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Impression Management and Self Presentation (Goffman)

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Jan 18, 2022


Key Points

  • Impression management refers to the goal-directed conscious or unconscious attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object, or event by regulating and controlling information in social interaction.
  • Generally, people undertake impression management to achieve goals that require they have a desired public image. This activity is called self-presentation.
  • In sociology and social psychology, self-presentation is the conscious or unconscious process through which people try to control the impressions other people form of them.
  • The goal is for one to present themselves the way in which they would like to be thought of by the individual or group they are interacting with. This form of management generally applies to the first impression.
  • Erving Goffman popularized the concept of perception management in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, where he argues that impression management not only influences how one is treated by other people but is an essential part of social interaction.

Impression Management in Sociology

Impression management, also known as self-presentation, refers to the ways that people use to attempt to control how they are perceived by others (Goffman, 1959).

By conveying particular impressions about their abilities, attitudes, motives, status, emotional reactions, and other characteristics, people can influence others to respond to them in desirable ways.

Impression management is a common way for people to influence one another in order to obtain various goals.

While earlier theorists (e.g., Burke, 1950; Hart & Burk, 1972) offered perspectives on the person as a performer, Goffman (1959) was the first to develop a specific theory concerning self presentation.

In his well-known work, Goffman created the foundation and the defining principles of what is commonly referred to as impression management.

In explicitly laying out a purpose for his work, Goffman (1959) proposes to "consider the ways in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kind of things he may or may not do while sustaining his performance before them."

(p. xi)

Social Interaction

Goffman viewed impression management not only as a means of influencing how one is treated by other people but also as an essential part of social interaction.

He communicates this view through the conceit of theatre. Actors give different performances in front of different audiences, and the actors and the audience cooperate in negotiating and maintaining the definition of a situation.

To Goffman, the self was not a fixed thing which resides within individuals, but a social process. For social interactions to go smoothly, every interactant needs to project a public identity that guides others’ behaviors (Goffman, 1959, 1963; Leary, 2001; Tseelon, 1992).

Goffman defines that when people enter the presence of others that we communicate information by verbal intentional methods and by non-verbal unintentional methods.

According to Goffman, individuals participate in social interactions through performing a "line" or "a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself" (1967, p. 5).

Such lines are created and maintained by both the performer and the audience. By enacting a line effectively, a person gains positive social value or "face."

The verbal intentional methods allow us to establish who we are and what we wish to directly communicate. We must use these methods for the majority of the actual communication of data.

Goffman is mostly interested in the non-verbal clues given off which are less easily manipulated. When these clues are manipulated the receiver generally still has the upper hand in determining how realistic the clues that are given off are.

People use these clues to determine how to treat a person and if the intentional verbal responses given off are actually honest. It is also known that most people give off clues which help to represent them in a positive light, which tends to be compensated for by the receiver.

Impression Management Techniques

  • Suppressing emotions: Maintaining self control (which we will identify with such practices as speaking briefly and modestly).
  • Conforming to Situational Norms: The performer follows agreed-upon rules for behavior in the organization.
  • Flattering Others: The performer compliments the perceiver. This tactic works best when flattery is not extreme and when it involves a dimension important to the perceiver.
  • Being Consistent: The performer’s beliefs and behaviors are consistent. There is agreement between the performer’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

Self-Presentation Examples

Self-presentation can affect emotional experience. For example, people can become socially anxious when they are motivated to make a desired impression on others but doubt that they can do so successfully (Leary, 2001).

In one paper on self-presentation and emotional experience, Schlenker and Leary (1982) argue that, in contrast to the drive models of anxiety, the cognitive state of the individual mediates both arousal and behavior.

The researchers examine the traditional inverted-U anxiety-performance curve (popularly known as the Yerkes-Dodson law) in this light.

The researchers propose that people are interpersonally secure when they do not have the goal of creating a particular impression on others.

They are not immediately concerned about others’ evaluative reactions in a social setting where they are attempting to create a particular impression and believe that they will be successful in doing so.

