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Self-verification is a social psychological theory that focuses on people’s desire to be known and understood by others. The key assumption is that once people develop firmly held beliefs about themselves, they come to prefer that others see them as they see themselves.
Developed by William Swann (1983), the theory grew out of earlier writings which held that people form self-views so that they can understand and predict the responses of others and know how to act toward them. Because chronic self-views play a critically important role in understanding the world, providing a sense of coherence, and guiding action, people become invested in maintaining them. To this end, people engage in a variety of activities that are designed to obtain self-verifying information.
Among people with positive self-views, the desire for self-verification works together with another important motive, the desire for positive evaluations or “self enhancement” (Jones, 1973). For example, those who view themselves as “insightful” will find that their desires for both self-verification and self-enhancement encourage them to seek evidence that other people recognize their insightfulness. In contrast, people with negative self-views will find that the desire for self-verification and self-enhancement are competing. Consider people who see themselves as disorganized. Whereas their desire for self-enhancement will compel them to seek evidence that others perceive them as organized, their desire for self-verification will compel such individuals to seek evidence that others perceive them as disorganized. One contribution of self-verification theory is in specifying some of the conditions under which people with negative self-views will resolve this conflict by seeking self-verification versus self-enhancement.
Researchers have uncovered considerable support for self-verification theory (e.g., Swann, Chang-Schneider, & Angulo, in press). In one series of studies, researchers asked participants with positive and negative self-views whether they would prefer to interact with evaluators who had favorable or unfavorable impressions of them. Not surprisingly, those with positive self-views preferred favorable partners. More interestingly, those with negative self-views preferred unfavorable partners. The latter finding showed that self-verification strivings may sometimes trump positivity strivings (Robinson & Smith-Lovin, 1992; Swann, Stein-Seroussi, Giesler, 1992).
The tendency for people with negative self-views to seek and embrace negative evaluations has emerged again and again using many procedural variations. Men and women are equally inclined to display this propensity, and it does not matter whether the self-views refer to characteristics that are relatively immutable (e.g., intelligence) or changeable (e.g., diligence), or whether the self-views happen to be highly specific (e.g., athletic) or global (e.g., low self-esteem, worthlessness). Furthermore, when people chose negative partners over positive ones, it is not merely in an effort to avoid interacting with positive evaluators (that is, out of a concern that they might disappoint such positive evaluators). Rather, people chose self-verifying, negative partners even when the alternative is participating in a different experiment (Swann, Wenzlaff, & Tafarodi, 1992). Finally, recent work has shown that people work to verify self-views associated with group memberships (Lemay & Ashmore, 2004; Chen, Chen, & Shaw, 2004). Thus, for example, women seek evaluations that confirm their belief that they possess qualities associated with being a woman.
Self-verification theory suggests that people may begin to shape others’ evaluations of them before they even begin interacting with them. They may, for example, display identity cues. The most effective identity cues enable people to signal who they are to potential interaction partners. Physical appearances are a particularly common class of identity cues. The clothes one wears, for instance, can advertise self-views associated with everything from personal tastes to political orientation. One set of researchers, for instance, discovered that people’s self-views influenced the way they dressed and the type of fabric they chose (e.g., Pratt & Rafaeli, 1997). Even body posture and demeanor communicate identities to others. Take, for example, the low self-esteem person who evokes reactions that confirm her negative self-views by slumping her shoulders and keeping her eyes fixed on the ground. Such identity cues can effortlessly announce their bearer’s self-views to all who take notice.
Fashioning Social Environments That Are Self-verifying
Self-verification strivings may also influence the social contexts that people enter into and remain in. Research on college roommates and married couples, for example, has revealed that people gravitate toward partners who provide self-verification and drift away from those who do not. For instance, whereas college students with positive self-views want to stay with roommates who appraise them positively, students with negative self-views prefer to remain with roommates who appraise them negatively (Swann & Pelham, 2002) Similarly, just as people with positive self-views withdraw from spouses who perceive them unfavorably, people with negative self-views withdraw from spouses who perceive them favorably (e.g., Swann, DeLaRonde, & Hixon, 1994). Indeed, in one study, people with negative self-views were more inclined to divorce partners who perceived them too favorably (Cast & Burke, 2002)! In each of these instances, people gravitated toward relationships that provided them with evaluations that confirmed their self-views and fled from those that did not.
