were instructed to engage in congruent self-presentations in both the high- and low-cognitive-load conditions. One can readily imagine adding another condition in which participants under both cognitive load conditions received no explicit self-presentation instructions. The results from such a condition should mirror the data from the presumed automatic self-presentation condition because participants in either cognitive load condition who received no self-presentation instructions would have no particular reason or motivation to behave in a manner other than the one they are most familiar with—extraverts would act extraverted and introverts would act introverted. If this no-instruction condition replicated the automatic self-presentation condition, it would provide additional support for an automatic component to the self-presentation process. It would also provide much needed evidence to demonstrate that automatic self-presentations emerge spontaneously during interpersonal interactions, in the absence of any direct instructional prompts.

At the start of this chapter, we argued that characterizing self-presentation in terms that predominantly evoke controlled and strategic efforts is not only theoretically challenging but also empirically problematic. It serves to foster an exclusionary research perspective, severely limiting research attention, leading to a paucity of work examining automatic self-presentations. Following a conceptual approach that positions self-presentation as occurring primarily in limited situations has fundamentally shaped the fabric of most self-presentation research designs, in that participants are often explicitly provided with self-presentation instructions, essentially bypassing the issue of context cuing.

Although the scarcity of empirical work became apparent in the evidence sections, the studies that are available offer some promising avenues for future work. Pontari and Schlenker’s (2000) extravert-introvert studies suggest an empirical direction and offer results to build and expand upon. The cued activation and priming studies not only provide the strongest evidence to date for automatic self-presentations, but they also provide a solid empirical foundation with which to design additional work. Nonetheless, the evidence remains very limited, underscoring a palpable and substantive need for further research. Considerable work remains to be done in order to determine empirically whether self-presentations are actually triggered nonconsciously by cues in the social environment, in that people are unaware of the initiation, flow, or impact of their self-presentational efforts.

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2.3: Self-Presentation

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How we perceive ourselves manifests in how we present ourselves to others. Self-presentation is the process of strategically concealing or revealing personal information in order to influence others’ perceptions. 1 We engage in this process daily and for different reasons. Although people occasionally intentionally deceive others in the process of self-presentation, in general we try to make a good impression while still remaining authentic. Since self-presentation helps meet our instrumental, relational, and identity needs, we stand to lose quite a bit if we are caught intentionally misrepresenting ourselves. In May of 2012, Yahoo!’s CEO resigned after it became known that he stated on official documents that he had two college degrees when he actually only had one. In a similar incident, a woman who had long served as the dean of admissions for the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology was dismissed from her position after it was learned that she had only attended one year of college and had falsely indicated she had a bachelor’s and master’s degree. 2 Such incidents clearly show that although people can get away with such false self-presentation for a while, the eventual consequences of being found out are dire. As communicators, we sometimes engage in more subtle forms of inauthentic self-presentation. For example, a person may state or imply that they know more about a subject or situation than they actually do in order to seem smart or “in the loop.” During a speech, a speaker works on a polished and competent delivery to distract from a lack of substantive content. These cases of strategic self-presentation may not ever be found out, but communicators should still avoid them as they do not live up to the standards of ethical communication.

Consciously and competently engaging in self-presentation can have benefits because we can provide others with a more positive and accurate picture of who we are. People who are skilled at impression management are typically more engaging and confident, which allows others to pick up on more cues from which to form impressions. 3 Being a skilled self-presenter draws on many of the practices used by competent communicators, including becoming a higher self-monitor. When self-presentation skills and self-monitoring skills combine, communicators can simultaneously monitor their own expressions, the reaction of others, and the situational and social context. 4

Sometimes people get help with their self-presentation. Although most people can’t afford or wouldn’t think of hiring an image consultant, some people have started generously donating their self-presentation expertise to help others. Many people who have been riding the tough job market for a year or more get discouraged and may consider giving up on their job search. Now a project called “Style Me Hired” has started offering free makeovers to jobless people in order to offer them new motivation and help them make favorable impressions and hopefully get a job offer. 5

There are two main types of self-presentation: prosocial and self-serving. 6 Prosocial self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as a role model and make a person more likable and attractive. For example, a supervisor may call on her employees to uphold high standards for business ethics, model that behavior in her own actions, and compliment others when they exemplify those standards. Self-serving self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as highly skilled, willing to challenge others, and someone not to be messed with. For example, a supervisor may publicly take credit for the accomplishments of others or publicly critique an employee who failed to meet a particular standard. In summary, prosocial strategies are aimed at benefiting others, while self-serving strategies benefit the self at the expense of others.

In general, we strive to present a public image that matches up with our self- concept, but we can also use self-presentation strategies to enhance our self-concept. 7 When we present ourselves in order to evoke a positive evaluative response, we are engaging in self-enhancement. In the pursuit of self-enhancement, a person might try to be as appealing as possible in a particular area or with a particular person to gain feedback that will enhance one’s self-esteem. For example, a singer might train and practice for weeks before singing in front of a well-respected vocal coach but not invest as much effort in preparing to sing in front of friends. Although positive feedback from friends is beneficial, positive feedback from an experienced singer could enhance a person’s self-concept. Self-enhancement can be productive and achieved competently, or it can be used inappropriately. Using self-enhancement behaviors just to gain the approval of others or out of self-centeredness may lead people to communicate in ways that are perceived as phony or overbearing and end up making an unfavorable impression. 8

“Getting Plugged In” - Self-Presentation Online: Social Media, Digital Trails, and Your Reputation 

Although social networking has long been a way to keep in touch with friends and colleagues, the advent of social media has made the process of making connections and those all-important first impressions much more complex. Just looking at Facebook as an example, we can clearly see that the very acts of constructing a profile, posting status updates, “liking” certain things, and sharing various information via Facebook features and apps is self- presentation.  People also form impressions based on the number of friends we have and the photos and posts that other people tag us in. All this information floating around can be difficult to manage. So how do we manage the impressions we make digitally given that there is a permanent record?

Research shows that people overall engage in positive and honest self- presentation on Facebook.  Since people know how visible the information they post is, they may choose to only reveal things they think will form favorable impressions. But the mediated nature of Facebook also leads some people to disclose more personal information than they might otherwise in  such a public or semipublic forum. These hyperpersonal disclosures run the risk of forming negative impressions based on who sees them. In general, the ease of digital communication, not just on Facebook, has presented new challenges for our self-control and information management. Sending someone a sexually provocative image used to take some effort before the age of digital cameras, but now “sexting” an explicit photo only takes a few seconds. So people who would have likely not engaged in such behavior before are more tempted to now, and it is the desire to present oneself as desirable or cool that leads people to send photos they may later regret. 

In fact, new technology in the form of apps is trying to give people a little more control over the exchange of digital information. An iPhone app called “Snapchat” allows users to send photos that will only be visible for a few seconds. Although this isn’t a guaranteed safety net, the demand for such apps is increasing, which illustrates the point that we all now leave digital trails of information that can be useful in terms of our self-presentation but can also create new challenges in terms of managing the information floating around from which others may form impressions of us.

  • What impressions do you want people to form of you based on the information they can see on your Facebook page?
  • Have you ever used social media or the Internet to do “research” on a person? What things would you find favorable and unfavorable?
  • Do you have any guidelines you follow regarding what information about yourself you will put online or not? If so, what are they? If not, why?

Key Takeaways

  • Our self-concept is the overall idea of who we think we are. It is developed through our interactions with others and through social comparison that allows us to compare our beliefs and behaviors to others.
  • Our self-esteem is based on the evaluations and judgments we make about various characteristics of our self-concept. It is developed through an assessment and evaluation of our various skills and abilities, known as self-efficacy, and through a comparison and evaluation of who we are, who we would like to be, and who we should be (self-discrepancy theory).
  • Social comparison theory and self-discrepancy theory affect our self- concept and self-esteem because through comparison with others and comparison of our actual, ideal, and ought selves we make judgments about who we are and our self-worth. These judgments then affect how we communicate and behave.
  • Socializing forces like family, culture, and media affect our self- perception because they give us feedback on who we are. This feedback can be evaluated positively or negatively and can lead to positive or negative patterns that influence our self-perception and then our communication.
  • Self-presentation refers to the process of strategically concealing and/or revealing personal information in order to influence others’  perceptions. Prosocial self-presentation is intended to benefit others  and self-serving self-presentation is intended to benefit the self at the expense of others. People also engage in self-enhancement, which is a self-presentation strategy by which people intentionally seek out positive evaluations.
  • Make a list of characteristics that describe who you are (your self- concept). After looking at the list, see if you can come up with a few words that summarize the list to narrow in on the key features of your self-concept. Go back over the first list and evaluate each characteristic, for example noting whether it is something you do well/poorly, something that is good/bad, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable. Is the overall list more positive or more negative? After doing these exercises, what have you learned about your self-concept and self- esteem?
  • Discuss at least one time in which you had a discrepancy or tension between two of the three selves described by self-discrepancy theory (the actual, ideal, and ought selves). What effect did this discrepancy have on your self-concept and/or self-esteem?
  • Take one of the socializing forces discussed (family, culture, or media) and identify at least one positive and one negative influence that it/they have had on your self-concept and/or self-esteem.
  • Getting integrated: Discuss some ways that you might strategically engage in self-presentation to influence the impressions of others in an academic, a professional, a personal, and a civic context.
  • Lauren J. Human et al., “Your Best Self Helps Reveal Your True Self: Positive Self-Presentation Leads to More Accurate Personality Impressions,” Social Psychological and Personality Sciences 3, no. 1 (2012): 23.
  • Lauren Webber and Melissa Korn, “Yahoo’s CEO among Many Notable Resume Flaps,” Wall Street Journal Blogs, May 7, 2012, accessed June 9, 2012, yahoos-ceo-among-many-notableresume-flaps.
  • Lauren J. Human et al., “Your Best Self Helps Reveal Your True Self: Positive Self-Presentation Leads to More Accurate Personality Impressions,” Social Psychological and Personality Sciences 3, no. 1 (2012): 27.
  • John J. Sosik, Bruce J. Avolio, and Dong I. Jung, “Beneath the Mask: Examining the Relationship of SelfPresentation Attributes and Impression Management to Charismatic Leadership,”The Leadership Quarterly 13 (2002): 217.
  • “Style Me Hired,” accessed June 6, 2012, .
  • John J. Sosik, Bruce J. Avolio, and DongI. Jung, “Beneath the Mask: Examining the Relationship of SelfPresentation Attributes and Impression Management to Charismatic Leadership,” The Leadership Quarterly 13 (2002): 217.
  • Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 99– 100.
  • John J. Sosik, Bruce J. Avolio, and Dong I. Jung, “Beneath the Mask: Examining the Relationship of SelfPresentation Attributes and Impression Management to Charismatic Leadership,” The Leadership Quarterly 13 (2002): 236

Contributors and Attributions

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Phil Reed D.Phil.

  • Personality

Self-Presentation in the Digital World

Do traditional personality theories predict digital behaviour.

Posted August 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams

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  • Personality theories can help explain real-world differences in self-presentation behaviours but they may not apply to online behaviours.
  • In the real world, women have higher levels of behavioural inhibition tendencies than men and are more likely to avoid displeasing others.
  • Based on this assumption, one would expect women to present themselves less on social media, but women tend to use social media more than men.

Digital technology allows people to construct and vary their self-identity more easily than they can in the real world. This novel digital- personality construction may, or may not, be helpful to that person in the long run, but it is certainly more possible than it is in the real world. Yet how this relates to "personality," as described by traditional personality theories, is not really known. Who will tend to manipulate their personality online, and would traditional personality theories predict these effects? A look at what we do know about gender differences in the real and digital worlds suggests that many aspects of digital behaviour may not conform to the expectations of personality theories developed for the real world.

Half a century ago, Goffman suggested that individuals establish social identities by employing self-presentation tactics and impression management . Self-presentational tactics are techniques for constructing or manipulating others’ impressions of the individual and ultimately help to develop that person’s identity in the eyes of the world. The ways other people react are altered by choosing how to present oneself – that is, self-presentation strategies are used for impression management . Others then uphold, shape, or alter that self-image , depending on how they react to the tactics employed. This implies that self-presentation is a form of social communication, by which people establish, maintain, and alter their social identity.

