When I think of self-presenters, I conjure up images of slimy used car salesmen and telemarketers on TV at 3 in the morning. But maybe I’m being unfair to self-presenters. After all, the ability to put your best self forward without deception is an important skill, whether it’s during a business interview or on a first date. First impressions matter, and you want to make sure those first impressions are accurate. There’s nothing worse than feeling misunderstood or misrepresented. Positive self-presentation may help people more accurately see who you truly are.
In a recent study, Lauren J. Human and her colleagues looked at this issue. They defined positive self-presentation as the goal of making a good impression while remaining authentic. Authenticity is very important as there are negative interpersonal consequences if deception is discovered, and the truth almost always eventually comes out. At the same time, no one’s perfect, so positive self-presentation involves emphasizing your positive traits and minimizing your negative traits.
First, the researchers had participants take a battery of self-report personality and intelligence tests. Participants were then told they would be left alone to answer several getting-acquainted questions to a webcam on the computer. Some participants were told that the answers weren’t important, while others were explicitly told to:
“try to make a good impression when you answer the questions, as you would if you were speaking to a person you just met or had just started dating. Don’t role-play, or pretend you are somewhere where you are not, but simply try to put your best face forward.”
Importantly, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of personality, IQ, adjustment, mood, length of video clip, amount or quality of information presented. A different batch of participants later viewed their videotapes and rated their personalities and intelligence levels, as well as how physically attractive they found the person and how much they liked the person.
Positive self-presentation was very helpful. Those who actively tried to self-present were perceived more positively, and perceptions of their personality and intelligence (averaged across 24 items) were closer to their true (or measured) personality and intelligence than those who weren’t actively trying to self-present. Perceivers were also better able to detect differences in personality and intelligence among those in the positive-self presentation group compared to those in the non self-presentation group. In other words, receivers found it more difficult figuring out the personality and intelligence of those who weren’t actively trying to deliver a positive self-presentation.
What were the self-presenters doing that gave perceivers a more accurate impression of their true selves? The researchers found that those who tried to put forward their best self were more involved, positive, and confident. These non-verbal behaviors led people to perceive them as more engaging, which in turn led to greater accuracy. The researchers argue that it’s all about attention: putting your best self forward captures the attention of others, giving them a chance to more accurately see your true self. This is consistent with prior research that shows that more motivation and information does lead to more accurate impressions. This idea is also represented in David C. Funder’s Realistic Accuracy Model. According to Funder’s model, in order to be accurately perceived requires a) making the relevant cues available to others, and b) having the perceiver detect and utilize those cues. Apparently, there’s a lot of truth in the old saying that you miss 100% of the shows you don’t take!
So maybe positive self-presentation isn’t as sketchy as I imagined. As the researchers note,
“Positive self-presentation is clearly not the deceptive tendency it may at first appear to be. Instead, by capturing others’ attention, self-presentation facilitates more accurate first impressions.”
There are some real practical implications of this research. Are you the type of person who constantly feels misunderstood? Take a good hard look at how you present yourself to others. Are you actively trying to put your best self forward? Maybe you’re not being engaging enough, instead acting inhibited and shy (note: being shy isn’t the same as being introverted. I’m referring more to the type of shyness that is linked to being neurotic). The good news is that it might not be some deep, intrinsic weakness on your part. You may just not be giving people a chance to accurately perceive you. Actively trying to put your best self forward can only help. Remember, all participants, regardless of their instructions, delivered the same quantity and quality of information on the videotape. The only difference was that some actively tried giving a positive self-presentation, whereas others did not.
There’s even more good news. Prior research shows that when people are motivated to advance their own agenda, they are able to override an initial negative bias. If you are a shy individual who finds yourself extremely reactive to the initial reactions of others, take heart to know that their initial perceptions can be overriden by taking control of the situation and showing them your best and true self. Don’t take things at face value and walk away in defeat. You can control the interaction. Hang in there!
Of course, there are limitations to the study. The experiment took place in a relatively non-stressful environment. Maybe stress changes people’s ability to accurately perceive the personality and intelligence of others. Also, the experiment didn’t involve other self-presentation goals, such as coming across as modest or respected. Still, the results are interesting and have me rethinking the importance and genuineness of positive self-presentation. Want people to see your true positive qualities? Don’t take it for granted they’ll automatically see them. Show them!
© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman