Self-Verification Theory

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published June 10, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Self-verification theory was developed by Willian Swann in 1981. It is a social psychological concept that asserts that people want others to view them as they see themselves, to the point where they will take steps to ensure that others confirm their stable self-views.

This theory proposes that, even if someone has negative self-views, they will prefer others to see them as they see themselves.

Striving for self-verification is thought to be adaptive and functional as this makes the world seem more coherent and predictable.

Self-verifying evaluations also smooth social interactions by guiding action and letting people know what to expect from others. 

How are self-views formed?

Swann proposed that people form their self-views by observing how others treat them. Through this, people become more aware of these views as they acquire more and more evidence to support them. 

Once these self-views are firmly held, they can enable people to make predictions about their world and thus guide their behaviour.

It affirms for people that they are as they should be as they maintain a sense of continuity and coherence.

Since people’s self-views play such a critical role in their lives, they become invested in maintaining these views by obtaining self-verifying information. 

What are some examples of self-verification?

Self-verification theory suggests that those who see themselves as likeable want others to also see them as such.

Similarly, people who see themselves as dislikeable want others to perceive them in this way. 

Other examples of self-verification theory include:

  • Someone who sees themselves as extroverted wants others to see them as extraverted.

  • Someone who sees themselves as introverted wants others to see them as introverted.

  • Someone who believes they are dominant wants others to see them as dominant.

  • Someone who believes they are submissive wants others to see them as submissive.

  • Someone who believes they are intelligent will want others to notice their intelligence.

Self-verification theory can explain why people can behave in certain ways. For instance, if someone wants others to see them as extroverted, they may attend lots of social events to show others how extroverted they are.

Likewise, if someone wants others to see their perceived intelligence, they may be motivated to work hard and pursue education at a top university. 

How do people seek self-verifying partners and environments?

Self-verification theory proposes that people tend to gravitate towards relationships and settings that provide them with evaluations that confirm their self-views.

People tend to prefer self-verifying evaluations and interactions with their partners. When favourable impressions are given by someone, those with positive self-views prefer them.

Those with negative self-views prefer people who give them unfavourable impressions. This can provide an explanation for why it is common for people with low self-esteem to remain in relationships with people who do not treat them well.

Once in relationships, people actively strive to verify their self-views by evoking self-confirming reactions from their partners.

Firstly, they may strive to find partners who verify one or more of their self-views. If this fails, they may redouble their efforts to elicit verification for the self-views 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.

Often, intimacy can diminish in relationships when individuals receive feedback from a partner that overestimates or underestimates their positive attributes.

Research on married couples, roommates, and dating partners show that people gravitate towards people who provide verification and will drift away from those who do not.

So, people with positive self-views often withdraw from spouses or partners who perceive them unfavourable.

At the same time, people with negative self-views often withdraw from people who perceive them favourably.

Self-verification theory and self-enhancement

Self-enhancement is one of social psychology’s earliest theories. It suggests that humans have a vital and universal need to view oneself positively. 

Among people with positive self-views, the desire for self-verification can work hand in hand with the desire for self-enhancement.

For instance, those who view themselves as a likeable person will find that their desires for both self-verification and self-enhancement compel them to seek feedback that others perceive them as a likeable person. 

However, people with negative self-views will find that self-verification and self-enhancement push them in opposite directions.

For example, someone who sees themselves as an unlikeable person will find that their desire for self-verification compels them to seek evidence that others perceive them as unlikeable.

But their desire for self-enhancement compels them to seek evidence that others perceive them as likeable. 

Support for self-enhancement theory comes from research that asked participants to choose between two evaluators – one who gave positive evaluation and one who gave negative evaluation. When forced to choose between the two, participants selected the positive evaluator even if they viewed themselves negatively. 

However, only with time to reflect did the participants with negative self-views choose the negative, self-verifying evaluator.

A way of understanding the relationship between self-verification and self-enhancement is to recognise each motive as emerging as part of a sequence. 

