The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life


Self-monitoring is a theory that deals with the phenomena of expressive controls, the ability to regulate behavior to accommodate social situations.

Human beings generally differ in substantial ways in their abilities and desires to engage in expressive controls. Individuals concerned with their expressive self-presentation (i.e. impression managers) tend to closely monitor their audience in order to ensure appropriate or desired public appearances. Self-monitors try to understand how individuals and groups will perceive their actions. Some personality types commonly act spontaneously and others are more apt to purposely control and consciously adjust their behavior.

High self-monitors can be thought of as social pragmatists who project images in an attempt to impress others and receive positive feedback. Conversely, low self-monitors do not participate, to the same degree, in expressive control and do not share similar concern for situational appropriateness. Low self-monitors tend to exhibit expressive controls congruent with their own internal states (e.g. beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions) regardless of social circumstance. Low self-monitors are often less observant of social context and consider expressing a self-presentation dissimilar from their internal states as a disingenuous and undesirable.

People who are unwilling to self-monitor and adjust their behavior accordingly are often aggressive, uncompromising, and insistent with others. This may make them more prone to condemnation, rejection, and the possible consequent feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt, low self-concept, isolation, and depression. Even the occasional indiscretion can make social situations very awkward, and could result in the loss of a friend, co-worker, client, or even job. Those who are willing to adjust their behavior will often find that others are more receptive, pleasant, and benevolent towards them.

Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman adapted the theater term ‘dramaturgy’ (the study of dramatic composition and its representation on the stage) to sociology to describe the symbolic interactionism in common social situations. Goffman developed most of the related terminology and ideas in his 1959 book, ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,’ the first book to treat face-to-face interaction as a subject of sociological study. He describe the interplay that occurs when an individual comes in contact with other people. The individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual.

During the 1970s when the self-monitoring concept was introduced it became part of two larger ongoing debates. Within personality research there was the tension between traits and situations. Were people more inclined to behave consistent with their personality traits or were they influenced by the immediate social situation? The self-monitoring construct offered a resolution to this debate because there was no need to argue that humans were influenced entirely by either traits or situations. High self-monitors were better predicted by their social environment (situation) while low self-monitors were better predicted by their traits.

Another debate that was raging during this time period within social psychology was whether or not attitudes were good predictors of behavior. The self-monitoring construct offered a resolution to this debate as well because it posited that low self-monitors would behave largely consistent with their attitudes, while attitudes would be poor predictors of behavior for high self-monitors. The self-monitoring construct fit neatly into the arguments of the day where high self-monitors affirmed the situation-oriented view typically associated with social psychology, while the low self-monitors affirmed the trait-oriented view typically associated with personality psychology.

American social psychologis Mark Snyder originally developed a scale to measure whether people were high or low self monitors in 1974 as a 25-item measure. In his original study he found that Stanford University students scored significantly higher on the scale than did psychiatric inpatients, but significantly lower than people in the acting profession. The scale was revised into an 18-item measure that is considered psychometrically superior to the original scale and has been used extensively in self-monitoring studies. There has developed great debate over whether or not the self-monitoring scale is a unitary phenomenon. During the 1980s, factor analysis postulated that the self-monitoring scale was actually measuring several distinct dimensions. The three-factor solution was the most common and usually interpreted as Acting, Extraversion, and Other-Directedness (willingness to communicate).

A score of 0-8 on Snyder’s scale indicates low self-monitoring, while a score of 13-25 indicates high self-monitoring. Compared to Low self-monitors, High self-monitors will have more dating and sexual partners, are more interested in having sex with people they are not in love with, and are more likely to have had sex with someone only once, as well as be more likely to deceive potential romantic partners. High self-monitors are more likely to choose a romantic partner who is attractive but unsociable, while low self-monitors are more likely to choose a partner who is unattractive but sociable. High self-monitors are also more likely to take on leadership positions than low self-monitors.

High self-monitors tend to weigh subjective norms more heavily than low self-monitors. High self-monitors may be more susceptible to informational cascades and herd mentality. This can be a problem if a culture of groupthink is part of the organizations decision making process. High self-monitors are more motivated to attain high social status than low self-monitors. Research drawing on the Elaboration Likelihood Model (a model of persuasive techniques) suggests that high self-monitors, more than low self-monitors, react favorably to peripheral processing of advertising images consistent with high social status.

A 1987 study argued that individualism influences self-monitoring. Cultures high on individualism focus on the self, not others. In individualistic cultures, knowing the context is not necessary to predict others’ behavior, thus people from individualistic cultures are more likely to be high self-monitors. Cultures low on individualism (i.e., collectivist cultures), in contrast, value conformity to ingroups and group memberships. In collectivistic cultures, knowing the context and social status of the other person is essential to predicting his or her behavior, thus people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to be low self-monitors.

Self-monitoring is useful for students from preschool to adulthood and can be taught to individuals at a variety of levels of cognitive functioning. Self-monitoring interventions foster independent functioning, which allows individuals with disabilities to rely less on prompts from others . Self-monitoring interventions are among the most flexible, useful, and effective strategies for students with academic and behavioral difficulties.

Students with behavioral and academic difficulties typically have limited awareness and understanding of their own behavior and its effects on others. Self-monitoring interventions equip students to recognize and keep track of their own behavior. Using these strategies, students can learn to identify and increase positive, pro-social behaviors, the behaviors necessary for success in general education settings. Rather than focusing on reducing a student’s undesired behavior, self-monitoring strategies develop skills that lead to an increase in appropriate behavior.

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