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Want People to Know Your True Self? Show Your Best Self!

How it pays to put your best self forward

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'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

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