These self-presentational strategies can be " assertive " or "defensive." 1 Assertive strategies are associated with active control of the person’s self-image; and defensive strategies are associated with protecting a desired identity that is under threat. In the real world, the use of self-presentational tactics has been widely studied and has been found to relate to many behaviours and personalities 2 . Yet, despite the enormous amounts of time spent on social media , the types of self-presentational tactics employed on these platforms have not received a huge amount of study. In fact, social media appears to provide an ideal opportunity for the use of self-presentational tactics, especially assertive strategies aimed at creating an identity in the eyes of others.

Seeking to Experience Different Types of Reward

Social media allows individuals to present themselves in ways that are entirely reliant on their own behaviours – and not on factors largely beyond their ability to instantly control, such as their appearance, gender, etc. That is, the impression that the viewer of the social media post receives is dependent, almost entirely, on how or what another person posts 3,4 . Thus, the digital medium does not present the difficulties for individuals who wish to divorce the newly-presented self from the established self. New personalities or "images" may be difficult to establish in real-world interactions, as others may have known the person beforehand, and their established patterns of interaction. Alternatively, others may not let people get away with "out of character" behaviours, or they may react to their stereotype of the person in front of them, not to their actual behaviours. All of which makes real-life identity construction harder.

Engaging in such impression management may stem from motivations to experience different types of reward 5 . In terms of one personality theory, individuals displaying behavioural approach tendencies (the Behavioural Activation System; BAS) and behavioural inhibition tendencies (the Behavioural Inhibition System; BIS) will differ in terms of self-presentation behaviours. Those with strong BAS seek opportunities to receive or experience reward (approach motivation ); whereas, those with strong BIS attempt to avoid punishment (avoidance motivation). People who need to receive a lot of external praise may actively seek out social interactions and develop a lot of social goals in their lives. Those who are more concerned about not incurring other people’s displeasure may seek to defend against this possibility and tend to withdraw from people. Although this is a well-established view of personality in the real world, it has not received strong attention in terms of digital behaviours.

Real-World Personality Theories May Not Apply Online

One test bed for the application of this theory in the digital domain is predicted gender differences in social media behaviour in relation to self-presentation. Both self-presentation 1 , and BAS and BIS 6 , have been noted to show gender differences. In the real world, women have shown higher levels of BIS than men (at least, to this point in time), although levels of BAS are less clearly differentiated between genders. This view would suggest that, in order to avoid disapproval, women will present themselves less often on social media; and, where they do have a presence, adopt defensive self-presentational strategies.

The first of these hypotheses is demonstrably false – where there are any differences in usage (and there are not that many), women tend to use social media more often than men. What we don’t really know, with any certainty, is how women use social media for self-presentation, and whether this differs from men’s usage. In contrast to the BAS/BIS view of personality, developed for the real world, several studies have suggested that selfie posting can be an assertive, or even aggressive, behaviour for females – used in forming a new personality 3 . In contrast, sometimes selfie posting by males is related to less aggressive, and more defensive, aspects of personality 7 . It may be that women take the opportunity to present very different images of themselves online from their real-world personalities. All of this suggests that theories developed for personality in the real world may not apply online – certainly not in terms of putative gender-related behaviours.

We know that social media allows a new personality to be presented easily, which is not usually seen in real-world interactions, and it may be that real-world gender differences are not repeated in digital contexts. Alternatively, it may suggest that these personality theories are now simply hopelessly anachronistic – based on assumptions that no longer apply. If that were the case, it would certainly rule out any suggestion that such personalities are genetically determined – as we know that structure hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 20 years.

1. Lee, S.J., Quigley, B.M., Nesler, M.S., Corbett, A.B., & Tedeschi, J.T. (1999). Development of a self-presentation tactics scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 26(4), 701-722.

2. Laghi, F., Pallini, S., & Baiocco, R. (2015). Autopresentazione efficace, tattiche difensive e assertive e caratteristiche di personalità in Adolescenza. Rassegna di Psicologia, 32(3), 65-82.

3. Chua, T.H.H., & Chang, L. (2016). Follow me and like my beautiful selfies: Singapore teenage girls’ engagement in self-presentation and peer comparison on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 190-197.

4. Fox, J., & Rooney, M.C. (2015). The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 161-165.

5. Hermann, A.D., Teutemacher, A.M., & Lehtman, M.J. (2015). Revisiting the unmitigated approach model of narcissism: Replication and extension. Journal of Research in Personality, 55, 41-45.

6. Carver, C.S., & White, T.L. (1994). Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: the BIS/BAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(2), 319.

7. Sorokowski, P., Sorokowska, A., Frackowiak, T., Karwowski, M., Rusicka, I., & Oleszkiewicz, A. (2016). Sex differences in online selfie posting behaviors predict histrionic personality scores among men but not women. Computers in Human Behavior, 59, 368-373.

Phil Reed D.Phil.

Phil Reed, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Swansea University.

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Module 3: The Self

Module Overview

Human beings, by their very nature, are prone to focus on the self and to engage in behavior to protect it. Module 3 will cover some of the ways this occurs. We will start by focusing on the self-concept or who we are and self-schemas. We will also discuss self-perception theory, possible selves, the self-reference effect, self-discrepancies, how others affect our sense of self, and cultural differences of the self. Then we will tackle the issue of self-esteem and its two forms – global and domain specific. Self-esteem across the life span and gender and cross-cultural differences will be examined. We will discuss how self-esteem is affected, and protected, when mortality is made salient, self-efficacy and locus of control, self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-enhancement. Our third section will cover self-presentation and specific strategies we use such as self-promotion, ingratiation, false modesty, self-verification, and self-monitoring. Finally, we will discuss cognitive biases and heuristics used to defend the self, such as the self-serving bias, false consensus effect, false uniqueness effect, and unrealistic optimism and defensive pessimism.

Module Outline

3.1. The Self-Concept

3.2. self-esteem, 3.3. self-presentation, 3.4. cognitive biases and heuristics used to bolster the self.

Module Learning Outcomes

  • Define the self-concept and clarify how we learn about the self.
  • Define self-esteem and describe efforts we engage in to protect or improve it.
  • Describe ways we make ourselves appear in a more positive light to others.
  • Outline cognitive biases and heuristics used to defend the self.

Section Learning Objectives

  • Define self-concept and clarify whether it is stable or malleable.
  • Define and exemplify self-schemas.
  • Describe self-perception theory and how it helps us learn about the self.
  • Clarify the importance of possible selves.
  • Describe the self-reference effect.
  • Define self-discrepancy theory.
  • Describe Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self.
  • Define reflected appraisal.
  • Describe the social comparison theory and how it helps us to learn about the self.
  • Clarify the importance of the two-factor-theory of emotion for the self.
  • Describe cultural differences in the conception of the self.

3.1.1. The Age-Old Question – Who Are You?

Quite possibly the fundamental question of human existence is who we are. If asked who you are by another person, how would you describe yourself? Are you smart, resourceful, compassionate, petty, empathetic, self-serving, or optimistic? Are you good at sports or do you write poetry well? Should any singing you do be reserved for the shower? These descriptors are what make up our self-concept or the way we see ourselves. This view is probably clear most of the time. If you are not talented at writing, you will likely avoid writing intensive classes as a student. Some classes you cannot avoid, and so in these instances you will seek out extra help so that you are successful with the class. If you are incredibly talented at football, you may go out for the team but will not likely try out for the baseball team. But are there times when you are not so sure about who you are? The answer is likely yes. Maybe you and your spouse are considering adopting. Though you consider yourself a compassionate person, you are not sure you can open your heart up to another child the same way you would to a biological child. In this case, you have no prior experience to reference to determine who you are in this situation. Is self-concept stable or malleable? There are two contradictory views of the self. Though our self-concept is relatively stable and people resist any information that contradicts their view of themselves (Greenwald, 1980), specific social environments can cause different selves to appear (Martindale, 1980). Markus and Kunda (1986) explored this dual nature of the self-concept in a study of 40 female students at the University of Michigan who participated to earn credit in their introductory psychology class (recall our discussion in Module 2 of convenience samples and issues with generalizability as a result). The participants were run one at a time and with three female confederates who were also undergraduate students but paid for their involvement. The researchers used minimal deception and led the participants to believe the study was on attitudes and opinions. They were first shown posters in a series of three trials. The posters had three items on them, either three colors, cartoons, or greeting cards, and the participant was asked to record for each poster the number of the item she liked best (of the three). The experimenter then explained that she had to transfer the responses to a computer coding sheet and that it would make life easier if all participants (the actual participant and the three confederates) could read their responses out loud. On each trial the participant went first, followed by the confederates. Her responses determined what the confederates would say. In the uniqueness condition, on all but 3 of the 18 trials the confederates all disagreed with the participant but agreed with one another. So if the participant preferred Color A the confederates all chose C. On the other three trials, the first confederate agreed with the participant while the other two disagreed with her and with each other. In the similarity condition, on all but 3 of the trials, the confederates agreed with the participant. If she chose Color C, then so did the three confederates. On the other three trials, none of the confederates agreed with the participant and two agreed with each other (meaning if the participant chose C, one chose A and two chose B, for instance). The participant then completed a series of dependent measures to include judgments of similarity to reference groups, self-categorization judgments, and word association. There was also a manipulation check such that participants were asked what percentage of the time they thought other participants agreed with their preference judgment in the first part of the study. Debriefing then occurred.

Results showed that for the manipulation check, subjects were aware of the extent to which participants agreed with them. The uniqueness group stated that the others agreed with them just 8% of the time while the similarity subjects estimated 77% of the time. The authors note that there was actually 17% and 83% agreement, respectively. In terms of how stable self-concept is, results showed that neither group appeared to have been influenced by the information about their similarity or uniqueness. In terms of the malleability of self-concept, the differences in the latencies between the two conditions for self-categorization judgments (i.e. their reaction times), suggests that different types of self-conceptions were mediating these judgments. This was also seen in the similarity to reference groups task such that both conditions felt more similar to in-groups than out-groups. It should be noted that the effect was not as strong for the similarity condition as their mean judgment of similarity to the in-group ( M = 4.93) was not as strong as the uniqueness condition ( M = 5.13), and their judgment of out-groups was higher ( M = 2.26) than the uniqueness condition ( M = 1.82).

Markus and Kunda (1986) conclude that both the stability and malleability of the self-concept were demonstrated in their study, though if one only looked at the results of the first part of the study (the showing of the posters with the three items to choose from) “one would tend to infer that the self-conceptions of these individuals were relatively unresponsive to the self-relevant information provided by the study” (pg. 864). Further examination of the word association, latency, and similarity tasks show that “…underlying these similar general self-descriptions were very different temporary self-conceptions” (pg. 864). When individuals were led to feel unique, they became disturbed by this and following the preference manipulation viewed their uniqueness as negative while the state of similarity to others became positive and desirable. They recruited conceptions of themselves as similar to others and made these endorsements relatively quickly (as shown through shorter latencies). Those made to feel extremely similar to others responded in the exact opposite way.

Finally, they say that the self-concept is a set of self-conceptions and from it, “the individual constructs a working self-concept that integrates the core self-conceptions with those elicited by the immediate context. In this sense, the self-concept becomes similar to that suggested by the symbolic interactionists. Thus, for Mead (1934) there was no fixed self-concept, only the current self-concept that was negotiated from the available set of self-conceptions” (Markus and Kunda, 1986, pg. 865).

3.1.2. Self-Schemas

As we interact with our world, we gather information that we need to organize in a way that we can obtain it again when needed. Basically, we store it away in memory and retrieve it when we encounter the person, object, or concept at a later time. This element of cognition is called a schema and as we can have schemas concerning external objects or ideas, we too can have them about ourselves, called a self-schema. These self-schemas make up our self-concept in much the same way that the words on this page make up the module you are reading, and this module is just one of many in the textbook. Markus (1977) defined self-schemata as, “cognitive generalizations about the self, derived from past experience, that organize and guide the processing of the self-related information contained in an individual’s social experiences (pg. 64).”

Self-schemas represent a person’s domain specific attributes or abilities and experiences as they relate to that domain. This allows for quicker encoding, more confident evaluation, accurate retrieval of domain-relevant information, and the ability to adapt to different information processing goals (Carpenter, 1988; Greenwald, 1980; Markus, 1977). Individuals with a self-schema in a domain are said to be schematic while those lacking one are aschematic for that ability (Cross & Markus, 1994). According to Markus (1977), aschematic individuals are not able to recognize their ability in a given domain and do not assign their ability any critical personal importance.