This means that immediate responses are more likely to be self-enhancing, while more considered responses are likely to be more self-verifying. This could be because self-enhancement strivings require only one step – people are firstly more likely to embrace positive evaluations and reject negative ones. 

In contrast, self-verification strivings require at least two steps – after considering the evaluation, it must be compared to the self-view, for only then can the person discriminate verifying evaluations from non-verifying ones. 

There is research that suggests that people’s self-views may channel other’s perceptions of their experiences to make their views seem more self-verifying than they actually are.

Selective attention

It is thought that people have selective attention when they are seeking feedback about themselves, so that the feedback fits in with their self-views. 

It has been found that people with positive self-views spent longer scrutinising evaluations when they anticipated that the evaluations would be positive.

In contrast, people with negative self-views spent longer scrutinising evaluations when they anticipated that the evaluations would be negative. Thus, this suggests that people spent more of their attention on finding self-confirming information. 

Biases 

Further to selective attention, it is thought that people retain self-confirming biases about feedback they received. 

In a study, participants who perceived themselves positively remembered more positive than negative statements from an evaluation.

Participants who perceived themselves negatively remembered more negative than positive statements from an evaluation.  

Reinforced self-views

It has been suggested that people tend to interpret information in ways that reinforce their self-views. 

Researchers found that people endorsed the perceptiveness of an evaluator who confirmed their self-conceptions, but this was not the case for an evaluator who disconfirmed their self-views. 

Also, people with high self-esteem remembered feedback as being more favourable than it actually was, whereas people with low self-esteem remembered the feedback as being more negative than it actually was. 

Self-verification theory suggests that people may begin to shape other’s evaluations of themselves before they even begin interacting with them.

People can bring others to see them as they see themselves through their actions, identity cues, and body language.

Actions

People can act in a way that brings others to verify how they want to be perceived. For instance, someone who believes they are extroverted may attend a lot of social events and talk a lot so that other people view them as extroverted.

Someone who believes they are introverted may remain quiet in conversations and be seen as spending a lot of time alone, so that others view them as introverted. 

Someone who perceives themselves as a kind person may perform many charitable acts so that others view them as kind whereas someone who thinks they are an unkind person would act unhelpful. 

Identity cues

People may display identity cues which enable them to signal who they are to others before interacting with them.

Physical appearances are a common type of identity cue, as well as the clothes someone wears. Clothing and accessories can advertise self-views associated with everything from personal tastes, favourite colours, and even political views.

Body language 

Even the body language of a person, such as their posture and demeanour can communicate identities to others.

For instance, if someone perceives themselves as confident, they may stand tall, have expressive facial expressions and be smiling. Someone who has low self-esteem, however, may not make eye contact, have slumped shoulders and cross their arms over their chest. 

Self-affirmation theory

An alternative theory which shares some overlap with self-verification is self-affirmation theory. According to self-affirmation theory, individuals attempt to maintain a global perception of themselves as positive rather than striving to perceive themselves favourably in every aspect of their lives.

According to the theory, when a specific attribute is challenged, individuals do not need to feel motivated to deny the criticism. Rather, they reinforce a positive image of themselves through other means, often by highlighting their values. 

Self-verification and self-affirmation theory share similarities in that they assume that individuals like to maintain a positive identity of themselves.

However, they differ in the sense that self-verification theory also implies that individuals reject positive feedback that contradicts their perception of themselves. 

In general, self-affirmation theory implies that individuals strive to maintain a positive perception of themselves whereas self-verification implies that individuals strive to maintain their existing perception of themselves, and they can feel threatened by positive feedback that contradicts this. 

SCENT model

The Self-Concept Enhancing Tactician (SCENT) model was proposed by Sedikides and Strube (1997). This model claims that people seek information about themselves to promote a positive self-concept. To enable this, they will often seek biassed information about themselves. 

