Making a good impression is vital to our social lives. On a job interview or on a date, how you come off to another person could spell success or failure. To be well-received, one must convey qualities such as warmth, trustworthiness, and competence. But sometimes we miss the mark. Research on what’s known as impression management is extensive and maintains that people are quite skilled at presenting themselves to others in a positive light. When they don’t, it is believed that it's due to resource depletion — essentially, not having the mental energy to properly navigate social situations.
Self‐presentation involves two steps. First, one must choose the image they wish to convey to others. Second, one must strategically present that image. It is this second step which researchers say can tax mental resources. Making a positive impression takes self-regulation and self-control, both of which require effort. For example, when people are cognitively overloaded or distracted, they can become boastful. That tends to not go over well with others.
Could it be that some people, regardless of mental resources, are just bad at making a good impression?
This challenge to such traditional thinking on impression management is the focus of a new study led by psychologist Janina Steinmetz of Utrecht University. She and her collaborators assert that some people may be poor presenters not because of resource depletion, but rather two largely unconsidered factors:
The first is the failure to take another person’s perspective. Perspective taking refers to the ability to “anticipate the minds of others,” which isn’t easy. When it goes awry, it’s due to “mis-predicting” the emotional reaction of the receiver.
The second factor is narcissism. At first, the narcissist’s energetic, interesting, and entertaining ways are appealing. But over time, their arrogance and antagonism are fully displayed, often repelling their acquaintances. Their manner also affects their close relationships, as narcissists believe themselves to be superior, make downward comparisons, and disparage others. Also, they show little capacity for empathy or perspective taking.
The authors contend that failed perspective taking, exacerbated by narcissism, contributes to four ineffective impression management strategies:
Self-aggrandizing displays don’t sit well with people and tend to leave a negative impression. Research backs this up. One study had participants read vignettes in which the “actor” systematically presented themselves in either self-enhancing or non-self-enhancing ways around academic ability and friendship. In the self-enhancing condition, the actor made downward social comparisons (i.e., comparing themselves to others in a favorable light), such as “I am a better person to be friends with than others.” In the non-self-enhancing condition, the actor made more non-comparative or equal assertions, like “I am a good person to be friends with.” The investigators then assessed what the participants thought of the actors in each of these conditions. What did they find? Participants were most put off when actors made downward social comparison, regardless of whether it had to do with academics or friendship. What bothered them was not so much that the actor had a negative view of others, but had a negative view of the participant. The participants felt self-protective, which in turn gave rise to hostility and antagonism.
This form of impression mismanagement is bragging disguised as complaining or humility. An example, as provided by the authors, would be the social media user who posted, “Hair is not done, just rolled out of bed from a nap, and still get hit on; so confusing!” By appearing humble, a person can draw attention to their positive attributes in a manner that is seemingly inoffensive. This tactic often backfires, because it calls into question the sincerity of humblebraggart, leading to a negative impression. Meanwhile, the individual has failed to consider just how important the factor of genuineness is. Perceived insincerity is so critical to interpersonal appeal that humblebragging is less effective than simply complaining or bragging; that is, both complainers and braggarts are regarded as more sincere, and thus more likable, than humblebraggarts. Humblebraggarts believe they can mask their ulterior motives, but in the end are exposed.
Hypocrites claim a certain image for themselves but fail to live up to the standards of that image. Put another way, they talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, especially around moral issues. Hypocrisy can work if the divergent behavior can stay concealed. But once the daylight between the favorable image and the failure to conform to its standards shines bright, the hypocrite will be disliked much more than those who behave as the hypocrite does, but don’t claim a false image.
4. Backhanded Compliments
A backhanded compliment is an insult cloaked in a compliment, where the flatterer is purposefully condescending. For example, “I didn’t expect you to do so well on that on the exam. That’s great.” They stem from the desire to at once want to be liked and to have high social status. People like compliments and see complimenters favorably. But people recoil in the face of backhanded compliments. These bids for superiority fail spectacularly. They show that a person is concerned about how others evaluate them, when in actuality, they are more likely to gain respect when they appear unconcerned about how others view them.
Steinmetz J, Sezer O, Sedikides C. Impression mismanagement: People as inept self-presenters. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2017:11:e12321. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12321