They can also help to shape social perception when the description of person is ambiguous. One study showed that when a target (Chris) is described as equally likely to be independent or dependent, participants classified as independence-schematics rated Chris as more independent and dependence-schematics rated him as more dependent or less likely to act independently compared to aschematics. The authors say that self-schemas serve a motivational role such that they help to foster the self-system’s stability, validation, and perpetuation (Green & Sedikides, 2001). Types of self-schemas. Prieto, Cole, and Tageson (1992) compared depressed, clinic-referred children; nondepressed, clinic-referred children; and nondepressed, non-clinic referred children on three cognitive measures of positive and negative self-schemas. On a word recognition measure and an incidental word recall measure, depressed individuals had a less positive self-schema compared to the other two groups. Only non-depressed groups recalled significantly more positive words than negative ones. The results suggest that such negative self-schemas affect how new information is stored and accessed. Another study found that depressive self-schemas were a result of peer victimization such that individuals who experienced relational and verbal victimization more so than physical victimization by their peers had stronger negative and weaker positive self-cognitions and an elimination of the “normative memorial bias for recall of positive self-referential words” (Cole et al., 2014).

Self-schemas have also been identified for race-ethnicity (Oyserman, 2008; Oyserman et al., 2003), body weight (Altabe & Thompson, 1996; Markus, Hamill, & Sentis, 1987), gender (Markus, Crane, Bernstein, & Siladi, 1982), exercise (Kendzierski, 1990), religion (McIntosh, 1995), and illness (Clemmey & Nicassio, 1997), to name a few. Lodge and Hamill (1986) even propose a partisan schema related to political knowledge and interest. Those described as schematics are high in interest and knowledge and show a “consistency bias” such that they recall more policy statements consistent with a congressman’s party affiliation than those inconsistent with it. They also can classify campaign statements as Republican or Democrat. Aschematics, or those low in interest and knowledge, perform at no better than chance levels in the same task. The authors note that the restructuring of memory shown by schematics, and in particular those scoring especially high on interest and knowledge which they call sophisticates, demonstrates a serious bias in how political information is processed. Self-perception theory. One way we gain knowledge about ourselves is through observing ourselves, called introspection or looking inward. We notice food preferences, particular music genres we like, the types of clothing we prefer to wear, and the type of person we consider to be a friend. But what we gain self-knowledge about tends to be things that are not central or critical (Bem, 1972). Why is that? The things about us that are most important make up the attitudes we express, the beliefs we hold, the traits we display, and the emotions we prefer to display and so are at our core. Self-perception helps us to learn about the more secondary aspects of the self. Possible selves. Not only are we concerned about the person we are right now, but we focus on the person we might become, which Markus and Nurius (1986) call possible selves . These could be positive conceptions of our future self, but likewise, they could be something we are afraid of becoming and could elicit guilt and anxiety in the individual (Carver et al., 1999). According to Inglehart, Markus, and Brown (1988) our possible selves allow us to focus attention on specific, task-relevant cognitions, emotions and actions, thereby allowing us to move from our current state to the desired one (Oyserman & Markus, 1990a), especially when a possible self is seen as a self-regulator (i.e. a student who spends more time on homework, improved grades, and participated in class more because they realize they are not doing well now, but could in the future if they engage in specific types of behaviors; Oyserman et al., 2004). Across two studies, Cross and Markus (1994) showed that schematic individuals were better able to direct their attention to the problem at hand and concentrate on it while aschematic individuals were quicker to endorse negative possible selves related to logical reasoning ability. Hence, self-schemas can help foster competence by “providing a foundation for the development of possible selves related to that ability” (pg. 434). They continue, “…the possible self may link effective steps and strategies for solving reasoning problems with beliefs about one’s ability and competence in the domain. Bringing to mind a positive, desired view of oneself in the future as logical and analytical may also help the student dispel anxiety or worry during the task” (pg. 435). Research has also shown that when balance between feared and expected possible selves does not exist, the outcomes can be negative such as the initiation and maintenance of delinquent activity in adolescents (Oyserman and Markus, 1990b). The self-reference effect. Would it surprise you to learn that humans have a tendency to more efficiently process, and recall more accurately, information about ourselves? Probably not. This is called the self-reference effect (Higgins & Bargh, 1987). Craik and Lockhart (1972) proposed the depth of processing (DOP) framework which says that how well a memory trace is retained is determined by the nature of the encoding operations such that deep, meaningful analyses result in a more durable trace than shallow, structural analyses of a stimulus. Up to 1977 it was believed that better retention could be achieved by semantic encoding though Rogers, Kuiper, and Kriker (1977) showed that self-referent encoding produced even better recall. The self-reference effect has since been replicated in numerous studies (for an overview of this research, please see Symons & Johnson, 1997).

Since the self-reference effect is a property of memory, we might expect that it is affected by the aging process. Across three studies, Gutchess, et al., (2007) showed that under some circumstances, older adults can benefit from self-referencing as much as young adults can but in general, they are more limited in their application of it. The authors speculate that “older adults may be limited in their application of self-referencing due to its demand on cognitive resources and their diminished ability to apply the strategy flexibly and broadly in other types of evaluative judgments” (pg. 834).

In terms of what area of the brain might control the self-reference effect, research using lesioning has found a role for the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Patients with focal brain damage to the mPFC were given a standard trait judgment paradigm and damage to this area was found to abolish the self-reference effect, suggesting that the structure is important for self-referential processing and the neural representation of the self (Philippi et al., 2012). The implications of this research go beyond social psychology, too. The authors write, “The ability to detect and encode information for self-relevance might contribute not only to the formation of a self-concept, but also more broadly to psychological and social functioning. Across a variety of psychopathological conditions and personality disorders, self-referential processing appears to be dysfunctional, making it a major target for psychotherapy.” To read this article yourself, please visit: .

3.1.3. Self-Discrepancies

Self-discrepancy theory was postulated by Higgins (1987) to distinguish between the various self-states proposed by sociology, psychology, and even philosophy. Higgins says there are two cognitive dimensions which underlie the various self-state representations. The first is the domains of the self , numbering three total – the actual, ideal, and ought selves. The actual self includes the attributes that you are believed to possess, whether by yourself or another person. The ideal self includes all attributes that someone, whether you or another person, hope or wishes for you to possess. The ought self are the attributes that someone (yourself or another person) believes you should possess (i.e. linked to a sense of duty, obligation, or responsibility). Higgins exemplifies the ideal and ought self through the example of the conflict a hero faces between their personal wishes and their sense of duty.

The second cognitive dimension is what he calls standpoints on the self , or whose perspective on the self is involved. The two basic standpoints are your own personal standpoint and the standpoint from a significant other such as a spouse, parent, sibling, or close friend. A person can have a self-state representation for any number of these significant others.

The two cognitive dimensions can then be combined to form six basic types of self-state representations: actual/own, actual/other, ideal/own, ideal/other, ought/own, and ought/other. Our self-concept is derived from the first two, while the last four are self-directive standards or acquired guides for being, or as he calls them, self-guides . Self-discrepancy theory therefore proposes that people differ as to which self-guide they are motivated to meet, and that people do not necessarily possess all four (we might have only ought or ideal self-guides). We are motivated to “reach a condition where our self-concept matches our personally relevant self-guides” (pg. 321).

If this does not happen, we can experience sadness, disappointment, fear, dissatisfaction, apprehension, or feel threatened. For instance, if a discrepancy exists between the actual/own and ideal/own states, meaning the person feels their personal hopes or wishes have not been fulfilled, they will be vulnerable to dejected-related emotions such as disappointment, frustration, and dissatisfaction. If the discrepancy is between actual/own and ideal/other, meaning they have failed to obtain a significant other’s hopes or wishes for them, they may feel shame, embarrassment, or feel downcast. If the discrepancy is between actual/own and ought/other, meaning the current state of our attributes from our standpoint does not match the state the person believes some significant other considers to be our duty or obligation to obtain, then we might experience agitation-related emotions and feel fear or threatened. Finally, an actual/own and ought/own discrepancy occurs when the current state of our attributes, from our standpoint, do not match the state we believe is our duty or obligation to obtain and so we feel self-contempt, guilt, and uneasiness (Higgins, 1987).

In sum, self-discrepancy theory helps us to understand discrepancies between our view of our self and who we would ideally like to be or believe other people think we should be.

3.1.4. How Others Affect Our Sense of Self The looking-glass self. Sociologist Charles Cooley (1902) stated that people based their sense of self on how they think others see them. This social interaction serves as a sort of mirror in which people use the judgments of others to measure their own worth, behavior, and values. He calls this the looking-glass self , and it occurs in three steps. First, we imagine how we appear to others when in a social situation. Second, we imagine what others think of our appearance. Third, we form opinions and feelings about this perceived judgment and then respond to it. Let’s say for instance you are assigned to a small group in your social psychology class and are asked to discuss the topic of self-discrepancy theory. You have not interacted with these individuals thus far this semester, and so you want to demonstrate to these fellow students that you are knowledgeable of the concept. As you discuss the material, you take note of how your fellow classmates respond to your thoughts and applications of the concept of self-discrepancy theory. What is their body language? Do they maintain eye contact with you? Do they seem to be distracted or are they focused? What words do they use in response to your comments? If your classmates generally have positive feedback such as commenting constructively on your thoughts or listening intently, you will feel confident that they see you as competent and knowledgeable. If, on the other hand, they look away often, are playing a game on their phone, or have negative comments, you will likely feel that they do not see you as knowledgeable. To make matters more complicated, in the future your professor has you work with a different group of classmates for a different activity. The new task provides a different context for the interaction and the new set of students changes the nature of those involved. So, how you use the information obtained from this new group of individuals will likely be different than the first group. And of course, not all feedback carries the same weight. Maybe you know one of your group members is an A student and doing very well in the class. If they provide positive feedback this will mean more to you than a student praising your analysis who you know is struggling. Reflected appraisals. Building off Cooley’s work, Felson (1985) said that we come to see ourselves as those important to us see us, called a reflected appraisal. In an interesting study of adolescents from the Netherlands, Verkuyten (1988) found that the general self-esteem of ethnic minorities was relatively high, despite the fact that they have low status, experience discrimination and prejudice, and have little power to influence policymakers. So why was their self-esteem higher than expected? As support for the reflected appraisal process, they derived their self-esteem from fellow family members who regarded them highly. Social comparison theory. Oftentimes, we are uncertain of our abilities and so look to others for a clue. A college baseball player may compare his batting average against those of his teammates to see how well he is doing. Festinger (1954) called this the social comparison theory . We make such comparisons as a way to bring about self-improvement or to motivate us to be better. If the players’ batting average is not the lowest, but close, he may ask for additional batting practice or tips from the batting coach. We also compare ourselves to others to enhance our positive self-image. If the player learns that his batting average is better than most of his teammates, he will feel good about his hitting ability. Of course, he might also develop a superior attitude or become biased or judgmental.

How might social media affect the social comparisons we make? Social networking sites such as Facebook give the impression that others are doing better than they are which can be detrimental to how we view ourselves. In a study of 231 adults aged 18-25, Facebook use was found to lead to greater levels of negative social comparison which resulted in seeing oneself as less socially competent and less physically attractive. This effect was weaker among happier individuals (de Vries & Kuhne, 2015).  A similar study of Instagram “likes” found that exposing female undergraduates to thin-ideal images led to greater levels of body and facial dissatisfaction than average images and that greater investment in Instagram likes led to higher levels of appearance comparison and facial dissatisfaction (Tiggerman et al., 2018).

The benefit of social comparison is that it can lead to efforts to self-improve. How so? We could make a specific type of social comparison called an upward social comparison in which we compare our traits and abilities against someone who is more skilled than we are. This can lead us to engage in motivated behavior to improve, but it could also leave us feeling incompetent, shameful, or jealous (Collins, 1996). Arousal as information about us. Stimuli are forever present in our sensory world and we have perceptions of them. These perceptions lead us to respond. For example, if you are walking down a street and hear footsteps behind you, you might perceive this as a threat if it is late at night and you thought you were alone on the street. This could lead you to walk quicker to your car or house or turnaround to confront the person behind you. What if you heard footsteps but is the middle of the day, on campus, and in between classes? You would likely perceive this as just another student going to class and have no reaction. Schachter (1964) proposed his two-factor theory of emotion which states that how we perceive our own emotions depends on two factors: 1) how much physiological arousal we experience such as rapid breathing, sweating, and/or a pounding heart, and 2) the cognitive interpretation or label we apply such as angry, scared, or happy. Others help us with the second factor such that we will examine their reactions to a given situation to help us interpret the arousal we are experiencing. Say for instance we are at a movie and out of nowhere the killer jumps out and attacks the protagonist. When this happens, we jump in our seat and scream, and notice that other moviegoers have the same reaction. We thus realize we experienced a high level of arousal and label the emotion as scared. Soon after we likely laugh at ourselves since we knew all along the event was not real but a mere fiction on the screen.