Meanwhile, people are anxious when they are uncertain about how to go about creating a certain impression (such as when they do not know what sort of attributes the other person is likely to be impressed with), think that they will not be able to project the types of images that will produce preferred reactions from others.

Such people think that they will not be able to project the desired image strongly enough, or believe that some event will happen that will repudiate their self-presentations, causing reputational damage (Schlenker and Leary, 1982).

Psychologists have also studied impression management in the context of mental and physical health.

In one such study, Braginsky et al. (1969) showed that those hospitalized with schizophrenia modify the severity of their “disordered” behavior depending on whether making a more or less “disordered” impression would be most beneficial to them (Leary, 2001).

Additional research on university students shows that people may exaggerate or even fabricate reports of psychological distress when doing so selves their social goals.

Hypochondria appears to have self-presentational features where people convey impressions of illness and injury when doing so helps to drive desired outcomes such as eliciting support or avoiding responsibilities (Leary, 2001).

People can also engage in dangerous behaviors for self-presentation reasons such as suntanning, unsafe sex, and fast driving. People may also refuse needed medical treatment if seeking this medical treatment compromises public image (Leary et al., 1994).

Key Components

There are several determinants of impression management, and people have many reasons to monitor and regulate how others perceive them.

For example, social relationships such as friendship, group membership, romantic relationships, desirable jobs, status, and influence rely partly on other people perceiving the individual as being a particular kind of person or having certain traits.

Because people’s goals depend on them making desired impressions over undesired impressions, people are concerned with the impressions other people form of them.

Although people appear to monitor how they come across ongoingly, the degree to which they are motivated to impression manage and the types of impressions they try to foster varies by situations and individuals (Leary, 2001).

Leary and Kowalski (1990) say that there are two processes that constitute impression management, each of which operate according to different principles and are affected by different situations and dispositional aspects. The first of these processes is impression motivation, and the second is impression construction.

Impression Motivation Impression Construction
Goal-relevance of impressions Self-concept
Value of desired goals Desired and undesired identity images
Discrepancy between desired and current image Role constraints

Impression Motivation

There are three main factors that affect how much people are motivated to impression-manage in a situation (Leary and Kowalski, 1990):

  1. How much people believe their public images are relevant to them attaining their desired goals. When people believe that their public image is relevant to them achieving their goals, they are generally more motivated to control how others perceive them (Leary, 2001).
  2. Conversely, when the impressions of other people have few implications on one’s outcomes, that person’s motivation to impression-manage will be lower.

    This is why people are more likely to impression manage in their interactions with powerful, high-status people than those who are less powerful and have lower status (Leary, 2001).

  3. How valuable the goals are: people are also more likely to impress and manage the more valuable the goals for which their public impressions are relevant (Leary, 2001).
  4. How much of a discrepancy there is between how they want to be perceived and how they believe others perceive them.
  5. people are more highly motivated to impression-manage when there is a difference between how they want to be perceived and how they believe others perceive them.

    For example, public scandal and embarrassing events that convey undesirable impressions can cause people to make self-presentational efforts to repair what they see as their damaged reputations (Leary, 2001).

Impression Construction

Features of the social situations that people find themselves in as well as their own personalities determine the nature of the impressions that they try to convey.

In particular, Leary and Kowalski (1990) name five sets of factors that are especially important in impression construction (Leary, 2001).

Two of these factors include how people’s relationships with themselves (self-concept and desired identity), and three involve how people relate to others (role constraints, target value, and current or potential social image) (Leary and Kowalski, 1990).

Self-concept

The impressions that people try to create are influenced not only by social context but also one’s own self-concept.

People usually want others to see them as “how they really are” (Leary, 2001), but this is in tension with the fact that people must deliberately manage their impressions in order to be viewed accurately by others (Goffman, 1959).

People’s self-concepts can also constrain the images they try to convey.

