Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model Definition
Sometimes the success of others is a source of good feelings. People take pride in their friends’ or their spouse’s accomplishments, and this brings people closer to their friends or spouse. Sometimes the accomplishments of friends are threatening and may even disrupt the relationships. These kinds of complex interpersonal dynamics are the focus of the self-evaluation maintenance (SEM) model.
The self-evaluation maintenance model is based on two broad assumptions: (1) People want to maintain a positive evaluation of the self. (2) The way people evaluate themselves is at least partially determined by the accomplishments of the people around them, particularly the people to whom they are close. These assumptions appear to be useful in understanding a variety of social and personal behaviors. The SEM model specifies two antagonistic processes: A comparison process in which a close other’s achievements are threatening and could lead to changes in self-identity and negative consequences for the interpersonal relationship, and a reflection process in which a close other’s good performance has positive personal and relational consequences.
Reflection and Comparison Processes
Everyone has seen the reflection process in action. Imagine a conversation at a cocktail party. Inevitably someone casually lets it be known that he or she has some connection with someone who is notably rich, smart, creative, well connected, and so on. That person has not been instrumental in the accomplishments of those others, so it appears as if he or she points out these associations simply to bask in reflected glory. Such associations appear to raise the individual’s self-evaluation and are associated with feelings such as pride in the other.
The reflection process has two distinct components: closeness and performance. The reflection process is not enabled by any successful other person.
To bask in reflected glory, one must have some connection to the other. Thus, closeness counts. Closeness is defined in very broad terms. Anything that psychologically connects one individual to another increases closeness. Closeness may be based on similarity, family relationships, geographic proximity, and so on.
The second component of the reflection process is the other’s performance. If the other’s performance is not particularly good, then regardless of how psychologically close he or she is, self will not gain in reflected glory. For example, it is difficult to imagine anyone basking in the reflected glory of a neighbor who tried out for the local orchestra but was not selected or a cousin who was the 25th out of 100 to be eliminated in a spelling bee.
According to the SEM model, the closeness and performance components combine multiplicatively. If there is no association between self and another, then even if that other’s performance is superb, there is little potential for gains to the self via reflection. When closeness goes to zero, the level of performance ceases to matter—anything multiplied by zero is zero. In short, the reflection process will produce gains in self-evaluation to the extent that another is psychologically close and that his or her performance is good.
A close other’s good performance can raise self-evaluation through the reflection process, but it can also lower self-evaluation through the comparison process. Self’s own performance pales in comparison with that of someone who performs better, resulting in a lower self-evaluation and emotions such as envy and jealousy, and decreases in pride. Closeness and performance also play a leading role in the comparison process. If a person has nothing in common with another person, if a person is different with respect to age, gender, race, ethnicity, and so forth, he or she is unlikely to draw comparisons with the other person. However, if the other is psychologically close, comparison processes are more likely to be engaged. A performance that is better than one’s own can be a blow to self-evaluation, whereas a mediocre performance is not threatening. Again, closeness and performance combine multiplicatively. If there is no connection to the other person, that is, closeness, then even if the other’s performance is superb, there is little threat from comparison. If the others’ performance is mediocre, not as good as one’s own, then regardless of how close the other is, there is little threat from comparison.
Weighting by Relevance
The reflection and comparison processes have identical components but opposite effects on self-evaluation. However, these processes are generally not equally important. Sometimes self-evaluation will be more affected by the reflection process; other times self-evaluation will be more affected by the comparison process. Which process will be more or less important is determined by the relevance of the other’s performance to one’s self-definition.
People recognize and value good performance on any number of dimensions: marathon running, violin playing, and so on. One’s own aspirations, however, exist only with respect to a small subset of these. A person wants to be a good cabinetmaker, or a good tennis player, or a physician. But almost no one aspires to all these things. Another’s performance, then, is relevant to the extent that it is on one of those few dimensions that are self-defining for a person. (A performance dimension is any dimension that has a “good” pole and along which it is possible to rank order people. For example, even though beauty does not require the kind of skill we usually think of when we think of performance, it is better to be beautiful than ugly and it is possible to rank order people with respect to their looks.) Thus, if one aspires to be a good surfer, but does not play the piano, then another’s surfing performance is high in relevance but his or her piano performance is not.
The relevance of another’s performance increases the importance of the comparison process relative to the reflection process. When relevance is high, a good performance by another is threatening to self-evaluation (via comparison) and the closeness of that other increases the threat. When relevance is low, another’s good performance will bolster one’s self-evaluation (via reflection), especially when that other is close.
Understanding and Predicting Behavior
The reflection and comparison processes are crucial to understanding and predicting behavior. However, only performance, closeness, and relevance actually manifest themselves in behavior, and the theory aspires to predict and understand performance, closeness, and relevance. The predictions derived from the SEM model regarding performance, closeness, and relevance have been confirmed in several studies.
When will a person help another do well? Who is most likely to receive such help? According to the SEM model, when relevance is high, the comparison process is important and another’s good performance is threatening to self-evaluation, particularly the performance of a close other. Thus, to avoid the threat of being outperformed, when relevance is high, the model predicts interference rather than helping, particularly when the other person is close. When relevance is low, the reflection process is important. The good performance of another provides a potential gain to self-evaluation. To realize this gain, the model predicts helping, particularly when the other person is close. Contrary to common sense, these predictions suggest that people are sometimes kinder to strangers than to friends.
When will a person try to spend more time with another? When less? When will a person initiate a relationship? When will a person terminate it? The predictions for closeness follow the SEM logic: When relevance is high, comparison is important and self will suffer by the better performance of another. Thus, when relevance is high, the better another’s performance is, the more the self should distance himself or herself from the other. When relevance is low, however, the better another’s performance is, the greater is the potential boost to self-evaluation via reflection. Closeness should intensify those positive self-feelings, so when relevance is low, the better the other’s performance, the more the self should increase closeness. The SEM model suggests that the aphorism, “Everyone loves a winner,” is only half true, that is, only when the performance dimension is low in personal relevance.
Relevance refers to the importance of a performance domain to one’s own self-definition. Related to relevance are questions such as, What should I major in? How will I spend my free time? What kind of work should I choose? Although common sense might suggest that people want to be like those closest to them, the SEM model reminds us that performance differentials will play an important role in this. Again, relevance determines the relative importance of the comparison process over the reflection process. If another person outperforms the self, then comparisons would be threatening, particularly if the other person were close. Reducing relevance avoids the threat of comparison and increases the potential for reflection, particularly if the other is psychologically close. When self performs better than the other, however, there is little to be gained by reflection and the comparison may be flattering. Thus, self will be motivated to increase relevance, particularly with a close other.
- Tesser, A. (1988). Toward a self-evaluation maintenance model of social behavior. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 181-227). New York: Academic Press.