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.
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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