Even if people fail to gain self-verifying reactions through the display of identity cue or through choosing self-verifying social environments, they may still acquire such evaluations by systematically evoking confirming reactions. A study of mildly depressed college students, for example, showed that such students were especially likely to prefer negative evaluations from their roommates. Such preferences for negative evaluations bore fruit in the form of interpersonal rejection: the more unfavorable feedback depressed students said they wanted from their roommates in the middle of the semester, the more apt their roommates were to derogate them and plan to find another roommate at the semester’s end (Swann, Wenzlaff, Krull, & Pelham, 1992). Self-verification theory predicts that insofar as people are motivated to bring others to verify their self-conceptions, they should intensify their efforts to elicit self-confirmatory reactions when they suspect that others might be misconstruing them. Researchers tested this idea by informing participants who perceived themselves as either likable or dislikable that they would be interacting with people who perceived them favorably or unfavorably. There were two key findings. First, there was a general tendency for all participants to elicit reactions that confirmed their self-views.
Second, the tendency to evoke confirming reactions was especially strong when participants expected that their evaluators’ appraisals might disconfirm their self-conceptions (Swann & Read, 1981). That is, when participants suspected that the evaluators’ appraisals were discordant with their self-views, they intensified their efforts to obtain self-verification by trying to change their minds.
People will even stop working on tasks to which they have been assigned if they sense that their performance is eliciting non-verifying feedback. One researcher recruited participants with positive or negative self-views to work on a proofreading task. He then informed some participants that they would be receiving more money than they deserved (i.e., positive expectancies) or exactly what they deserved (i.e., neutral expectancies). Consistent with self-verification theory, whereas participants with positive self-views worked the most when they had positive expectancies, participants with negative self-views worked the least when they had positive expectancies (Brockner, 1985). Apparently, people with negative self-views withdrew effort when expecting positive outcomes because they felt undeserving of the sudden windfall.
“Seeing” Self-Confirming Evidence That Isn’t There
The research literature in social and personality psychology offers abundant evidence that expectancies channel information processing. Because self-views are also expectancies (i.e., expectancies about the self), self-views should likewise channel people’s perceptions of the world. More specifically, self-verification theory predicts that people’s self-views will cause them to see the world as more supportive of these self-views than it really is.
Self-views may guide at least three distinct aspects of information processing. The first aspect is attention. Research has shown that people with positive self-views spend longer scrutinizing evaluations when they anticipate that the evaluations will be positive, and people with negative self-views spend longer scrutinizing evaluations when they anticipate that the evaluations will be negative (Swann & Read, 1981).
Self-verification theory also predicts that self-views will guide what people remember from their interactions. Thus, for example, several researchers have studied what people remember when they are asked to recall evaluations they have received in the past. They have discovered that just as participants who perceived themselves positively remembered more positive than negative evaluative information, participants who perceived themselves negatively remembered more negative than positive feedback (Story, 1998).
Finally, numerous investigators have shown that people tend to interpret information in ways that reinforce their self-views. For example, in one study, people endorsed the perceptiveness of an evaluator who confirmed their self-conceptions but derogated the perceptiveness of an evaluator who disconfirmed their self-views (Shrauger & Lund, 1975).
In summary, the evidence suggests that people may strive to verify their self-views by gravitating toward self-confirming partners, by systematically eliciting self-confirming reactions from others, and by processing information in ways that exaggerate the extent to which it appears that others perceive them in a self-confirming manner. These distinct forms of self-verification may often be implemented sequentially. For example, in one scenario, people may first strive to locate partners who verify one or more self-views. If this fails, they may redouble their efforts to elicit verification for the self-view in question or strive to elicit verification for a different self-view. Failing this, they may strive to “see” more self-verification than actually exists. And, if this strategy is also ineffective, they may withdraw from the relationship, either psychologically or in actuality.
