The self-verification theory proposes that people want others to see them as they see themselves. For example, just as those who see themselves as relatively extraverted want others to see them as extraverted, so too do those who see themselves as relatively introverted want others to recognize them as introverts. The theory grew out of the writings of the symbolic interactionists, who held that people form self-views so that they can predict the responses of others and know how to act toward them. For example, a person’s belief that he or she is intelligent allows the person to predict that others will notice his or her insightfulness. This prediction, in turn, may motivate the person to pursue higher education at a premier university. Because people’s self-views play such a critical role in their lives, they become invested in maintaining them by obtaining self-verifying information.
Among people with positive self-views, the desire for self-verification works hand-in-hand with another important motive, the desire for self-enhancing or positive evaluations. For example, those who view themselves as organized will find that their desires for both self-verification and self-enhancement compel them to seek feedback that others perceive them as organized. In contrast, people with negative self-views will find that the two motives push them in opposite directions. Those who see themselves as disorganized, for example, will find that whereas their desire for self-verification compels them to seek evidence that others perceive them as disorganized, their desire for self-enhancement compels them to seek evidence that others perceive them as organized. Self-verification theory suggests that under some conditions people with negative self-views will resolve this conflict by seeking self-enhancement, but that under other conditions they will resolve it by seeking self-verification.
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Seeking Self-Verifying Settings and Partners
Considerable evidence supports self-verification theory. In one study, researchers asked participants with positive and negative self-views whether they would prefer to interact with evaluators who had favorable or unfavorable impressions of them. Not surprisingly, those with positive self-views preferred favorable partners, but contrary to self-enhancement theory, those with negative self-views preferred unfavorable partners.
Many replications of this effect using diverse methods have confirmed that people prefer self-verifying evaluations and interaction partners. Both men and women display this propensity, even if their self-views happen to be negative. Moreover, it does not matter whether the self-views refer to characteristics that are relatively immutable (e.g., intelligence) or changeable (e.g., diligence), whether the self-views happen to be highly specific (e.g., athletic) or global (e.g., low self-esteem, worthless), or whether the self-views refer to the individual’s personal qualities (e.g., assertive) or group memberships (e.g., Democrat). Furthermore, when people choose negative partners over positive ones, they do not do so merely to avoid positive evaluators (out of a concern that they might disappoint them). To the contrary, people choose negative partners even when the alternative is participating in a different experiment.
Just as self-verification strivings influence the contexts people enter initially, so too do they influence whether or not people remain in particular contexts. Research on married couples, college roommates, and dating partners show that people gravitate toward partners who provide verification and drift away from those who do not. For instance, just as people with positive self-views withdraw (either psychologically or through divorce or separation) from spouses who perceive them unfavorably, people with negative self-views withdraw from spouses who perceive them favorably. Similarly, the more positively college students with firmly held negative self-views are perceived by their roommates, the more inclined they are to plan to find a new roommate (students with positive self-views displayed the opposite pattern). Finally, self-views determine how people react to the implicit evaluations conveyed by the salaries they receive. In one study examining self-esteem and job turnover, among people with high self-esteem, turnover was greatest among those who failed to receive raises; for people with low self-esteem, turnover was greatest among people who did receive raises. Apparently, people gravitate toward relationships and settings that provide them with evaluations that confirm their self-views.
Bringing Others to See Them as They See Themselves
Even if people wind up with partners who do not see them in a self-verifying manner, they may correct the situation by changing their partners’ minds. One way they may do this is by judiciously displaying identity cues. The most effective identity cues are readily controlled and reliably evoke self-verifying responses from others. Physical appearances represent a particularly salient class of identity cues. The clothes one wears, for instance, can advertise numerous self-views, including those associated with everything from political leanings to income level and religious convictions. Similarly, people routinely display company or school logos, buttons, and bumper stickers, and wear uniforms to evoke reactions that verify their self-views. Consistent with this, one set of researchers discovered that dress, style, and fabric revealed a great deal about individuals’ jobs, roles, and self-concepts. Even body posture and demeanor communicate identities to others. Take, for example, the CEO who projects importance in his bearing or the new employee who exudes naivete. Such identity cues announce their bearer’s self-views to all who are paying attention. Moreover, self-verification theory predicts that people should display identity cues to communicate socially valued and devalued identities. Some highly visible examples include skinheads and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Even if people fail to gain self-verifying reactions through their choice of environments or through the display of identity cues, they may still acquire such evaluations by the way they act toward other people. One group of researchers, for example, found that college students who were mildly depressed as compared with nondepressed were more likely to solicit negative evaluations from their roommates. Moreover, students’ efforts to acquire negative feedback appear to have borne fruit in the form of interpersonal rejection: The more unfavorable feedback they solicited in the middle of the semester, the more apt their roommates were to derogate them and plan to find another roommate at the semester’s end.
