People engage in self-enhancement whenever they seek, interpret, or distort evidence about themselves in a way designed to maintain, create, or amplify a positive self-image. Self-enhancement is cognitive or interpersonal activity aimed at boosting beliefs that one is a lovable and capable human being. A related concept is motivated reasoning, which is thought that is expressly aimed at reaching congenial conclusions about one’s self and place in the world.
Self-enhancement needs to be distinguished from other similar activities that people may engage in.
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Self-improvement refers to the motive to become a better individual in reality; self-enhancement instead refers to the motive to create the perception that one is a competent and capable individual, regardless of reality. Self-assessment refers to the motive to obtain an accurate view of the self, whether that view be positive or negative; people engage in self-enhancement when they shade their treatment of the evidence toward creating positive perceptions of self. Self-verification refers to activity people engage in to confirm previously held notions about themselves, whether those perceptions be desirable or undesirable; people engaging in self-enhancement only want to confirm the desirable and deny the undesirable in themselves.
Self-enhancement is also related to a self-protection motive. People engage in self-protection when they strive to deny undesirable aspects of themselves. Self-enhancement refers to claiming as much good as one can about one’s strengths and achievements. Self-enhancement is also related to, but different from, a self-presentation motive, which is creating a positive self-image to convince other people that one is competent and capable, regardless of what one believes about one’s self.
Self-Enhancement History and Evidence
The idea that people manage information about themselves to convince themselves that they are capable beings has a long history, at least in Western thought. Indeed, in ancient Greece, the Epicureans raised self-enhancement to a moral principle, asserting that people should entertain only those thoughts about themselves that gave them pleasure.
Scholars in Western thought and in psychology have long assumed that people gather and distort evidence about themselves to maintain positive self-images, and modern psychology has spent a good deal of effort cataloging many of the tactics that people use in the service of self-enhancement. A few of the major ones, all somewhat interrelated, are discussed here.
Biased Hypothesis Resting
People frame the questions they ask themselves to bolster a perception of competence and success. For example, if students contemplate whether they will obtain a good job after they graduate, they usually frame the question as, “Will I get a good job?” Framing the question in this way tends to make people think about positive evidence of success (e.g., “Gee, I’ve gotten good grades so far”). People do not adopt a frame that would pull for negative evidence, such as using a negative frame like “Will I fail to get a good job?” Asking the question this way tends to pull for negative and unpleasant evidence (e.g., “Gee, a lot of other people have good grades, too”).
Breadth of Categorization
People adopt broad categorizations to describe their successes and narrow ones to characterize their failures. Suppose two people take a test of South American geography. The first does well and is likely to categorize the behavior broadly as indicating intelligence and worldliness. The second person does poorly and is likely to conclude narrowly that this performance only indicates that he or she does not know much about that particular continent.
People reach self-serving conclusions about the causes of their successes and failures. People who succeed make internal attributions and give credit to themselves, thus enhancing their self-images as capable human beings. People who fail make external attributions and blame the failure on luck, difficulty of the task, or some outside agent, thus avoiding the conclusion that their failures indicate personal weakness.
Differential Scrutinization of Good and Bad News
People tend to accept good news at face value. They hold bad news to a higher standard and scrutinize it more closely. For example, if people take a medical test that shows that they are healthy, they accept the verdict and move on. However, if the test indicates they have a health problem, they are likely to search more carefully for reasons to accept or reject the test’s verdict—or even ask to retake the test.
Differential Discounting of Good and Bad News
Whereas people take self-enhancing news at face value, and thus rarely question it, they try to find reasons to discount, dismiss, or belittle bad news. That is, the scrutiny that people give to bad news is often not even-handed but instead an attempt to find ways to discredit the evidence. If a student fails a course exam, he or she might expressly look for reasons to suggest that his or her failure was an aberration. The student might conclude that he or she was ill the night before the test, or that the questions on the test were picky, or the professor unfair. The key for this student is that he or she is discounting the relevance of the test performance for predicting future outcomes.
Re-Analyzation of Importance
If people fail in their attempts to discount or dismiss bad news, they may then downplay the importance of the outcome. For example, if a pre-medical student unambiguously fails a math test, he or she might decide that knowing math is not all that important for being a good doctor. On the other hand, students excelling at a task may decide that it is an important one. A student who aces the same math test may decide that mathematical ability is an essential attribute for being a successful doctor.
Definition of Success
People may also define success in ways to ensure a positive image of self. People often want to claim positive traits, such as intelligent, for themselves. One easy route to do so is to define those traits in ways that ensure a positive self-concept. A person who is good at math, knows a foreign language, and can play the violin can guarantee a positive self-image by merely concluding that those skills are central to intelligence. Students who lack those skills can de-emphasize those skills in their definition of intelligence and instead emphasize those idiosyncratic skills that they possess.
Implications of Self-Enhancement
A lifetime of self-enhancement activity can leave one with significantly distorted and unrealistic views of self. And, indeed, a good deal of recent research suggests that people tend to hold positive views of themselves that simply cannot be true. These unrealistic self-views are exhibited in a number of ways. Here are some of the ones that have received the most attention in recent research.
People on average think they are anything but average. The typical person, for example, thinks he or she is more disciplined, socially skilled, idealistic, and moral than the average person, but this is impossible. It is impossible for the average person to be above average, given the logic of mathematics. People also think they are more likely to achieve positive outcomes (have a happy marriage, get a high-paying job) and less likely to face aversive ones (get fired, contract cancer) than are their peers, although, again, it is mathematically impossible for the average person to be more likely to achieve good outcomes and avoid bad ones than the mathematical average.
Overpredictions of Desirable Actions and Outcomes
When forecasting the future, people overpredict the chance that they will take desirable actions and achieve favored outcomes. Business school students overpredict the likelihood that they will receive a high-paying offer. College students overpredict, for example, how likely they are to give to charity, vote, and maintain their romantic relationships. These types of overpredictions can have economic consequences: People often predict they will work out frequently when they buy gym memberships—and then fail to go to the gym on more than a sporadic basis. Indeed, often, they would have been better off financially if they had just paid for the few individual visits they actually did manage to make rather than buying the more expensive membership.
One caveat, however, must be made about the motive to self-enhance and the unrealistic self-images that the motive creates. Researchers have found ample evidence that people consistently engage in self-enhancement in North America and Western Europe, but there is increasing (albeit controversial) evidence that people in some other parts of the world do not engage in such activity. Namely, people in Far East Asia appear not to extol the positive in themselves and to deny the negative. Indeed, they show signs of attuning to failures and weaknesses so that they may improve upon them. They also show less evidence of the above-average effect described earlier. As such, the motive to self-enhance may be pervasive, but only within certain cultures.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Newman, L. S. (1994). Self-regulation of cognitive inference and decision processes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 3-19.
- Dunning, D. (2005). Self-insight: Roadblocks and detours on the path to knowing thyself. New York: Psychology Press.
- Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.