People often believe that it is unethical to present impressions of themselves different from how they really are and generally doubt that they would successfully be able to sustain a public image inconsistent with their actual characteristics (Leary, 2001).

This risk of failure in portraying a deceptive image and the accompanying social sanctions deter people from presenting impressions discrepant from how they see themselves (Gergen, 1968; Jones and Pittman, 1982; Schlenker, 1980).

People can differ in how congruent their self-presentations are with their self-perceptions.

People who are high in public self-consciousness have less congruency between their private and public selves than those lower in public self-consciousness (Tunnell, 1984; Leary and Kowalski, 1990).

Desired identity

People’s desired and undesired selves - how they wish to be and not be on an internal level - also influence the images that they try to project.

Schlenker (1985) defines a desirable identity image as what a person “would like to be and thinks he or she really can be, at least at his or her best.”

People have a tendency to manage their impressions so that their images coincide with their desired selves and stay away from images that coincide with their undesired selves (Ogilivie, 1987; Schlenker, 1985; Leary, 2001).

This happens by people publicly claiming attributes consistent with their desired identity and openly rejecting identities that they do not want to be associated with.

For example, someone who abhors bigots may take every step possible to not appear bitgoted and Gergen and Taylor (1969) showed that high-status navel cadets did not conform to low-status navel cadets because they did not want to see themselves as conformists (Leary and Kowalski, 1990).

Target value

people tailor their self-presentations to the values of the individuals whose perceptions they are concerned with.

This may lead to people sometimes fabricating identities that they think others will value.

However, more commonly, people selectively present truthful aspects of themselves that they believe coincide with the values of the person they are targeting the impression to and withhold information that they think others will value negatively (Leary, 2001).

Role constraints

the content of people’s self-presentations is affected by the roles that they take on and the norms of their social context.

In general, people want to convey impressions consistent with their roles and norms.

Many roles even carry self-presentational requirements around the kinds of impressions that the people who hold the roles should and should not convey (Leary, 2001).

Current or potential social image

People’s public image choices are also influenced by how they think they are perceived by others. As in impression motivation, self-presentational behaviors can often be aimed at dispelling undesired impressions that others hold about an individual.

When people believe that others have or are likely to develop an undesirable impression of them, they will typically try to refute that negative impression by showing that they are different from how others believe them to be.

When they are not able to refute this negative impression, they may project desirable impressions in other aspects of their identity (Leary, 2001).

Implications

In the presence of others, few of the behaviors that people make are unaffected by their desire to maintain certain impressions. Even when not explicitly trying to create a particular impression of themselves, people are constrained by concerns about their public images.

Generally this manifests with people trying not to create undesired impressions in virtually all areas of social life (Leary, 2001).

Tedeschi et al. (1971) argued that phenomena that psychologists previously attributed to peoples’ need to have cognitive consistency actually reflected efforts to maintain an impression of consistency in others eyes.

Studies have supported Tedeschi and their colleagues’ suggestion that phenomena previously attributed to cognitive dissonance were actually affected by self-presentational processes (Schlenker, 1980).

Psychologists have applied self-presentation to their study of phenomena as far-ranging as conformity, aggression, prosocial behavior, leadership, negotiation, social influence, gender, stigmatization, and close relationships (Baumeister, 1982; Leary, 1995; Schlenker, 1980; Tedeschi, 1981).

Each of these studies shows that people's efforts to make impressions on others affect these phenomena; and, ultimately, that concerns around self-presentation private social life.

For example, research shows that people are more likely to be pro-socially helpful when their helpfulness is publicized, and behave more prosocially when they desire to repair a damaged social image by being helpful (Leary, 2001).

In a similar vein, many instances of aggressive behavior can be explained as self-presentational efforts to show that someone is willing to hurt others in order to get their way.

This can go as far as gender roles, for which evidence shows that men and women behave differently due to the kind of impressions that are socially expected of men and women.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, Jan 18). Impression Management and Self Presentation (Goffman). Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/impression-management.html

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