3.1.5. The Self and Culture

The self does not exist on an island but in the context of the society and culture in which it lives. As such, there is a great deal of variability in terms of what the self-concept is from culture to culture. First, culture includes all the beliefs, customs, institutions, experience, values, attitudes, art, religion, etc. of a group of people. Each culture establishes norms , or rules, for how its members should behave. For instance, Western cultures view the self as independent or individualistic , meaning that individuals reject conformity, focus on individual traits and goals, and seek personal achievement while Asian cultures are interdependent or collectivistic and identify the self in a social context, believe in blending in, focus on group goals, promote solidarity, and are against egotism.  According to Markus and Kitayma (1991) the independent construal of self is bounded, unitary, and stable; focuses on being unique, realizing internal attributes, and promoting ones’ goals; and sees the role of others as self-appraisal and linked to social comparison and reflected appraisal. In terms of the interdependent self, they say the structure is flexible; the task is to belong and fit in, occupy one’s place and promote other’s goals; and our relationships with others in specific contexts define the self. The independent is internal and private, focused on one’s abilities, thoughts, and feelings while the interdependent is external and public, and focused on statuses, roles, and relationships (Markus & Kitayma, 1991).

Research shows that East Asians, namely those from Korea, have more flexibility in their self-concept compared to Americans (Choi & Choi, 2002) and that Asian Americans, compared to European Americans, show variability across relationship contexts but stability within them (English & Serena, 2007). In another study, when trait self-perceptions across different relationships were inconsistent, relationship quality and authenticity was lower for European Americans but not East Asian Americans. When there was inconsistency within the same relationship, both ethnic groups showed negative outcomes (English & Chen, 2011).

  • Describe how self-esteem is a need.
  • Identify and define types of self-esteem.
  • Clarify what happens to self-esteem across the life span.
  • Clarify if there are gender and cross-cultural differences in self-esteem.
  • Define Terror Management Theory and clarify its relevance to self-esteem.
  • Describe self-efficacy and locus of control and how they relate to the self.
  • Define self-regulation.
  • Define self-awareness and describe issues related to it.
  • Differentiate public and private self-consciousness.
  • Define self-enhancement and describe strategies used in it.

3.2.1. Self-Esteem Defined and Described Self-esteem as a need. Psychologist Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of needs as one way to understand motivation and specifically the push of motivated behavior (contrasted with the pull that comes from outside us). According to Maslow, there are five types of needs arranged in a hierarchy, or more so in a pyramid formation. Lower level needs must be fulfilled before higher level ones can be. At the bottom are the physiological needs which are what we need to survive. They include food, water, sex, temperature, oxygen, etc. At the next level are needs centered on our safety and security , or living in a safe environment, being safe from Mother Nature, and having enough money to pay the bills. With this level satisfied, we can next focus on feeling socially connected to others and being in mature relationships, which he called the love and belonginess needs . Fourth are our self-esteem needs or being independent, gaining mastery, how we feel about ourselves, and being responsible. At the pinnacle of the pyramid are our self-actualization needs , which Carl Rogers and other humanistic psychologists discussed. This level focuses on realizing our full potential, feeling fulfilled and satisfied, and seeking personal growth. We also pursue interests out of intrinsic interest and not extrinsic demands. For our purposes, Maslow’s fourth level will be focused on and self-esteem can be defined as how we see ourselves, including both positive and negative evaluative components. Types of self-esteem. Is self-esteem a unitary concept though? Rosenberg (1979) proposed a global self-esteem and subsequent research has supported domain specific self-esteem such as for academic matters (Rosenberg et al., 1995). So, which causes which? Does global self-esteem lead to specific or vice versa? The authors propose that global could be the result of specific self-esteem since it is “based on the judgments of various parts of the self, the parts (specifics) might be seen as responsible for the whole (global)” (pg. 148). In terms of the specific arising from global, they say, “assessments of particular facets of the self may well be based on one’s overall feelings of self-worth” (pg. 148). They conclude that global and specific self-esteem are in fact neither equivalent nor interchangeable, global appears to be heavily affective in nature and associated with psychological well-being while specific is more judgmental and evaluative arising from a cognitive component; specific facets of the self vary in their level of abstraction and some types such as academic self-esteem affect global self-esteem more than other types; the degree to which we value our behavior affects how much specific self-esteem affects global; and finally, in the case of school performance it is affected by self-esteem but in terms of the specific type and not global (Rosenberg et al., 1995).

What are some of the specific types of self-esteem.? According to Gentile et al. (2009) they might include:

  • Physical appearance – what we look like
  • Athletics – how good we are in sports
  • Academics – our general performance in school
  • Social Acceptance – our friendships, peer relationships, and social approval
  • Family – Our family can serve as a source support and help affirm our beliefs about our own self-worth
  • Behavioral conduct – includes our perception of how socially unacceptable our behavior is
  • Affect – Feeling happy, satisfied, and free from anxiety which lead to better emotional well-being
  • Personal self – Our evaluation of our personality independent from the physical body or others
  • Self-satisfaction – Our measure of happiness with oneself as a person
  • Moral-ethical self-concept – Our perception of moral-ethical attributes and how satisfied we are with our religion or lack of one Self-esteem across the life span. Our next question centers on whether self-esteem can change throughout our life. Trzesniewski et al., (2003) tested this very question across two studies and found that, “stability is relatively low during early childhood, increases through adolescence and young adulthood, and then declines during midlife and old age” (pg. 215). This effect held across gender, nationality, and ethnicity. How can we account for these trends? First, self-esteem was least stable during childhood, though the authors question whether self-esteem measures are valid for young children as they may not fully understand the meaning of questions on such scales or cannot form abstract concepts of themselves, such as being good or bad. Second, self-esteem is lower in early adolescence and increases after this likely due to the turmoil puberty brings about in terms of rapid maturational changes. By late adolescence and early adulthood, the individual has the resources and autonomy necessary to deal with these changes. Finally, self-esteem stability decreases from midlife to old age likely because in midlife there are few environmental changes but as we transition into late adulthood, there are a great deal of life changes and shifting social circumstances such as children moving out, retirement, health problems and the death of loved ones. In regard to late adulthood, they add, “Another possibility is that as individuals age they may begin to review their lifelong accomplishments and experiences, leading in some cases to more critical self-appraisals and in other cases to greater acceptance of their faults and limitations” (pg. 216).

Interestingly, data from 187 newlywed couples shows that the birth of the first child does affect self-esteem over the first five years of marriage. Changes mostly affect the mother and are negative in nature with a sudden decline in self-esteem the first year after the child’s birth and a gradual decline continuing over the next four years. The study utilized a control group of parents who had no child during the same period and for which there was no change in self-esteem. This suggests that the change in self-esteem of the parents with a child was likely due to the birth of their first child (Bleidorn et al., 2016). Gender and cross-cultural differences in self-esteem. Gentile et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies and assessed the 10 different domains of self-esteem mentioned at the end of the previous section. They found that gender differences vary greatly across the different domains of self-esteem. In some cases, there was no difference at all (i.e. academic, social acceptance, family, and affect), while other domains showed a moderate amount of variation (i.e. males higher on physical appearance, athletics, personal, and self-satisfaction; females higher on behavioral conduct and moral-ethical).

But are there cross-cultural differences in gender and self-esteem? Bleidorn et al. (2016) tackled the issue in an Internet sample of 985,937 individuals from 48 nations and found that self-esteem increased from late adolescence to middle adulthood, there were significant gender gaps, and that males consistently report higher self-esteem than females. These findings are important as they show that the trends, which are consistent with the literature but previous studies only examined Western samples, are in fact cross-culturally valid and suggest universal mechanisms at least in part. These mechanisms might include biological sources including genetics or hormones or universal sociocultural factors such as socially learned gender roles and stereotypes.

Despite these cross-cultural similarities, there was a difference across nations in terms of the magnitude of gender-specific trajectories, suggesting that universal explanations may not be at work but culture-specific influences such as a nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, mean age at marriage, and HDI (Human Development Index; measures of living a long life, being educated, and having a decent standard of living) are responsible. Their data suggests that wealthy, developed, egalitarian, and individualistic nations had relatively large gender differences in self-esteem, though they decrease throughout early and middle adulthood. In contrast, collectivistic, poorer, developing nations marked by greater gender inequality and an earlier age at marriage show smaller gender gaps, though these increase during early and middle adulthood.

Bleidorn et. al. (2016) conclude that universal influences on self-esteem do not tell the whole story, and that “systematic cultural differences in the magnitude and shape of gender and age differences in self-esteem provide evidence for contextual influences on the self-esteem development in men and women” (pg. 408).

3.2.2. Terror Management Theory (TMT) What is TMT? Ernest Becker (1962, 1973, & 1975) stated that it is the human capacity for intelligence, to be able to make decisions, think creatively, and infer cause and effect, that leads us to an awareness that we will someday die. This awareness manifests itself as terror and any cultural worldviews that are created need to provide ways to deal with this terror, create concepts and structures to understand our world, answer cosmological questions, and give us a sense of meaning in the world.

Based on this notion, Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon, 1986) posits that worldviews serve as a buffer against the anxiety we experience from knowing we will die someday. This cultural anxiety buffer has two main parts. First, we must have faith in our worldviews and be willing to defend them. Second, we derive self-esteem from living up to these worldviews and behaving in culturally approved ways. So, culture supports a belief in a just world and meeting the standards of value of the culture provides us with immortality in one of two ways. Literal immortality is arrived at via religious concepts such as the soul and the afterlife. Symbolic immortality is provided by linking our identity to something higher such as the nation or corporation and by leaving something behind such as children or cultural valued products. It has also been linked to the appeal of fame (Greenberg, Kosloff, Solomon, Cohen, and Landau, 2010).

Finally, based on whether death thoughts are in focal attention or are unconscious, we employ either proximal or distal defenses. Proximal defenses involve the suppression of death-related thoughts, a denial of one’s vulnerability, or participating in behavior that will reduce the threat of demise (i.e. exercise) and occur when thought of death is in focal attention. On the other hand, distal defenses are called upon when death thoughts are unconscious and involve strivings for self-esteem and faith in one’s worldview and assuage these unconscious mortality concerns through the symbolic protection a sense of meaning offers. The typical mortality salience study. In a typical mortality salience (MS) study, participants are told they are to take part in an investigation of the relationship between personality traits and interpersonal judgments. They complete a few standardized personality assessments which are actually filler items to sustain the cover story. Embedded in the personality assessments is a projective personality test which consists of two open ended questions which vary based on which condition the participant is in. Participants in the MS condition are asked to write about what they think will happen to them when they die and the emotions that the thought of their own death arouses in them. Individuals in the control condition are asked to write about concerns such as eating a meal, watching television, experiencing dental pain, or taking an exam. Next, they complete a self-report measure of affect, typically the PANAS (Positive-Affect, Negative-Affect Scale), to determine the effect of MS manipulation on their mood. Finally, they are asked to make judgments about individuals who either directly or indirectly threaten or bolster their cultural worldviews. Worldview defense. General findings on TMT have shown that when mortality is made salient, we generally display unfavorable attitudes toward those who threaten our worldview and celebrate those who uphold our view. This effect has been demonstrated in relation to anxious individuals even when part of one’s in-group (Martens, Greenberg, Schimel, Kosloff, and Weise, 2010) such that mortality reminders led participants to react more negatively toward an anxious police liaison from their community (Study 1) or to a fellow university student who was anxious (Study 2). Mortality salience has also been found to elevate preference for political candidates who are charismatic and espouse the same values associated with the participant’s political worldview, whether conservative or liberal (Kosloff, Greenberg, Weise, and Solomon, 2010).

Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Lyon (1989) examined reactions of participants to those who violated or upheld cultural worldviews across a series of six experiments. In general, they hypothesized that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they are motivated to maintain their cultural anxiety buffer and are punitive toward those who violate it and benevolent to those who uphold it. Experiments 1 and 3 provided support for the hypothesis that subjects induced to think about their own mortality increased their desire to punish the moral transgressor (i.e. to recommend higher bonds for an accused prostitute) while rewarding the hero (Experiment 3). Experiment 2 replicated the findings of Experiment 1 and extended them by showing that increasing MS does not lead subjects to derogate just any target as it had no effect on evaluations of the experimenter. Also, MS increased punishment of the transgressor only among subjects who believed the target’s behavior was truly immoral.