A way in which this can be promoted is by comparing themselves to those who they would consider ‘inferior’ to them. Another way to induce this bias is to attribute their success to their own disposition. 

An individual who wants to promote a positive self-concept can protect themselves by avoiding comparison to those who they would consider to be ‘superior’ to them.

Alternatively, individuals may engage in self-improvement exercises to actually try to enhance their positive qualities. 

How does self-verification theory relate to feedback?

According to self-verification theory, individuals seek feedback that justifies their perception of themselves, even if this feedback is negative and critical.

It feels more comfortable for them to process feedback that promotes the survival of their self-views.

Often, individuals will reject, dismiss, or trivialise feedback that contradicts their perception of themselves to ensure their identities remain intact.

Instead, they are likely to seek opportunities that will confirm their self-perceptions, refine their identities gradually to ensure these perceptions can withstand future feedback, and deliberately engage in acts that affirm their identities.

How does self-verification theory relate to self-fulfilling prophecies?

Self-verification theory can also be used to explain some of the effects of self-fulfilling prophecies.

If a child has the view that they are intelligent and this view is also shared by parents and teachers, the child may strive in their school performance while they maintain the view that they are intelligent.

Due to the self-verification motives, these aspirations tend to translate into performance. Alternatively, if a teacher has the perception that a student will fail, and the child shares this perception, they may be more likely to fail.

Research found that when teachers expect a student to fail, they tend to not wait as long for these students to answer a question posed to them. The child therefore learns to hold back their effort as a result.

The research also found that if teachers predict a student will fail, they were not as likely to detect improvements in performance and these students were less likely to receive praise and encouragement (Brophy, 1983).

Can people change their self-views?

Although self-verification is likely to stabilise people’s view of themselves, change can still occur.

One of the most common causes of change is when there is a significant change in a person’s age.

For instance, when an adolescent becomes an adult, people are more likely to change the way they treat that person.

Individuals themselves can change their self-views when they come to the realisation that their self-view is stopping them from attaining an important goal.

For example, someone with a negative self-view may have been in a relationship with someone who treats them badly and shares their same negative view.

However, the individual may have realised that this situation has caused them to neglect their needs.

Becoming more self-aware and consciously making an effort to improve self-views, even if with the support from a skilled therapist, can help to promote positive self-views.

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking
Simply Psychology content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, June 10. Self-Verification Theory . Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/self-verification-theory.html

Sources

Brooks, M. L., Swann Jr, W. B., & Mehta, P. H. (2011). Reasserting the self: Blocking self-verifying behavior triggers compensatory self-verification. Self and Identity10(1), 77-84.

Brophy, J. E. (1983). Research on the self-fulfilling prophecy and teacher expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 631-661.

Chen, S., Chen, K. Y., & Shaw, L. (2004). Self-verification motives at the collective level of self-definitionJournal of personality and social psychology86(1), 77.

Katz, J., Beach, S. R., & Anderson, P. (1996). Self-enhancement versus self-verification: Does spousal support always help?. Cognitive Therapy and Research20(4), 345-360.

Sedikides, C., & Strube, M. J. (1997). Self-evaluation: To thine own self be good, to thine own self be sure, to thine own self be true, and to thine own self be better. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 209-269). Academic Press.

Swann, W. B., Jr. 1983. Self-verification: Bringing social reality into harmony with the self. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2): 33-66. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Swann Jr, W. B. (2012). Self-verification theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, ed. P. Van Lang, A. Kruglanski & ET Higgins. Sage.

Swann, W. B., & Hill, C. A. (1982). When our identities are mistaken: reaffirming self-conceptions through social interactionJournal of personality and social psychology43(1), 59.

Swann Jr, W. B., & Read, S. J. (1981). Self-verification processes: How we sustain our self-conceptionsJournal of Experimental Social Psychology17(4), 351-372.

Talaifar, S., & Swann, W. B. (2020). Self-verification theoryEncyclopedia of personality and individual differences, 4813-4821.