If people are motivated to bring others to verify their self-conceptions, they should intensify their efforts to elicit self-confirmatory reactions when they suspect that others might be misconstruing them. Researchers tested this idea by informing participants who perceived themselves as either likable or dislikable that they would be interacting with people who probably found them likable or dislikable. Participants tended to elicit reactions that confirmed their self-views, especially if they suspected that evaluators’ appraisals might disconfirm their self-conceptions. Therefore, participants intensified their efforts to obtain self-verification when they suspected that evaluators’ appraisals challenged their self-views.
People will even go so far as to cease working on tasks that they have been assigned if they sense that continuing to do so will bring them nonverifying feedback. One researcher recruited participants with positive or negative self-views to work on a proofreading task. He then informed some participants that they would be receiving more money than they deserved (i.e., positive expectancies) or exactly what they deserved (i.e., neutral expectancies). Self-verification theory predicts that people’s self-views will influence how they respond to positive compared with neutral feedback. This is precisely what happened. Whereas participants with positive self-views worked the most when they had positive expectancies, participants with negative self-views worked the least when they had positive expectancies. Apparently, people with negative self-views withdrew effort when expecting positive outcomes because, unlike those with positive self-views, they felt undeserving.
Seeing More Self-Confirming Evidence Than Actually Exists
The research literature provides abundant evidence that expectancies (including self-conceptions) channel information processing. This suggests that self-conceptions may systematically channel people’s perceptions of their experiences to make their experiences seem more self-verifying than they actually are.
Self-views may guide at least three distinct aspects of information processing. One research team focused on selective attention. Their results showed that participants with positive self-views spent longer scrutinizing evaluations when they anticipated that the evaluations would be positive, and people with negative self-views spent longer scrutinizing evaluations when they anticipated that the evaluations would be negative.
In a second study, the researchers examined biases in what people remembered about an evaluation that they had received. They found that participants who perceived themselves positively remembered more positive than negative statements. In contrast, those who perceived themselves negatively remembered more negative than positive statements.
Finally, numerous investigators have shown that people tend to interpret information in ways that reinforce their self-views. For example, one investigator found that people endorsed the perceptiveness of an evaluator who confirmed their self-conceptions but derogated the perceptiveness of an evaluator who disconfirmed their self-views. Similarly, another researcher reported that just as people with high self-esteem remembered feedback as being more favorable than it actually was, people with low self-esteem remembered the feedback as being more negative than it actually was.
In summary, evidence suggests that people may strive to verify their self-views by gravitating toward self-confirming partners, by systematically eliciting self-confirming reactions from others, and by processing information in ways that exaggerate the extent to which it appears that others perceive them in a self-confirming manner. Although these forms of self-verification may be implemented more or less simultaneously, people may often deploy them sequentially (although probably not consciously). For example, people may first strive to locate partners who verify one or more self-views. If this fails, they may redouble their efforts to elicit verification for the self-views in question or strive to elicit verification for a different self-view. Failing this, they may strive to see more self-verification than actually exists. And, failing this, they may withdraw from the relationship, either psycho-logically or in actuality. Through the creative use of such strategies, people may dramatically increase their chances of attaining self-verification.
Self-Verification and Related Processes
Self-Verification and Desire for Novelty
Too much predictability can be oppressive. No matter how much we like something at first—a scrumptious meal, a beautiful ballad, or a lovely sun-set—eventually it may become too familiar. In fact, researchers have shown that people dislike highly predictable phenomena almost as much as they dislike highly unpredictable ones. People seem to prefer modest levels of novelty; they want phenomena that are new enough to be interesting, but not so new as to be frightening.
