We often want to influence the way other people perceive us. For instance, a professor might want her class to see her as intellectual and competent, whereas a boxer might want his competitors to see him as physically powerful and mean. Both the professor and the boxer are likely to act in ways that influence how others see them. The professor might take extra time preparing her notes for class or use impressive words in her lectures, whereas the boxer might affect a scowl or show off his muscles before a match. These are examples of strategic self-presentation—the term for acting in a manner that shapes how people view us.
Supplication is one kind of strategic self-presentation. Although most strategic self-presentations strategies are designed to make positive impressions on others, sometimes we lack the ability or impress others with our capabilities. Supplication is a strategy for this kind of situation. Rather than trying to look able, strong, or smart, people using supplication as a self-presentation strategy purposely emphasize their incompetence or weakness. They want to appear helpless. The purpose of appearing helpless is to advertise their dependence on others to get help or sympathy.
For example, a school-child might feign a complete inability to do homework to a parent. This seeming dependence on the parent is designed to provoke the parent’s sense of nurturance toward the child, resulting in the parent doing the homework for the child. However, supplication does not necessarily entail pretending to be dependent; it can refer to emphasizing actual inadequacies. Panhandlers frequently emphasize their destitute condition to increase their chances of getting money.
The need for money may or may not be real, but the advertising of need constitutes supplication. Another example familiar to most people is crying. The student who cries to a professor over a grade or the driver who cries to the police officer over a ticket may be supplicating—trying to get help or mercy via pity.
Whether the supplicant is a family member, a coworker, or a stranger, the purpose is to arouse a sense of obligation toward the supplicant. Supplicants exploit their weakness by throwing themselves on the mercy of others, which places both supplicant and target in an uncomfortable position. This may explain why, of the many different methods of strategic self-presentation, supplication is used infrequently. The extreme difference in power inherent is a supplication disrupts the day-to-day stability of close relationships.
Most people to whom supplication is directed will quickly tire of repeated demands on their pity. Supplication is also distasteful to the supplicant because it is personally demeaning, which limits how much an individual would want to resort to using it.
- Jones, E. E., & Pittman, T. S. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. In J. Suls (Ed.), Psychological perspectives of the self (pp. 231-261). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.