Experiments 4 – 6 tested alternative explanations for the findings. First, self-awareness could lead individuals to behave in a manner consistent with their attitudes and standards.  The results of Study 4 showed that unlike MS, self-awareness does not encourage harsher bond recommendations and in fact, heightened self-awareness reduces how harshly a prostitute is treated among individuals with positive attitudes toward prostitution. In Study 5, physiological arousal was monitored and MS was found not to arise from mere heightened arousal. Finally, Experiment 6 showed that particular features of the open-ended death questionnaire did not lead to the findings of Studies 1-5, but rather to requiring subjects to think about their own deaths.

McGregor, Lieberman, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, Simon, and Pyszcznski (1998) tested the hypothesis that MS increases aggression against those who threaten one’s worldview by measuring the amount of hot sauce allocated to the author of a derogatory essay. In the study, politically conservative and liberal participants were asked to think about their own death (MS) or their next important exam (control). They were then asked to read an essay that was derogatory toward either conservatives or liberals. Finally, participants allocated a quantity of very spicy hot sauce to the author of the essay, knowing that the author did not like spicy foods and would have to consume the entire sample of hot sauce. As expected, MS participants allocated significantly more hot sauce to the author of the worldview-threatening essay than did control participants.

In a second study, participants thought about their own mortality or dental pain and were given an opportunity to aggress against someone who threatened their worldview. Half of the MS participants allocated the hot sauce before evaluating the target while the other half evaluated the target before allocating the hot sauce. Results of Study 2 showed that MS participants allocated significantly more hot sauce when they were not able to verbally derogate the targets prior to the administration of hot sauce. However, when MS participants were able to first express their attitudes toward the target, the amount of hot sauce allocated was not significantly greater than for the controls. This finding suggests that people will choose the first mode of worldview defense provided to them. Self-esteem. According to the anxiety buffer hypothesis, if a psychological structure provides protection against anxiety, then strengthening that structure should make an individual less prone to displays of anxiety or anxiety related behavior in response to threats while weakening that structure should make a person more prone to exhibit anxiety or anxiety related behavior in response to threats. In support of this, Greenberg et al. (1992) showed that by increasing self-esteem, self-reported anxiety in response to death images and physiological arousal in response to the threat of pain could be reduced. Furthermore, the authors found no evidence that this effect was mediated by positive affect. Additional support for the function of self-esteem in reducing anxiety was provided by Harmon-Jones, Simon, Greenberg, Pyszcynski, Solomon, and McGregor (1997) who showed that individuals with high self-esteem, whether induced experimentally (Experiment 1) or dispositionally (Experiment 2), did not respond to MS with increased worldview defense and that this occurred due to the suppression of death constructs (Experiment 3).

3.2.3. Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control

Self-Efficacy (Bandura, 1986) is our sense of competence and feeling like we can deal with life’s problems. It includes our beliefs about our ability to complete a task and affects how we think, feel, and motivate ourselves. When our self-efficacy is high, we feel like we can cope with life events and overcome obstacles. Difficult tasks are seen as challenges and we set challenging goals. In contrast, if it is low, we feel hopeless, helpless, and that we cannot handle what life throws at us. We avoid difficult tasks and throw in the towel quickly when things get tough. These individuals are easily depressed and stressed.

Our sense of competence is affected by the degree to which we blame internal or external forces for our success and failures. Using Julian Rotter’s (1973) concept of locus of control, we have an internal locus of control if we believe we are in control of our own destiny, but if we believe outside forces determine our life, we have an external locus of control.

So how do self-efficacy and locus of control intersect with one another. A study of students from a mid-sized public university in the northeastern area of the United States showed that students with an external locus of control and who are low in academic self-efficacy should be identified as they enter college and interventions directed at them to help them perform better in their classes (Drago, Rheinheimer, & Detweiler, 2018). A study of 147 women with type 1 diabetes examined the relationship between self-efficacy, locus of control, and what their expectations were of preconception counseling (Grady & Geller, 2016). Using the Diabetes-Specific Locus of Control (DLC) measure which assesses beliefs about internal, chance, and powerful others loci of control in terms of how diabetes is managed (the measure has 5 subscales: internal-autonomy, internal-blame, chance, powerful other – health professionals, and powerful other – nonmedical), a measure to assess preconception planning, and sociodemographic data,  the researchers tested the hypothesis that expectations of preconception counseling would be associated with beliefs about disease control and self-efficacy. The results showed that self-efficacy for planning a healthy pregnancy predicted outcome expectations of preconception counseling. The authors write, “…women’s self-efficacy was positively associated with their perceived usefulness of preconception counseling and birth control use, whereas self-blame about disease management negatively correlated with these views” (pg. 41). The authors suggest that efforts should be taken to improve self-efficacy and empower women with diabetes to confidently control their disease” (Grady & Geller, 2016).

3.2.4. Self-Regulation

We cannot always act or say what we feel. At times, we have to practice what social psychologists call self-regulation or controlling and directing our thoughts, feelings, and actions so that we can achieve a societal or personal goal. The good news is that much of our self-regulation occurs outside of conscious awareness but if we are trying to engage in meaningful behavioral change, we might have to focus much of our energy into self-control. One study linked successful self-regulation to executive functions to include updating, inhibiting, and shifting, which results in the ability to take goal-direction action such as losing weight (Dohle, Diel, & Hofmann, 2018).

Do concerted efforts at self-regulation reduce the amount of energy available for such activities in subsequent tasks? The question implies that self-regulation is a limited resource. Baumeister, Bratslasky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) tested this over four experiments and described this temporary reduction in the self’s ability to engage in volitional action caused by engaging in a volitional act previously ego depletion . The researchers first attempted to show that exerting self-control in terms of resisting temptation (Experiment 1) or a preliminary act of choice and responsibility (Experiment 2) would reduce the person’s ability to self-regulate on a subsequent, frustrating and difficult task. Results showed that people asked to resist eating chocolates and to make themselves eat radishes instead gave up much faster when next asked to complete a difficult puzzle than those who could indulge and eat the chocolate. Likewise, people who freely and deliberately consented to make a counterattitudinal or proattitudindal speech gave up quickly when asked to do the puzzle while those who expected to make the counterattitudinal speech under low-choice conditions showed no reduction in self-control. They state that it was the act of responsible choice, and not the behavior itself, that depleted the self and reduced persistence on the subsequent task. Experiments 3 and 4 further confirmed the finding that an initial act of volition leads to ego depletion in subsequent tasks. The good news is that this resource is replenished with time and specific factors could hasten or delay this replenishment (Baumeister et al., 1998).

3.2.5. Self-Awareness

Duval and Wicklund (1972) proposed that our self-regulation can either be directed inward and toward the self or directed outward and toward the environment. We are usually focused outward, but there are times when our attention is turned inward. For instance, if you walk by a mirror you might stop to see how you look in your new jeans. If we see a video of ourselves, are asked to talk about ourselves in an interview, or are required to give a presentation in our social psychology class, we experience an increased level of self-awareness and compare ourselves against a high standard which leads to reduced self-esteem since we realize we do not meet the standard. We then engage in motivated behavior to meet the standard, reassess whether we have, and then continue making adjustments until we finally meet the standard or give up and turn away from the self (Carver & Scheier, 1981). As you might expect, the process is aversive and so we want to resolve it (Flory et al., 2000). If we do not, we could experience depression (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987), engage in binge eating (Heatherton & Baumeister), and engage in counternormative behavior such as cheating (Diener & Wallbom, 1976) to name a few of the negative effects. Two recent studies found that when male participants were exposed to an intervention designed to focus their attention onto inhibitory, self-awareness cues, they engaged in significantly less alcohol-related physical aggression behaviors toward a female confederate compared to controls (Gallagher & Parrott, 2016) but for men with an internal and not an external locus of control (Purvis, Gallagher, & Parrott, 2016).

It is possible that some individuals are more self-focused than others, a distinction referred to as public vs. private self-consciousness (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975). Public self-consciousness refers to an individual who focuses on themselves as a social object and is concerned by how they appear to others. In contrast, private self-consciousness refers to an individual who focuses on the internal self, is introspective, and attends to one’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. Scheier, Buss, and Buss (1978) found that for those high in private self-consciousness, the correlation between aggressive behavior and self-report of aggressiveness was significantly higher than for those low in private self-consciousness or high or low public self-consciousness. Public self-consciousness has also been found to relate to social aspects of identity while private self-consciousness was related to personal aspects (Cheek & Briggs, 1982).

3.2.6. Self-Enhancement

Self-enhancement is a fundamental component of human nature and involves our tendency to see ourselves in a positive light. This often occurs after our self-esteem has been negatively affected in some way (Beauregard & Dunning, 1998).

According to Sedikides & Gregg (2008), self-enhancement can be done in one of several ways. First, we might self-advance or self-protect either by augmenting positivity or reducing the negativity of the self-concept. Second, self-enhancement can occur either publicly or privately whereby in the case of the former we engage in favorable self-presentation and the latter is an internal affair. Third, we tend to self-enhance in domains that matter most to us. Finally, self-enhancement is either candid or tactical, meaning “one can both seize an opportunity for overt and immediate self-advancement, or one can forgo it in favor of other activities liable to facilitate delayed self-enhancement” (pg. 104).

People can also engage in positive illusions (Taylor & Brown, 1988) in which they hold opinions of themselves that are exaggerated or falsely positive regarding abilities and skills. These positive illusions include inflating their perceptions of themselves (i.e. self-aggrandizement), believing they have more control over events than they do (i.e. exaggerated perceptions of control), and being overly optimistic about their future (i.e. unrealistic optimism). Positive illusions have been shown to lead to successful adjustment to stressful events (Taylor & Armor, 1996); increased satisfaction in close relationships when an individual idealized their partner and is in turn idealized by them (Barelds & Dijkstra, 2011; Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996); and better outcomes for physical health later in life in terms of more satisfaction with leisure time, higher self-esteem, better perceived health, and less boredom proneness when retirees hold an exaggerated youthful bias (Gana, Alaphillippe, & Bailly, 2002). Positive illusions have been reported in parenting as well in which parents have a tendency to rate their own children as possessing more positive and less negative attributes than other children (Wenger & Fowers, 2008).

Have you ever worried about doing well on a test and so create an excuse to cover poor performance such as saying you were sick when you took it? If so, you engaged in behavioral self-handicapping (Jones & Berglas, 1978). We self-handicap when we are uncertain about our abilities and anticipate a threat to our self-esteem. Instead of saying we failed the exam because our ability was low or we did not study, we instead blame it on being sick or not sleeping well the night before. Self-handicapping can take two forms – behavioral and claimed. Behavioral self-handicapping occurs when we actively acquire an impediment such as drug or alcohol abuse (Arkin & Baumgardner, 1985) or do not have enough time to practice (Baumeister, Hamilton, & Tice, 1985). Claimed self-handicapping occurs when a person only reports obstacles to their success such as suffering from test anxiety (Smith, Snyder, and Handelsman, 1982) or being in a bad mood (Baumgarder, Lake, and Arkin, 1985). Between the two, behavioral handicaps are more convincingly tied to performance and so more credible, while claimed handicaps serve as an excuse for failure but do not necessarily decrease the person’s chance of success (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Finally, Stewart & Walker (2014) found that self-handicapping was predicted by perfectionism and an external locus of control in a study of 79 university students (they also found that perfectionism predicted low self-efficacy).

We might even engage in the social comparison process to feel better about ourselves. How so? Instead of comparing our performance to others to see where we rate, we will look for someone we know performs worse than we do or is worse off than we are, and then make a downward social comparison (Wills, 1981). This makes us feel better about ourselves because no matter how bad off we are at the time, that person is in a far worse predicament. Maybe we know we are in a batting slump over the past 10 games and have experienced a reduction in our self-esteem as a result. We might compare ourselves against another teammate who has underperformed all year and realize that our situation is temporary and not seemingly permanent like theirs.

