Self-promotion refers to the practice of purposefully trying to present oneself as highly competent to other people. When people self-promote, their primary motivation is to be perceived by others as capable, intelligent, or talented (even at the expense of being liked). Self-promotion becomes especially useful and prominent when a person competes against others for desirable—often scarce—resources, such as a good job or an attractive partner. People can self-promote their abilities in general or in a specific domain.
Self-promotion exists as part of a general yet extremely pervasive human motivation: to be perceived favorably by others. In the case of self-promotion, people want to be perceived by others as being competent. Not surprisingly, then, people generally only self-promote in public, and around people they want to impress, such as superiors at work. For example, someone completing a self-evaluation at work would be much less likely to self-promote if a supervisor would never read the self-evaluation, or if the self-evaluation was anonymous.
How Do People Self-Promote?
Researchers have identified several tactics people use to self-promote. First, people may self-promote by speaking of themselves in flattering terms: They may highlight their leadership skills, prowess at school or work, or adeptness at overcoming obstacles. Second, if they are personally involved in a positive event, they may claim more responsibility for the event than they objectively deserve, or they may exaggerate the importance of the event in the hopes it will sound more impressive. People can self-promote more tactfully by (1) guiding the course of a conversation to a point where it is fitting to mention prior achievements and honors, (2) trying to avoid conversation topics in which others may be experts, or (3) providing opportunities for other people to promote them, such as by covertly making a substantial salary raise known to gossipy coworkers.
The Problem of Integrating Self-Promotion and Likeability
When self-promoting, people face an important problem: Their behavior might come across as conceited, if not fraudulent. Although the key motivation underlying self-promotion is to be perceived as competent, situations arise where self-promotion must be successfully integrated with likeability, even though these two motivations may conflict. Probably the most prominent example of this concern is the classic job interview. Applicants interviewing for a job need to appear both competent and likeable to impress their potential supervisor, but expressing both of these qualities during the interview may be tricky! For example, to convey confidence and competence, applicants know they must highlight their relevant experience and accomplishments. At the same time, applicants do not want to appear conceited or arrogant to the interviewer.
Evidence: Does Self-Promotion Work?
Researchers have examined quite extensively whether self-promotion actually helps people appear more competent. By far the biggest research arena for self-promotion has been in business settings, especially in the interview process, for reasons mentioned previously. Specifically, researchers have studied whether self-promotion helps people secure jobs and promotions.
In a typical study, researchers will ask both the applicant and the interviewer to complete post-interview surveys that ask about instances of self-promotion used by the applicant throughout the interview; researchers might also ask permission to film the interview. The researchers then either contact the participants later to see if they secured the job for which they interviewed or subsequently ask the interviewers which applicants they might consider hiring. With this information, the researchers can then examine whether self-promotion during the interview influenced hiring decisions.
Results from these studies are mixed. Overall, researchers often conclude self-promotion has little effect on hiring decisions (though studies certainly exist that find either positive or negative effects). Unfortunately, researchers have not offered conclusive reasons to account for these null findings, but they probably reflect the interviewers’ expectation that most people will self-promote in some way during the interview, thus negating the self-promotion attempt.
The effect of self-promotion on job promotions is largely inconclusive as well. Self-promoting at work can sometimes result in promotion, but plenty of studies demonstrate self-promotion really has no effect on being promoted. These conflicting results probably reflect the intricacies of the individual job environments, as well as personal characteristics and preferences of the people involved.
The Added Problem of Gender
Self-promotion poses a unique problem for women because women have been traditionally perceived as less competent and competitive than men. To counteract such stereotypes, women probably need to highlight their skills and talents more than men do, especially when competing for the same job. Unfortunately, self-promotion by women is generally received more poorly than is self-promotion by men. In fact, studies have shown women themselves rate other women who self-promote less favorably than men who self-promote! This discrepancy may stem from culturally ingrained stereotypes, wherein women have been traditionally socialized to adopt more passive, subservient, and modest roles compared with men. Therefore, self-promotion may enhance how others perceive a woman’s qualifications, but at the expense of social appeal. Indeed, women who self-promote are often perceived as competent, yet socially unattractive.
Implications of Self-Promotion
Self-promotion is an extremely common strategy people employ to create and maintain an impression of competence. Sometimes self-promotion works, but other times it fails. The factors underlying successful self-promotion have not been conclusively determined, but it seems likely that tactful self-promotion would work best. Unfortunately, women shoulder the additional burden of battling ingrained social stereotypes that prescribe female modesty. Historically, these stereotypes may have contributed both to the disproportionate rates of hiring men over women for certain positions, as well as fewer opportunities for women to be promoted. However, the ever-changing role of women in present-day society may eventually help lessen these disparities.
- Higgins, C. A., & Judge, T. A. (2004). The effect of applicant influence tactics on recruiter perceptions of fit and hiring recommendations: A field study. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 622-632.
- Rudman, L. A. (1998). Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: The costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 629-645.