Exemplification is defined as a strategic self-presentational strategy whereby an individual attempts to project an image of integrity and moral worthiness. A person can accomplish exemplification by presenting him- or herself as honest, disciplined, self-sacrificing, generous, or principled. When successful, a person who exemplifies integrity and moral worthiness may be able to influence other people to follow his or her example.
Exemplification History and Modern Usage
Like other self-presentation strategies, the goal of exemplification is to gain power over others by controlling the perceptions of the actor’s character. The power of exemplification comes from the guilt or shame that observers experience in the face of the actor’s moral and charitable actions or claims. There are many exemplifiers in history that achieved great political power by engaging in principled and self-sacrificing behavior (e.g., Gandhi and Martin Luther King). Nevertheless, exemplification is also a strategy people use in everyday interactions to win favor with an audience. Parents, for example, can use exemplification to influence their children by extolling their own virtuous behavior, or a celebrity can exemplify a generous and caring image by soliciting donations for a charity during a telethon. In each case, the target audience can be motivated to avoid or reduce their feelings of guilt by performing the target behaviors requested by the exemplifier. And even if they do not, the exemplifier may still benefit if he or she leaves a lasting impression of integrity and moral worthiness on the audience.
Exemplification can also be a risky strategy if not executed properly. For example, exemplification is likely to fail if the audience feels “put down” by the actor; to create a positive impression, the exemplifier needs to exhibit or claim moral integrity without appearing morally superior to the audience. Moreover, research on exemplification suggests that when an exemplifier is caught in a transgression, the audience perceives the actor to be a hypocrite and self-deluded, leading to especially harsh judgments of the actor’s character. Other studies suggest that upon discovering past failures to uphold moral standards, the would-be exemplifier may experience cognitive dissonance and become motivated to change the errant behavior. Thus, the use of exemplification to win favor requires that we practice what we preach, or at least maintain the impression that we do, without explicitly stating that our integrity makes us superior to others.
- Gilbert, D. T., & Jones, E. E. (1986). Exemplification: The self-presentation of moral character. Journal of Personality, 54(3), 593-616.
- Jones, E. E. (1990). Interpersonal perception. New York: Freeman.