People have a tendency to evaluate themselves much higher than they evaluate others. For instance, they are smarter, better looking, more capable, and more honest than other people. This is called the “better than average” ( BTA) effect. Across five studies, Brown (2012) showed that the BTA is stronger for important attributes than ones that do not matter and when participants experienced a threat to their feelings of self-worth. It has also been shown that the effect holds for easy tasks which produce underconfidence, but not for difficult ones which lead to overconfidence and making a worse-than-average bias (Larrick, Burson, & Soll, 2007). Finally, Kanten and Teigen (2008) asked 385 students to rate themselves or an acquaintance relative to their peers on several personality traits. The results showed that participants saw themselves as superior to most others at all points in time. The authors describe a better than average improvement effect such that participants said they were more superior now compared to the past and expected to be even more superior in the future.

Finally, Cialdini et al. (1976) said that people have a tendency to publicly announce their associations with successful others in a process they called “ bask in reflected glory ” (BIRG). In a series of three field experiments involving 300 university students across seven universities in the United States, Cialdini et al. (1976) found that participants strived to bask in the glory of successful others even though they were not the cause of their  success, such as wearing school apparel and saying ‘we’ after their team was victorious but not when they lost (in the case of a loss, participants often said ‘they lost’ instead of ‘we lost’).  In another study, two days before the 1999 general election in Flanders researchers counted and recorded houses displaying at least one poster or one removable lawn sign supporting a political party (a total of 462 addresses for posters and 177 addresses for lawn signs). The day after the elections, the houses were checked to see if the poster or lawn sign (s) was/were still present. The results showed that the better the election result, the more houses that still displayed the sign/poster. Winners flaunted their association with the winning party, supporting BIRG while supporters of the losing party tried to conceal their association (Boen et al., 2002).

  • Define self-presentation.
  • Define self-promotion and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define ingratiation and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define false modesty and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define self-verification and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define self-monitoring and describe how it is used in self-presentation.

3.3.1. Self-Presentation Defined

Think about the last date you went on, especially a first date. What did you do beforehand? You likely showered and groomed yourself, maybe even rehearsed what you would say in the mirror. You also likely took great care to pick your clothes out to make a good first impression. Any strategies we use to make ourselves appear in a more positive light to others is called self-presentation. We intentionally try to control or shape their impressions of us (Schlenker, 2012). First impressions are especially important. Oftentimes, if we make a bad first impression it can be virtually impossible to overcome even if subsequent interactions are much more positive.

3.3.2. Specific Strategies Used in Self-Presentation

So that we can successfully shape the view others have of us to be positive, we need to engage in effortful behavior. How so? One strategy is to use self-promotion or engaging in behaviors or saying positive things about oneself. We often engage in this type of behavior on a first date or in an interview. Research has also shown that individuals higher in narcissism and lower in self-esteem engage in greater levels of online activity on social networking sites such as Facebook and use more self-promotional content to include About Me, Main Photo, View Photos, and status updates. The study also found gender differences insofar as males engaged in more self-promotion in the About Me and Notes sections while females displayed more self-promotional main photos (Mehdizadeh, 2010).

Another strategy is called ingratiation or complimenting, flattering, or engaging in other acts that lead a person to do things for you or like you. This is a typical strategy used by salespeople to have you engage in one clear behavior – buy a car or other product. Politicians are known to use the strategy also so that you come to like them while they are campaigning and then subsequently vote for them on election day. Cialdini (2007) writes in his book Influence: The Power of Persuasion , “Apparently we have such an automatically positive reaction to compliments that we can fall victim to someone who uses them in an obvious attempt to win our favor” (pg. 176).

Maybe you have been on a team at work before and had an idea that completely revolutionized the way your company completed a service for its clients. Did you gloat about your performance? Not likely. You were more likely to downplay your performance and talk about the contributions of your fellow teammates instead. The end result is that you will be seen as likeable and competent by others but for what is called false modesty , you must have been successful in your performance and others must know about it already (i.e. a fan was watching the big game and saw the wide receiver catch the game winning touchdown).

Another strategy is to choose situations or interpret behavior in ways that confirm already held beliefs or to avoid situations and criticism that might contradict these beliefs. Essentially, we want to confirm our existing self-concept but from the eyes of others. This behavior can best be described as self-verification .

Finally, we engage in self-monitoring or observing our own behavior so that we can make adjustments to produce the impression we desire in others and to meet the demands of the situation (Snyder, 1987). For instance, a literature review of self-monitoring through paper diaries, the internet, personal digital assistants, and digital scales in relation to weight loss, found that more frequent self-monitoring of diet, physical activity, or weight led to more successful outcomes for weight management (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011).

  • Define the self-serving bias.
  • Describe how social desirability is a form of the self-serving bias.
  • Contrast the false consensus and false uniqueness effects.
  • Outline the benefits, and perils, of optimism and pessimism.

Our final section covers cognitive biases and heuristics used to increase our sense of self, though we have discussed others already throughout this module.

3.4.1. The Self-Serving Bias

First, the self-serving bias is our tendency to see ourselves in a favorable light. We take credit for our successes but blame failures on outside forces. This bias is often displayed by students who are quicker to explain a bad grade on a test as the instructor creating a test that was too difficult or testing on information not in the study guide. When the student does well, though, it is due to their skill and time spent studying, and not necessarily to the test being extra easy.

We even have a tendency to see ourselves as less likely to exhibit a self-serving bias than others (Friedrich, 1996; Myers, 1990). Friedrich (1996) documented this effect across two studies. First, 47 upper level undergraduates enrolled in either a statistics or industrial/organizational psychology course completed an anonymous survey at the beginning of class having them read a paragraph about the results of a SAT survey and then respond to a paragraph describing the self-serving bias. At the end they were asked, “How often do you think (you; the average person) make this kind of mistake when judging or evaluating (yourself; him- or herself)?” and indicated their answer on a 9-point scale (1 meaning almost never and 9 indicating nearly all the time). The results showed that students generally saw themselves as significantly less likely to distort their self-perceptions. In the second study, 38 introductory psychology students were lectured on research related to the self-serving bias during the last third of a regularly scheduled class. At the beginning of the next class they were given a questionnaire asking them to what degree they thought that they or the average person (depending on the condition they were in) would make the mistake. The same 9-point scale was used. Results of the second study were consistent with the first such that students believed others are more likely to commit the self-serving bias than they are.

Another way we see the self-serving bias play out in research is through the social desirability effect or when participants only provide information that appears to be what is expected by society or is desirable. If asked questions about sexual activity, some may report lower levels of activity than is true or not mention acts of sexual impropriety. Though our society has become sexually charged, there are still limits to what is acceptable. We will talk more about self-serving behavior when we discuss attribution theory in Module 4. Explaining self-serving bias. So, what are potential causes of the self-serving bias? In a 2008 article, Shepperd, Malone, and Sweeny cite a few different classes of explanations. First, the previously discussed self-enhancement and self-presentation are offered as motivation-driven reasons (please see the previous sections for a discussion).

Second, they offer cognitive-driven explanations. The outcomes might be inconsistent with expectations such that our expectations are grounded in experience and we utilize cognitive mechanisms that might mute, dampen, or even erase previous negative experiences but not positive ones. Our outcomes may also not be consistent with our self-schema meaning that our views of our skills and abilities are often overly positive and that we view ourselves as the kind of person who produces positive outcomes, not negative ones. Positive outcomes are consistent with our self-schema while negative outcomes lead to two possible conclusions: the negative outcome had an internal cause and our positive self-schema is not correct, or the negative outcome had an external cause and our positive self-schema remains intact. A third possibility is that outcomes are inconsistent with actions . Positive expectations usually lead to goal-directed behavior. The authors offer the example of a boy who prepares to ask a girl out on a date by rehearsing what he will say, dressing nice, and acting charming. If she accepts his offer, he will see it as due to his efforts but if she rejects him, he will likely regroup and try again a few times. If the answer continues to be ‘no’ then he will believe the cause is not with him but something external.

A fourth cognitive explanation is called biased hypothesis-testing . When failure occurs in place of expected success, we are likely to ask ‘why did this happen?’ Like scientist’s, people form hypotheses to answer the question and then collect data to test it. But they are often not good scientists and engage in confirmation bias and see only information that confirms rather than disconfirms their hypothesis. People also find case-positive information more diagnostic than case-negative. Finally, people engage in different standards of proof in which they form a proposition or hypothesis and proceed to evaluate evidence. Unlike biased hypothesis-testing though, they consider all information and do not omit disconfirming evidence. How much information is needed to accept or reject their hypothesis also varies insofar as they require more information to accept an undesired hypothesis and less for a desired hypothesis.  For instance, the specific hypothesis tested (i.e. ‘Am I smart?’ or ‘Am I stupid?’) determines what information is sought out in biased hypothesis testing while in different standards of proof the exact hypothesis determines how much information is required to draw a conclusion (more proof for the question centered on whether they are stupid and less for if they are smart).

Shepperd, Malone, and Sweeny (2008) conclude that the self-serving bias can only be understood using both motivational and cognitive driven explanations.

3.4.2. Overestimating Our Opinions and Skills

People often overestimate to what degree their opinion is shared by others. This tendency is called the false consensus effect (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). It may occur because people are biased in viewing their own positions as what everyone else subscribes to as well, or because they overgeneralize from case information with their opinion serving as one salient type of case information (Alicke & Largo, 1995). The false consensus effect has been demonstrated in regard to smoking behavior (thinking that half or more than half of adults or peers smoked led to the most smoking involvement; Botvin et al., 1992); drug use (Wolfson, 2000); engaging in health protective or defeating behaviors (Suls, Wan, & Sanders, 1988); a willingness to escalate a disturbance (Russell & Arms, 1995); presidential preferences such that supporters of a candidate predicted a higher percentage of support for the candidate than other candidates (Brown, 1982); determining the extent to which other voters would vote like you (Koestner et al., 1995); and illicit drug use by elite athletes (Dunn, Thomas, Swift, & Burns, 2011).

Likewise, we tend to underestimate to what degree others share our abilities and skills. This tendency is called the false uniqueness effect . We might see our math ability as rare, our future to be brighter, or our opinion of a social matter to be more desirable. One study found that participants believed their first name to be unique, whether it was rare or common. The effect held for both male and female names and the researchers also found that when we consider making a name change, rare names are often considered (Kulig, 2013).

3.4.3. Optimism…to the Extreme

Of course, seeing the jar as half full and not half empty has obvious benefits for mental health. This is the essence of the difference between being optimistic and pessimistic.  Scheier and Carver (1985) offered a theory of dispositional optimism which defines it as, “a stable individual difference that reflects the general perception that future positive outcomes will be common and future negative outcomes will be rare” (Gallagher, Lopez, & Pressman, 2012). Research has shown that being optimistic results in higher levels of subjective well-being for college students (Gallagher & Lopez, 2009) and adults (Isaacowitz, 2005), leads to more adaptive coping mechanisms (Carver et al., 2009; Nes & Segerstrom, 2006), can bring about greater success on the job (Seligman & Schulman, 1986), results in goal attainment (Segerstrom & Nes, 2006), and brings about better physical health (Giltay et al., 2004).

Is optimism universal? Gallagher, Lopez, and Pressman (2012) conducted a study using representative samples from 142 countries numbering over 150,000 participants and found that individuals of all ages, races, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds and most countries are optimistic and that this optimism leads to better subjective well-being and health. Optimism is not merely a benefit of living in an industrialized nation either.

But is there such a thing as being too optimistic to the point of being unrealistic? The answer is yes and Weinstein (1980) identified a tendency people have to think they are invulnerable and that others will be the victims of misfortune but not themselves. He called this error in judgment, which results in a bias towards favorable outcomes, unrealistic optimism . For instance, college students in one study were unrealistically optimistic about the likelihood they would develop alcohol related problems in the future such as having a hangover, missing classes, or having an argument with a friend over their drinking. The negative consequences of unrealistic optimism were found to be both proximal and distal (Dillard, Midboe, & Klein, 2009). Another study found that patient’s participating in early-phase oncology trials display the unrealistic optimism bias in relation to their expectation of the therapeutic benefit of the trial and that this tendency can undermine the informed consent of participants (Jansen et al., 2011).

Everything is not always roses and so expressing some pessimism can actually help us to be realistic. Defensive pessimism can help us manage our anxiety and pursue our goals by setting low expectations and mentally exploring possible outcomes of goal-relevant tasks (Norem, 2008; Norem & Cantor, 1986). Hazlett, Molden, and Sackett (2011) found that participants who were focused on growth and advancement preferred optimistic forecasts and perform better when they express an optimistic outlook while those who were concerned with safety and security preferred pessimistic forecasts and perform better when they express a pessimistic outlook.

