- People will go to great lengths to present themselves in as favorable a light as possible, especially in high-stakes situations.
- New research on impression management shows that people may be better off admitting to their strengths and weaknesses.
- If people are worried about making a strong impression, they can focus on making the best match between their abilities and the situation.
Meeting someone for the first time always presents challenges when you’re trying to put your best foot forward. You want to be seen as favorably as possible, but how far would you go to make that first impression be your best? Perhaps you’re on your way to meet a distant cousin of your partner, someone you’ve heard great things about. This person is reputed to be attractive, smart, and funny, all qualities that you admire. What will you do when you meet them to get them to like you?
Your choice in this, and other similar first-impression situations, is whether to be “yourself,” flaws and all, or whether to trim off some of those rough edges and go for a more refined self-presentation. With your partner’s cousin, the consequences of making the right choice are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. When it comes to a situation in which you want someone to choose you for a new job, for example, the stakes are considerably higher.
According to the University of Guelph’s Brooke Charbonneau and colleagues (2021), the job interview constitutes a key factor in whether interviewees receive the position or whether they walk away empty-handed. The interviewee obviously wants to perform as well as possible, and can potentially experience a range of psychological reactions, including increased anxiety, more reliance on the norms of the situation, and a tendency to use self-presentation tactics. Indeed, according to the perspective known as “interdependence theory,” when one person depends on the other for an important outcome, they try to “signal” their competence and will go to great lengths to do so, including the signaling of false information about themselves.
However, not everyone approaches this type of situation with a desire to look as good as possible. There is an impression strategy known as “self-verification,” in which interviewees use “honest signals, where they convey the truth about themselves so the organization can accurately decide on their level of fit,” as the authors note. The question is, which approach will have a better outcome? Is there value to being honest about yourself?
Self-Verification as a Means of Impression Management
You might be intrigued by the idea that your best way to impress someone, whether a cousin or a potential boss, is to be authentic. Previous research on self-verification that the Canadian authors cite suggests that people “are generally motivated to reinforce their own self-views through creating shared views of themselves in the minds of others. In other words, you have a certain view of yourself, and projecting it in the way other people view you can be validating, an “innate desire to feel consistent.”
The surprising feature of self-verification is that your desire to be seen honestly can include having other people see your negative, not just your positive, qualities. You can probably understand how this process might work if you’re in a relationship with someone to whom you’re very close. Having to put on a false front all the time can be exhausting, but also can present barriers to honest communication and a sense of mutuality. But in a new situation? What could possibly be the upside of this?
As it turns out, showing your true self (or the part of you relevant to the situation) might actually be a pretty good way to impress a person who you meet for the first time. How many times have you been annoyed by someone new who spends the entirety of your interaction trying to one-up you? Wouldn’t you prefer it if this person would just level with you?
Another option in managing first impressions is to be honest but still emphasize your strengths. You don’t have to make things up but instead can shape the way you describe yourself in a way that points to your abilities, past accomplishments, or personal qualities. There are a host of other impression management techniques as well, but none have the quality of self-verification, according to the authors, because they don’t hone in on your specific strengths and, importantly, your limitations.
Testing Self-Verification as an Impression Management Strategy
To determine whether people even use self-verification in the job interview situation, Charbonneau and her colleagues asked 252 co-op undergraduate students who interviewed for jobs to complete an online survey in which they described the strategies they used. Raters coded their responses, deciding on 12 final categories. Over one-fifth of the sample stated that they used self-verification in their interviews.
See whether this response of self-verification would fit your own behavior if you were in a similar situation:
“I was 100 percent honest. I don't try to say I have skills that I don't. I realize my limitations and am honest about them in the interview.”
Compare this response to the category defined as using honest self-promotion:
“I drew attention to my high grades. I emphasized the perfect fit that existed between my program and the organization/position.”
Finally, you can see how both of these approaches contrast to what Charbonneau et al. call tailoring:
"I did research about the job and position and tailored answers to fit my values; I told the truth but made sure my answers were consistent with what I thought the interviewer wanted."
The students in this first study who used self-verification cited a number of reasons for doing so but, perhaps most surprisingly, in order to make a favorable impression on the interviewer. As one stated, “I acted as myself and hoped that being myself was enough to distinguish myself.” Could honesty pay off after all?
The next two studies that the researchers reported on addressed this very question using separate samples of college students interviewing for an actual or simulated job. Additionally, the author team sought to establish whether those using self-verification would actually score higher on the personality trait known as “honesty-humility,” a quality that includes straightforwardness, sincerity, fairness, and the self-explanatory trait of “greed avoidance.”
Charbonneau et al. also tested the idea that job interviewees using self-verification would feel less anxious by administering a brief measure of interview-related anxiety. To test the idea that people using self-verification would be less likely to use deceptive impression management tactics during their interview, the Canadian researchers included a measure of deceptive impression management with items such as “I told fictional stories prepared in advance of the interview to best present my credentials.”
To help explain self-verification use in the interview, the research team asked students to complete a measure of need for approval and sensitivity to feedback. Finally, ratings of interview performance helped to determine how well self-verification actually worked as a self-presentation strategy.
Turning to the study’s main findings, interviewees in the job interview scenarios reported relatively high use of self-verification, but typically used it along with other interview strategies as well. As the authors concluded, “presenting oneself accurately is the default strategy, and perhaps interviewees only resort to the less common strategies if the situation requires it.” Both self-verification and honest impression management strategies were associated with the personality trait of honesty-humility, but the two interview strategies proved to be statistically distinct from one another.
In terms of which job interview strategy was most effective, the findings didn’t provide clear support for the value of self-verification above and beyond any other impression management tactic. However, from the interviewee’s perspective, there was a clear advantage in terms of perceived levels of anxiety. This finding supports the original theory that by being true to themselves, people under highly stressful evaluation scenarios feel better when they can just, as the saying goes, “be themselves.” Also, given that self-verification and deceptive ingratiation (lying to look better) were negatively correlated strategies, it’s possible that people’s anxieties are lower when they tell the truth because they don’t have to worry about being caught in a lie.
How Self-Verification Can Help You Manage Your Impressions
Returning to the example of that distant cousin you’d like to impress, the findings suggest that there’s nothing to be lost, and everything to be gained, from projecting the image of yourself with which you are most comfortable. Although you wouldn’t want to enter such situations intentionally trying to look your worst, you’ll be most likely perform better if you simply try to relax and let the chips fall where they may.
For higher-stakes situations such as an important interview, meeting, or social interaction with someone new, take stock of what you’d like the outcome to be. In the process, consider what’s going to be expected of you so that you can do your own internal match between the situational requirements and your own abilities. You can also do that trick where you pretend that you’re interviewing (or evaluating) the other person rather than the other way around. This paradoxical interpretation will only help you relax even more.
To sum up, admitting to your limitations appears to be as important as focusing on your strengths when it comes to being able to succeed in important first-meeting situations. Those first meetings will be more likely to help build stronger and longer-lasting interactions when it’s an authentic version of yourself that you project.
LinkedIn image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock. Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Charbonneau, B. D., Reed, M., & Powell, D. M. (2021). Self‐verification behavior as an employment interview tactic. International Journal of Selection and Assessment. https://doi-org/10.1111/ijsa.12349