This does not mean that people like their relationship partners to treat them in a novel (i.e., nonverifying) manner, however. Evidence that people desire novelty comes primarily from studies of people’s reactions to art objects and the like. If novel art objects become overly stimulating, people can simply shift their attention elsewhere. This is not a viable option should their spouse suddenly begin treating them as if they were someone else, for such treatment would pose serious questions about the integrity of their belief systems. In the final analysis, people probably finesse their competing desires for predictability and novelty by indulging their desire for novelty within contexts in which surprises are not threatening (e.g., leisure activities), while seeking coherence and predictability where it really counts—within their enduring relationships.
Self-Verification and Self-Enhancement
People’s self-verification strivings are apt to be most influential when the relevant identities and behaviors matter to them. Thus, for example, the self-view should be firmly held, the relationship should be enduring, and the behavior itself should be consequential. When these conditions are not met, identity issues will be of little concern and people will self-enhance, that is, prefer and seek positive evaluations.
That self-verification strivings trump self-enhancement strivings when people have firmly held negative self-views does not mean that people with negative self-views are masochistic or have no desire to be loved. Even people with very low self-esteem want to be loved. What sets people with negative self-views apart is their ambivalence about praise and acceptance; although positive evaluations initially foster joy and warmth, these feelings are later chilled by incredulity. Tragically, people with negative self-views are also ambivalent about negative evaluations; although such evaluations may reassure them that they know themselves, their feelings of reassurance are tempered by sadness that the truth is not kinder.
Happily, people with negative self-views are the exception rather than the rule. That is, on the balance, most people tend to view themselves positively. Although this is beneficial for people themselves, it presents a challenge to the researchers who study them. That is, for theorists interested in determining whether behavior is driven by self-verification or self-enhancement, participants with positive self-views will reveal nothing because both motives encourage them to seek positive evaluations.
Self-Verification and Self-Concept Change
Although self-verification strivings tend to stabilize people’s self-views, change may still occur. Perhaps the most common source of change is set in motion when the community recognizes a significant change in a person’s age (e.g., when adolescents become adults), status (e.g., when students become teachers), or social role (e.g., when singles get married). The community may abruptly change the way that it treats the person. Eventually, the target of such differential treatment will bring the person’s self-view into accord with the treatment he or she receives.
Alternatively, people may themselves initiate a change in a self-view when they conclude that the self-view is blocking an important goal. Consider, for example, a person who decides that his or her negative self-views have led the person to tolerate neglectful and irresponsible relationship partners. When he or she realizes that such partners are unlikely to facilitate the goal of raising a family, the person seeks therapy. In the hands of a skilled therapist, the person may develop more favorable self-views, which, in turn, steer him or her toward relationship partners who support those goals.
Self-Verification Theory Implications
Self-verification strivings bring stability to people’s lives, making their experiences more coherent, orderly, and comprehensible than they would be otherwise. These processes are adaptive for most people because most people have positive self-views and self-verification processes enable them to preserve these positive self-views. Because self-verification processes facilitate social interaction, it is not surprising that they seem to be particularly beneficial to members of groups. Research indicates that when members of small groups receive self-verification from other group members, their commitment to the group increases and their performance improves. Self-verification processes seem to be especially useful in small groups composed of people from diverse backgrounds because it tends to make people feel understood, which encourages them to open up to their coworkers. Opening up, in turn, fosters superior performance.
Yet, for people with negative self-views, self-verification strivings may have undesirable consequences. Such strivings may, for example, cause them to gravitate toward partners who undermine their feelings of self-worth, break their hearts, or even abuse them. And if people with negative self-views seek therapy, returning home to a self-verifying partner may undo the progress that was made there. Finally, in the workplace, the feelings of worthlessness that plague people with low self-esteem may foster feelings of ambivalence about receiving raises or even being treated fairly, feelings that may undercut their propensity to insist that they get what they deserve from their employers.
- Swann, W. B., Jr. (1983). Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Social psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 33-66). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Swann, W. B., Jr. (1987). Identity negotiation: Where two roads meet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 1038-1051.
- Swann, W. B., Jr. (1996). Self-traps: The elusive quest for higher self-esteem. Freeman: New York.
- Swann, W. B., Jr., De La Ronde, C., & Hixon, J. G. (1994). Authenticity and positivity strivings in marriage and courtship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 857-869.
- Swann, W. B., Jr., Rentfrow, P. J., & Guinn, J. (2002). Self-verification: The search for coherence. In M. Leary & J. Tagney, Handbook of self and identity (pp. 367-383). New York: Guilford Press.