Module Recap

That’s it. We spent an entire module talking about our – self and should feel no guilt over it. Kidding. To be serious though, we all try and answer the question of who we are and philosophers have been tackling issues related to what it means to be human and matters of human existence since the dawn of time. Our discussion focused on the self-concept, self-esteem, self-presentation, and biases and heuristics we make/use to protect our sense of self. We hope you enjoyed the wide array of issues we covered and with this topic out of the way, we can now continue our discussion in Part II of how we think about ourselves and others by focusing on ‘others.’ After this, we will round out Part II by discussing the attitudes we have about ourselves, others, and things in our world.

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Public Self and Private Self pp 63–74 Cite as

Four Selves, Two Motives, and a Substitute Process Self-Regulation Model

  • Roy E. Baumeister &
  • Dianne M. Tice  

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Part of the Springer Series in Social Psychology book series (SSSOC)

In this chapter, we present an outline of self-presentation theory: the basic units, the main motives, and the causal processes. We propose, first, that there are two types of self-presentational motive, one aimed at impressing or manipulating the audience, the other aimed at claiming a certain public identity and reputation. Second, we distinguish the four main conceptual units that constitute the various selves of self-presentation. These are the public self, the self-concept, the actual or behavioral self, and the ideal self. Finally, we discuss self-presentation in the context of how people control their own behavior, including analysis of how self-presentational processes can replace other causal processes.

  • Causal Process
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Impression Management
  • Experimental Social Psychology
  • Social Facilitation

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Baumeister, R.E., Tice, D.M. (1986). Four Selves, Two Motives, and a Substitute Process Self-Regulation Model. In: Baumeister, R.F. (eds) Public Self and Private Self. Springer Series in Social Psychology. Springer, New York, NY.

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My Self Introduction

Self Presentation And Self Presentation Theory Explained

Drew E. Grable

What is Self Presentation?

Self presentation is something that everyone needs to learn, but not many do. If you watch television, movies, read magazines, or even visit social networking websites, you’ll see lots of people talking about who they are. However, very few actually talk about how they feel and why they think the way that they do.

One thing most people struggle with when it comes to self presentation is confidence. People often don’t know what to say or what to ask. They worry about what other people might think of them or what others will think if they start to open up to them. So, instead of taking the plunge and starting to share things about yourself, you just stay quiet. This makes no sense because you never get anywhere in life by keeping silent.

But here’s a little secret – sharing who we are can help us grow personally, professionally and financially.

Self-presentation Definition

When you’re trying to get ahead in life, you need to be able to present yourself in the best possible way. If you don’t know how to do this, you might end up looking like an amateur.

Here is a definition of self presentation.

A person’s self presentation is the way that he or she presents himself to other people. This includes things such as his or her clothing, hairstyle, and makeup.

What Is Self Presentation Theory?

Self-presentation theory is a psychological theory that explains how people present themselves to others. Self-presentation can take many forms, including verbal, nonverbal, and behavioral.

It has two parts: the self-concept and the self-schema. The self-concept is how we see ourselves concerning others; the self-schema is how we see ourselves concerning our thoughts and feelings.

The impact of self-presentation theory on organizations has been significant because it helps us understand why people make some choices over others when they are trying to sell something or position themselves for a job interview or promotion.

The theory was originally developed by anthropologist Sherry Turkle in 1977. In her book Life On The Screen, she wrote about how people use technology to try to create an idealized version of themselves for others, and then try to make their idealized selves real through interactions with other people.

This idea has become more popular in recent years as we have become increasingly connected through technology like social media and smartphones. We see examples all around us: people posting selfies on Instagram with their friends or families who aren’t there; people tweeting updates about their lives while they’re at work, and other examples too numerous to name here.

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Drew is the creator of, designed to teach everyone how to introduce themselves to anyone with confidence in any situation.

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Self-Presentation in Sport

Self-presentation,  also  referred  to  as  impression motivation,  is  the  process  whereby  individuals attempt to monitor and control how other people perceive them—that is, they attempt to portray a specific image (or impression) to others. In general, people try to present truthful images of themselves to others. However, in any specific situation, they may  choose  to  highlight  certain  aspects  of  themselves and downplay others. For example, people may  choose  to  emphasize  their  positive  qualities (such  as  organizational  skills,  previous  win–loss record), and avoid drawing attention to their less positive  qualities  (e.g.,  poor  time  management, poor athlete retention) in a job interview for a new coach position. There are also situations in which people  may  actually  decide  to  make  a  negative impression—for  example,  a  student  pretending she or he has not done readings in class (seeming unprepared)  to  avoid  having  to  answer  questions in front of the whole class.

People  self-present  for  many  reasons.  First, when  they  make  positive  impressions,  individuals generally maximize the rewards they get from others  (e.g.,  getting  a  job,  making  friends)  and minimize  the  costs  (e.g.,  avoiding  public  speaking). Second, making positive impressions on others  is  associated  with  more  positive  moods  and higher  self-esteem,  while  negative  impressions tends  to  lead  to  more  negative  moods  and  lower self-esteem.  Third,  if  other  people  have  a  specific impression of an individual (e.g., a good athlete), that helps reinforce how that individual sees himself or herself (i.e., self-concept). In general, some level of concern for what others think is thought to be adaptive and functional.

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Two  processes  are  proposed  to  underlie  self-presentation. The first is impression motivation— the   desire   to   create   a   certain   impression   in others.  The  second  is  impression  construction— how individuals decide which images to create and how they go about creating them. Several factors can  influence  an  individual’s  level  of  impression motivation. Some people are generally more concerned  with  what  others  think  of  them  in  most situations—they have high trait self-presentational concerns. However, certain situational factors can also heighten self-presentational concerns as well. For  example,  if  the  goal  (what  people  are  trying to  achieve  by  making  a  specific  impression)  is important,  they  will  be  more  motivated  to  create an  impression.  Similarly,  if  someone  thinks  that how  others  currently  see  them  (current  image)  is very  different  from  how  they  want  others  to  see them  (desired  image),  impression  motivation  will also be higher. Impression construction can also be influenced by both trait-like and situational factors. For  instance,  an  individual’s  self-concept  influences  the  images  he  or  she  may  wish  to  project. Situational  factors  include  the  values  of  the  target (who people are trying to make an impression upon)  or  how  people  are  currently  perceived  by others.  For  instance,  people  may  try  to  create  an image consistent with the values of the target and similar to their current images.

Self-presentation can occur in almost any aspect of one’s life, including sport and exercise settings. In  these  settings,  self-presentational  concerns  can impact  how,  or  even  whether,  people  participate in sport and exercise. In addition, sport and exercise  participation  can  impact  self-presentational responses.

Motivation for Exercise and Sport Participation

For many people, self-presentational concerns can motivate  them  to  participate  in  physical  activity  (PA).  One  specific  concern  relates  to  physical appearance. In particular, in North American society,  there  are  well-defined  ideal  physical  appearance standards for women (thin, toned body) and men  (muscular,  lean  body).  Participation  in  sport and exercise can help people maintain or improve their physical appearance and achieve these ideals. Thus, for some, the desire to appear more physically  attractive  to  others  motivates  them  to  be active. In addition to physical appearance, the wish to be perceived as an exerciser or an athlete may also encourage people to be more physically active. One  reason  is  that  people  described  as  exercisers are  perceived  more  positively  than  non-exercisers on a variety of physical and personality characteristics. Similarly, being seen as athletic (e.g., strong, coordinated, quick) can also lead to more positive outcomes. For instance, many individuals identify professional athletes as their heroes. Thus, people may  participate  in  PA  to  achieve  these  positive social images.

Alternatively,  self-presentational  concerns  can also  demotivate  people  from  being  active.  Often, if people believe they will make a negative impression during PA, they may avoid being active. These negative  impressions  can  also  relate  to  physical  appearance  and  social  identity.  For  instance, since PA by definition places a focus on the body, and  often  involves  wearing  more  revealing  clothing (e.g., shorts and a T-shirt), people may worry about  others  thinking  they  are  physically  unattractive. Similarly, individuals may worry that they may appear weak or unfit if they can’t lift as much weight or cycle as long as others. In sport settings, they  may  worry  about  looking  unskilled  if  they make  a  mistake.  Thus,  if  individuals  believe  that they  will  create  a  negative  image  (e.g.,  physically unattractive,  unfit,  or  unskilled)  then  they  may avoid PA altogether.

Physical Activity Context

Even if people choose to be physically active, the context of their activities can be influenced by self-presentational concerns. For example, if individuals believe they may make a negative impression, they may choose to be active alone—such as exercising at home. Another aspect of the PA context that is influenced by self-presentational concerns is the nature of the social environment. For example, many women indicate preferring to exercise in all female rather than coeducational settings because they  feel  more  comfortable  with  respect  to  their bodies.

It is also evident that some people may choose to avoid participating in certain activities because of  the  stereotypes  that  are  endorsed  about  participants  of  certain  activities.  For  example,  some sports  are  considered  more  “feminine”  (such  as figure skating or gymnastics), while others are considered  more  masculine  (such  as  football  or  boxing). Because of these stereotypes, some men may decide not to participate in certain sports to avoid being seen as too feminine, and some women may avoid  certain  sports  so  they  are  not  seen  as  too masculine.

Effort and Exertion

People’s  level  of  effort  during  PA  can  also  be impacted by self-presentational concerns. In some cases, people may tend to work harder when others  are  around.  If  people  want  to  appear  fit  and hardworking to others, they may put more effort into  their  workout  or  their  sport.  For  instance, they may lift more weight at the gym if someone is working out beside them, or they may run faster to  chase  a  ball  during  a  soccer  game  if  there  are others watching. On the other hand, some people may  report  working  less  hard  to  make  the  same impression.  For  instance,  if  during  a  challenging fitness  activity  someone  says  it  feels  easy,  she  or he may be trying to create the impression of being highly fit.

One particular self-presentational phenomenon that is relevant in sport is self-handicapping, which occurs  when  people  set  up  impediments  (either behavioral,  such  as  not  practicing,  or  claimed, such as saying they feel sick or anxious) in advance of their performance. Thus, if people fail, they can attribute  that  failure  to  an  external  factor  (e.g., sickness,  lack  of  practice,  highly  skilled  competition).  If  they  succeed,  they  manage  to  look  even more talented or skilled, as they were able to overcome the impediment in front of them. In general, self-handicapping  is  more  likely  to  occur  in  situations  that  are  considered  very  important,  where the outcome is uncertain, or that are highly public.

Self-Presentational Responses to Physical Activity

While  self-presentational  concerns  can  affect choices  regarding  PA,  participation  in  PA  can also  lead  to  certain  self-presentational  responses. Specifically,  participating  in  sport  and  PA  can increase, or decrease, the experience of certain self-presentational concerns. In general, these concerns are related to social anxiety—the worry or concern that  arises  when  people  want  to  make  a  specific impression  (impression  motivation)  but  are  not sure they will be successful.

In sport settings, one of the most common self-presentational  responses  is  competitive  anxiety, which  is  the  anxiety  that  results  specifically  in competitive sport situations. Although anxiety can originate from many sources, some of the concerns are self-presentational in nature. For example, athletes may worry about embarrassing themselves in front of fans, teammates, and coaches if they make a  mistake  or  look  unprepared  or  unskilled.  They may  also  worry  about  evaluations  of  their  body, particularly in sports where physical appearance is judged as part of the outcome (e.g., gymnastics and figure skating), where there are weight restrictions (e.g.,  rowing  or  wrestling),  or  where  clothing  is particularly revealing (e.g., swimming and diving). In extreme cases, this anxiety may lead to choking under pressure—failing in situations where people are trying particularly hard to succeed. People may place  so  much  pressure  on  themselves  to  succeed (and  make  a  positive  impression)  that  they  are unable to perform their best.

A  second  self-presentational  response  that  is common  in  sport  and  exercise  contexts  is  social physique anxiety (SPA), which is the anxiety that occurs  when  one’s  body  is  evaluated  by  others. Interestingly, the level of SPA has been associated with both higher and lower levels of PA. For some people,  high  concern  over  others’  evaluations  of the body leads them to be more physically active, while for others, it is associated with less PA, perhaps  to  avoid  the  possibility  of  their  body  being evaluated by others. For athletes, participation at higher  competitive  levels  is  generally  associated with  lower  levels  of  SPA—perhaps  they  become used  to  their  body  being  evaluated  by  others  or perhaps those very high in SPA drop out of sport early  on.  In  addition,  certain  factors  in  the  PA environment  may  make  SPA  more  likely.  For example, the presence of mirrors, the presence of men (for women), leadership style, and the wearing of revealing clothing (by oneself or others) are all associated with higher SPA levels.

