Symbolic Self-Completion

Symbolic Self-Completion Definition

Symbolic Self-CompletionSymbolic self-completion refers to having or seeking social symbols of achievement regarding a goal important to one’s self-identity. R. A. Wicklund and P. M. Gollwitzer’s symbolic self-completion theory was based on the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin and his collaborators. Wicklund and Gollwitzer posited that once an individual commits to a goal, psychological tension exists until the goal is achieved. If the individual engages in a task to accomplish the goal but is interrupted, the tension will motivate a return to the task or to a substitute task that could also lead to goal accomplishment. Personality psychologists, beginning with Alfred Adler, proposed a similar notion of substitutability in their concept of compensation, in which the individual compensates for perceived deficiencies through renewed efforts in either the domain in which one feels inferior or in other domains that could also broadly compensate for the deficiency.

Theory and Research on Symbolic Self-Completion

The theory proposes that when an individual is committed to a self-defining goal, such as a role like physician or an attribute like intelligence, that individual will seek symbols of completeness, socially acknowledged indicators that one has achieved that goal. For example, a medical degree is one symbol of being a physician and high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test are symbols of intelligence. When an individual has an ample supply of symbols regarding a particular self-defining goal, he or she will not need to seek additional symbols of completeness. However, if the individual perceives a deficit in symbols, efforts will be made to display symbols that restore completeness.

Two strategies have been used to test these ideas. The first is to compare people with and without a strong background of symbols of completeness. For example, one study asked people with extensive and limited educational backgrounds in their self-defining domains to admit to mistakes in that domain. As symbolic self-completion theory predicts, individuals with limited educational backgrounds, being more incomplete, were far more reluctant to admit mistakes.

The second strategy is to bring participants into the lab and induce half of them to believe they are incomplete with regard to a self-defining goal. In one study, participants were asked to write about mistakes they had made in a self-defining domain or in an unimportant domain. The participants were then asked to write a self-descriptive essay regarding the self-defining domain. As the theory predicted, those led to feel incomplete in the self-defining domain spent more time writing the essay, presumably to restore completeness.

Theoretical Implications of Symbolic Self-Completion

Symbolic self-completion theory provides insight into goal striving and has been used to help explain the desire for cosmetic surgery, impulsive shopping, and subscription to particular magazines. The theory and research also indicate that those who feel the least adequate in an important domain may be most boastful, least willing to admit mistakes, and most likely to display degrees and awards. This suggests that people should not judge the competence of a person based solely on that person’s outward presentation of their own qualifications and attributes. If one does so, one’s judgments may be quite contrary to the truth.


  • Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1982). Symbolic self-completion theory. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.