Self-monitoring is a personality trait that captures differences in the extent to which people control the image they present to others in social situations. High self-monitors are motivated and skilled at altering their behavior to influence the impressions others have of them. In contrast, low self-monitors tend to focus on remaining true to their inner attitudes by presenting a relatively consistent image of themselves to others regardless of the situation.
Self-Monitoring Background and History
The theory of self-monitoring was introduced by Mark Snyder in 1974 at a time when personality and social psychologists were grappling with two fundamental debates. First, the impact of personality traits versus the situation on behavior was a source of contention between personality and social psychologists. Second, the disconnect between inner attitudes and external behavior was also perplexing researchers at that time. Self-monitoring offered a partial resolution to these debates by introducing an individual difference variable that addressed both sides of the debate; self-monitoring emphasized the power of the situation on high self-monitors’ behavior and the power of personality traits on low self-monitors’ behavior. Moreover, self-monitoring partly addressed the attitude-behavior consistency debate because such consistency could be expected among low but not high self-monitors.
Measurement Issues in Self-Monitoring
Perhaps because it dealt with such contentious issues, the theory and measurement of self-monitoring have been subject to much scrutiny and debate. Individual differences in self-monitoring are typically measured using a version of Snyder’s paper-and-pencil Self-Monitoring Scale that was revised and shortened by Snyder and Steve Gangestad in 1986. There has been some debate about whether three or four components make up the self-monitoring scale. This debate prompted researchers to clearly distinguish the concept of self-monitoring from other similar concepts, most notably the Big Five trait Extraversion. Currently, the three most commonly accepted components measured by the self-monitoring scale are acting, extraversion, and other-directedness. The role of each component is generally recognized as vital for identifying and measuring self-monitoring.
Another long-standing debate in the measurement of self-monitoring concerns whether there are two distinct categories of people, high and low self-monitors, or whether there is a self-monitoring continuum. This debate reaches beyond the trait of self-monitoring to the theoretical foundations of personality psychology, and so is mentioned only briefly here. Researchers investigating self-monitoring tend to follow Snyder’s original method of creating and comparing dichotomous categories of high and low self-monitoring.
Much of the work on self-monitoring was conducted in the 1980s when researchers were first identifying the implications and limitations of this trait. Research continues, further refining and applying our understanding of self-monitoring in light of modern developments in both social and personality psychology.
Self-Monitoring Importance and Implications
Self-monitoring is important for understanding how people behave in social situations. Research has examined the influence of self-monitoring in many ways, including but not limited to how people behave over time, express their attitudes, perceive social cues and others’ behavior, approach interpersonal relationships, behave nonverbally, and make consumer judgments.
Because of their sensitivity to the situation, high self-monitors behave less consistently across different situations than do low self-monitors and, hence, have relatively weaker correspondence between their attitudes and behavior. In addition, high self-monitors tend to tailor the attitudes they express to correspond with those of their audience and to appreciate the effect of the social context on others’ behavior. Self-monitoring also influences the types of situations people select for themselves. High self-monitors prefer to engage in situations that are clearly defined to facilitate their behavior adaptation, whereas low self-monitors select situations that converge with their personal dispositions.
The social worlds of high and low self-monitors are characterized distinctly. The social groups of high self-monitors tend to differ depending on the context; they have different friends in different situations. Conversely, low self-monitors tend to have a stable group of friends who are similar to them in a global way.
Commitment and relationship longevity differ between high and low self-monitors in a way that corresponds to the contextually driven versus constant approaches to their social networks. Both friendships and romantic relationships tend to be approached with greater sense of commitment and intimacy among low self-monitors relative to high self-monitors. High self-monitors tend to report having more casual friendships and sexual partners, having greater quantities of shorter romantic liaisons, and relying on outward appearances when judging others to a greater degree than do low self-monitors.
The tendency to use nonverbal displays of behavior strategically is also influenced by self-monitoring, at both conscious and nonconscious levels, stemming from differences in attempts to control images presented to others. High self-monitors are better able to expressively convey internal states and to actively conceal socially inappropriate emotional displays than are low self-monitors.
In general, people will nonconsciously mimic the nonverbal behavior (e.g., foot shaking) of others. Mimicry is a strategy used nonconsciously to achieve social connection. The mimicry of high self-monitors is context dependent. They mimic especially when the other person is affiliated with them in some way (e.g., has power over them in an upcoming task, or is a member of a peer group instead of a more senior or junior group). Thus, the process of regulating behavior to accord with social cues may operate outside of conscious awareness among high self-monitors. Low self-monitors do not show this sensitivity to affiliation with others when nonconsciously mimicking behavior.
Application to Consumer Behavior
The study of consumer behavior is one area to which researchers have applied knowledge of self-monitoring. In line with their propensity toward managing outward appearances, high self-monitors tend to prefer advertisements that appeal to a particular image and will select products that will help them convey an image in a certain situation. Low self-monitors prefer advertisements that focus on a product’s quality and are less swayed by attractive packaging than are high self-monitors.
- Gangestad, S. W., & Snyder, M. (2000). Self-monitoring: Appraisal and reappraisal. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 530-555.
- Snyder, M. (1987). Public appearances/public realities: The psychology of self-monitoring. New York: Freeman.