Are You a Social Chameleon or a Zebra?

The science of self-monitoring.

Posted Apr 04, 2017

Are you the kind of person who blends in with the crowd, who changes persona to meet the needs of the situation? A social chameleon? Or, are you the type of person who displays a consistent personality regardless of the situation or with whom you are interacting? We’ll call that type a zebra, because a zebra doesn’t change its stripes.

What we are talking about is the personality construct of self-monitoring. Self-monitoring refers to the desire and ability to monitor one’s own social behavior in order to adapt to a particular situation or person(s) with which you are interacting.  High self-monitors are like “social chameleons.” They engage in high levels of self-presentation and present different “versions” of themselves, depending on the situation. They blend in.

Low self-monitors, on the other hand, are not as focused on, nor as skilled in, self-presentation and tend to behave consistently across different situations and groups. Like the zebra, they don’t change their stripes. They are who they are. Low self-monitors tend to display their underlying personality, attitudes, and typical behavior regardless of the situation.

Self-monitoring is a complex personality construct that includes attitudinal and motivational components (e.g., a high self-monitor wants to fit in and be accepted), as well as a set of social skills (i.e., being able to “read” others emotions and nonverbal cues; ability to alter and change one’s emotional expressions and behavioral displays). A low self-monitor, on the other hand, is more motivated to be consistent – displaying felt attitudes and emotions – and may lack skills in polished self-presentation.

Research has shown that high self-monitors are more likely to get along with others, are more successful in social situations (e.g., they tend to get more dates), are more likely to attain leadership positions, and have broader social networks. On the downside, high self-monitors’ desire to fit in means that they are more likely to blindly follow the crowd, and because of their ever-changing nature, over time others may feel that they are somewhat “phony” and that they don’t really know the high self-monitoring person. With low self-monitors, what you see is what you get.

Once you understand the construct of self-monitoring, it’s usually easy to know whether you are a high or low self-monitor. Do you typically alter your behavior in an effort to fit in? In group discussions, do you adjust your opinions to go along with the crowd? Do you often engage in social acting or role-playing? If so, you are a high self-monitor. If you find yourself “just being yourself” in social situations, and expressing your true feelings and opinions, even if they are inconsistent with the feelings and opinions of others, then you are likely a low self-monitor. Here is a website where you can actually take the Self-Monitoring Scale and find out your score.

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Riggio, R.E. & Friedman, H.S. (1982). The interrelationships of self-monitoring factors, personality traits, and nonverbal skills. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 7, 33–45.

Snyder, M. (1974). Self-monitoring of expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 526–37.