A  third  self-presentational  response  is  self-presentational efficacy, which is the confidence people have in their ability to create a desired impression in  others.  In  exercise  and  sport  settings,  these images most often revolve around being seen as fit, skilled,  and  physically  attractive.  Generally,  individuals  higher  in  self-presentational  efficacy  are more active than those lower in self-presentational efficacy. They also report lower SPA.

Physical Activity Interventions: Their Impact on Self-Presentational Concerns

Generally,  PA  participation  can  help  reduce  self-presentational  concerns.  Aerobic  and  strength training programs have been associated with reductions  in  SPA  and  increases  in  self-presentational efficacy.  In  addition,  there  is  some  evidence  that even a single exercise session can lead to these same improvements   in   self-presentational   concerns. Further,  these  improvements  have  been  found  in college  men  and  women,  as  well  as  middle-aged and older adults. Interestingly, it appears that these changes  are  not  necessarily  linked  with  actual changes  in  the  body—rather,  changes  in  self-efficacy  and  perceptions  of  fitness  improvements may be equally influential.


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  • Prapavessis, H., Grove, J. R., & Eklund, R. C. (2004).Self-presentational issues in competition and sport . Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 16, 19–40.
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8 facts about atheists.

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Atheists make up 4% of U.S. adults, according to our 2023 National Public Opinion Reference Survey . That compares with 3% who described themselves as atheists in 2014 and 2% who did so in 2007 .

Here are some key facts about atheists in the United States and around the world, based on several Pew Research Center surveys.

This analysis draws on several Pew Research Center studies. Data on the share of atheists in the United States is from the  2023 National Public Opinion Reference Survey , as well as the Center’s  2007  and  2014 Religious Landscape Studies .

Other data on U.S. atheists comes from various waves of the American Trends Panel, collected in  September and December 2017 ,  February 2019 ,  September 2022 , and  July and August 2023 .

For data from countries other than the U.S., this analysis draws on nationally representative surveys conducted in 2019, 2022 and 2023. Read more details about our  international survey methodology and country-specific sample designs .

For the purposes of this analysis, “wealthy nations” are those that were classified as “high income” according to the  World Bank Income Classifications .

In the U.S., atheists are mostly men and are relatively young,  according to a Center survey conducted in summer 2023 . Around six-in-ten U.S. atheists are men (64%). And seven-in-ten are ages 49 or younger, compared with about half of U.S. adults overall (52%).

Atheists also are more likely than the general public to be White (77% vs. 62%) and have a college degree (48% vs. 34%). Roughly eight-in-ten atheists identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.

Almost all U.S. atheists (98%) say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives, according to the same summer 2023 survey. An identical share say that they seldom or never pray.

At the same time, 79% of American atheists say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least several times a year. And 36% feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least that often.

U.S. atheists and religiously affiliated Americans find meaning in their lives in some of the same ways. In a 2017 survey , we asked an open-ended question about this. Like a majority of Americans, most atheists mentioned family as a source of meaning.

However, atheists (26%) were far more likely than Christians (10%) to describe their hobbies as meaningful or satisfying. Atheists were also more likely than Americans overall to describe finances and money, creative pursuits, travel, and leisure activities as meaningful. Very few atheists (4%) said they found life’s meaning in spirituality.

A map showing that western Europeans are more likely than Americans to identify as atheists.

Atheists make up a larger share of the population in many Western European countries than in the U.S.,  according to a spring 2023 Center survey that included 10 European countries. For example, nearly a quarter of French adults (23%) identify as atheists, as do 18% of adults in Sweden, 17% in the Netherlands and 12% in the United Kingdom.

Most U.S. atheists express concerns about the role religion plays in society. An overwhelming majority of atheists (94%) say that the statement “religion causes division and intolerance” describes their views a great deal or a fair amount, according to our summer 2023 survey. And 91% say the same about the statement “religion encourages superstition and illogical thinking.” Nearly three-quarters (73%) say religion does more harm than good in American society.

At the same time, 41% of atheists say religion helps society by giving people meaning and purpose in their lives, and 33% say it encourages people to treat others well.

Atheists may not believe religious teachings, but they are  quite informed about religion . In our 2019 religious knowledge survey , atheists were among the best-performing groups. On average, they answered about 18 out of 32 fact-based questions correctly, while U.S. adults overall got roughly 14 questions right. In particular, atheists were twice as likely as Americans overall to know that the U.S. Constitution says no religious test is necessary to hold public office.

Atheists were also at least as knowledgeable as Christians on Christianity-related questions. For example, roughly eight-in-ten in both groups knew that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus.

Most Americans don’t think believing in God is necessary to be a good person, according to the summer 2023 survey. When we asked people which statement came closer to their views, 73% selected “it is possible to be moral and have good values without believing in God,” while 25% picked “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.”

Adults in some other wealthy countries tend to agree with this sentiment, based on responses to a similar question we asked in 2019 and 2022 . For example, nine-in-ten Swedish adults say belief in God is not necessary to be moral and have good values, while 85% in Australia, 80% in the Czech Republic and 77% in France say this.

However, fewer than one-in-ten adults in some other countries surveyed say that a person can be moral without believing in God. That includes 5% of adults in Kenya, 4% in the Philippines and 2% in Indonesia. In all three nations, more than nine-in-ten say instead that a person must believe in God to be a moral person.

About three-quarters of U.S. atheists (77%) do not believe in God or a higher power  or in a spiritual force of any kind, according to our summer 2023 survey. At the same time, 23% say they do believe in a higher power of some kind, though fewer than 1% of U.S. atheists say they believe in “God as described in the Bible.”

This shows that not all self-described atheists fit the literal definition of “atheist,” which is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods,”  according to Merriam-Webster .

Note: This is an update of a post originally published on Nov. 5, 2015. It was last updated Dec. 6, 2019.

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Why america’s ‘nones’ don’t identify with a religion, key findings about americans’ belief in god, unlike their central and eastern european neighbors, most czechs don’t believe in god, why people with no religion are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population, most popular.

About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .

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OpenAI teases an amazing new generative video model called Sora

The firm is sharing Sora with a small group of safety testers but the rest of us will have to wait to learn more.

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OpenAI has built a striking new generative video model called Sora that can take a short text description and turn it into a detailed, high-definition film clip up to a minute long.

Based on four sample videos that OpenAI shared with MIT Technology Review ahead of today’s announcement, the San Francisco–based firm has pushed the envelope of what’s possible with text-to-video generation (a hot new research direction that we flagged as a trend to watch in 2024 ).

“We think building models that can understand video, and understand all these very complex interactions of our world, is an important step for all future AI systems,” says Tim Brooks, a scientist at OpenAI.

But there’s a disclaimer. OpenAI gave us a preview of Sora (which means sky in Japanese) under conditions of strict secrecy. In an unusual move, the firm would only share information about Sora if we agreed to wait until after news of the model was made public to seek the opinions of outside experts. [Editor’s note: We’ve updated this story with outside comment below.] OpenAI has not yet released a technical report or demonstrated the model actually working. And it says it won’t be releasing Sora anytime soon. [ Update: OpenAI has now shared more technical details on its website.]

The first generative models that could produce video from snippets of text appeared in late 2022. But early examples from Meta , Google, and a startup called Runway were glitchy and grainy. Since then, the tech has been getting better fast. Runway’s gen-2 model, released last year, can produce short clips that come close to matching big-studio animation in their quality. But most of these examples are still only a few seconds long.  

The sample videos from OpenAI’s Sora are high-definition and full of detail. OpenAI also says it can generate videos up to a minute long. One video of a Tokyo street scene shows that Sora has learned how objects fit together in 3D: the camera swoops into the scene to follow a couple as they walk past a row of shops.

OpenAI also claims that Sora handles occlusion well. One problem with existing models is that they can fail to keep track of objects when they drop out of view. For example, if a truck passes in front of a street sign, the sign might not reappear afterward.  

In a video of a papercraft underwater scene, Sora has added what look like cuts between different pieces of footage, and the model has maintained a consistent style between them.

It’s not perfect. In the Tokyo video, cars to the left look smaller than the people walking beside them. They also pop in and out between the tree branches. “There’s definitely some work to be done in terms of long-term coherence,” says Brooks. “For example, if someone goes out of view for a long time, they won’t come back. The model kind of forgets that they were supposed to be there.”

Impressive as they are, the sample videos shown here were no doubt cherry-picked to show Sora at its best. Without more information, it is hard to know how representative they are of the model’s typical output.   

It may be some time before we find out. OpenAI’s announcement of Sora today is a tech tease, and the company says it has no current plans to release it to the public. Instead, OpenAI will today begin sharing the model with third-party safety testers for the first time.

In particular, the firm is worried about the potential misuses of fake but photorealistic video . “We’re being careful about deployment here and making sure we have all our bases covered before we put this in the hands of the general public,” says Aditya Ramesh, a scientist at OpenAI, who created the firm’s text-to-image model DALL-E .

But OpenAI is eyeing a product launch sometime in the future. As well as safety testers, the company is also sharing the model with a select group of video makers and artists to get feedback on how to make Sora as useful as possible to creative professionals. “The other goal is to show everyone what is on the horizon, to give a preview of what these models will be capable of,” says Ramesh.

To build Sora, the team adapted the tech behind DALL-E 3, the latest version of OpenAI’s flagship text-to-image model. Like most text-to-image models, DALL-E 3 uses what’s known as a diffusion model. These are trained to turn a fuzz of random pixels into a picture.

Sora takes this approach and applies it to videos rather than still images. But the researchers also added another technique to the mix. Unlike DALL-E or most other generative video models, Sora combines its diffusion model with a type of neural network called a transformer.

Transformers are great at processing long sequences of data, like words. That has made them the special sauce inside large language models like OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Google DeepMind’s Gemini . But videos are not made of words. Instead, the researchers had to find a way to cut videos into chunks that could be treated as if they were. The approach they came up with was to dice videos up across both space and time. “It’s like if you were to have a stack of all the video frames and you cut little cubes from it,” says Brooks.

The transformer inside Sora can then process these chunks of video data in much the same way that the transformer inside a large language model processes words in a block of text. The researchers say that this let them train Sora on many more types of video than other text-to-video models, varied in terms of resolution, duration, aspect ratio, and orientation. “It really helps the model,” says Brooks. “That is something that we’re not aware of any existing work on.”

“From a technical perspective it seems like a very significant leap forward,” says Sam Gregory, executive director at Witness, a human rights organization that specializes in the use and misuse of video technology. “But there are two sides to the coin,” he says. “The expressive capabilities offer the potential for many more people to be storytellers using video. And there are also real potential avenues for misuse.” 

OpenAI is well aware of the risks that come with a generative video model. We are already seeing the large-scale misuse of deepfake images . Photorealistic video takes this to another level.

Gregory notes that you could use technology like this to misinform people about conflict zones or protests. The range of styles is also interesting, he says. If you could generate shaky footage that looked like something shot with a phone, it would come across as more authentic.

The tech is not there yet, but generative video has gone from zero to Sora in just 18 months. “We’re going to be entering a universe where there will be fully synthetic content, human-generated content and a mix of the two,” says Gregory.

The OpenAI team plans to draw on the safety testing it did last year for DALL-E 3. Sora already includes a filter that runs on all prompts sent to the model that will block requests for violent, sexual, or hateful images, as well as images of known people. Another filter will look at frames of generated videos and block material that violates OpenAI’s safety policies.

OpenAI says it is also adapting a fake-image detector developed for DALL-E 3 to use with Sora. And the company will embed industry-standard C2PA tags , metadata that states how an image was generated, into all of Sora’s output. But these steps are far from foolproof. Fake-image detectors are hit-or-miss. Metadata is easy to remove, and most social media sites strip it from uploaded images by default.  

“We’ll definitely need to get more feedback and learn more about the types of risks that need to be addressed with video before it would make sense for us to release this,” says Ramesh.

Brooks agrees. “Part of the reason that we’re talking about this research now is so that we can start getting the input that we need to do the work necessary to figure out how it could be safely deployed,” he says.

Update 2/15: Comments from Sam Gregory were added .

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