Although each of these processes could be conscious and deliberate, more commonly they unfold effortlessly and non-consciously. Through the creative use of such strategies, people may dramatically increase their chances of attaining self-verification.
Processes Related to Self-verification
Preference for Novelty vs. Self-verification
A completely predictable world can be boring and oppressive. No matter how much we like something at first--a delicious type of food, a beautiful ballad, or a spectacular vista --eventually it may become too predictably and familiar. In fact, researchers have shown that people dislike highly predictable phenomena almost as much as they dislike highly unpredictable ones. Instead, people seem to prefer modest levels of novelty; they want to experience phenomena that are unfamiliar enough to be interesting, but not so unfamiliar as to be frightening (e.g., Berlyne, 1971).
The implications of people’s preference for novelty for human relationships are not as straightforward and obvious as one might imagine. Note that evidence that people desire novelty comes primarily from studies of people's reactions to art objects and the like. But novel art objects are very different from people. If a piece of art becomes overly stimulating, we can simply shift our attention elsewhere. This is not a viable option should our spouse suddenly begin treating us as if we were someone else, for such treatment would pose serious questions about the integrity of our belief systems. In the final analysis, we probably finesse our competing desires for predictability and novelty by indulging our desire for novelty within contexts in which surprises are not threatening (e.g., leisure activities), while seeking coherence and predictability in contexts in which surprises could be costly—such as in the context of our enduring relationships.
Positivity Strivings and Self-verification
People’s self-verification strivings are apt to be most influential when the relevant identities and behaviors matter to them. Thus, for example, the self-view should be firmly held, the relationship should be enduring, and the behavior itself should be consequential. When these conditions are not met, people will be relatively unconcerned with preserving their self-views and they will instead indulge their desire for positive evaluations.
But if people with firmly held negative self-views seek self-verification, this does not mean that they are masochistic or have no desire to be loved. In fact, even people with very low self-esteem want to be loved. What sets people with negative self-views apart is their ambivalence about the evaluations they receive. Just as positive evaluations foster joy and warmth initially, these feelings are later chilled by incredulity. And although negative evaluations may foster sadness that the “truth” could not be kinder, it will at least reassure them that they know themselves. Happily, people with negative self-views are the exception rather than the rule. That is, on the balance, most people tend to view themselves positively. Although this imbalance is adaptive for society at large, it poses a challenge to researchers interested in studying self-verification. That is, for theorists interested in determining if behavior is driven by self-verification or positivity strivings, participants with positive self-views will reveal nothing because both motives compel them to seek positive evaluations. If researchers want to learn if people prefer verification or positivity in a giving setting, they must study people with negative self-views.
Self-concept Change and Self-verification
Although self-verification strivings tend to stabilize people’s self-views, changes in self-views may still occur. Probably the most common source of change is set in motion when the community recognizes a significant change in a person’s age (e.g., when adolescents become adults), status (e.g., when students become teachers), or social role (e.g., when someone is convicted of a crime). Suddenly, the community may change the way that it treats the person. Eventually the target of such treatment will bring his or her self-view into accord with the new treatment.
Alternatively, people may themselves conclude that a given self-view is dysfunctional or obsolete and take steps to change it. Consider, for example, a woman who decides that her negative self-views have led her to tolerate abusive relationship partners. When she realizes that such partners are making her miserable, she may seek therapy. In the hands of a skilled therapist, she may develop more favorable self-views which, in turn, steer her toward more positive relationship partners with whom she may cultivate healthier relationships.
Critics have argued that self-verification processes are relative rare, manifesting themselves only among people with terribly negative self views. In support of this viewpoint, critics cite hundreds of studies indicating that people prefer, seek and value positive evaluations more than negative ones. Such skeptical assessments overlook three important points. First, because most people have relatively positive self-views (Swann, 1999), evidence of a preference for positive evaluations in unselected samples may in reality reflect a preference for evaluations that are self-verifying, because for such individuals self-verification and positivity stivings are indistinguishable. No number of studies of participants with positive self-views can determine whether self-verification or self-enhancement strivings are more common. Second, self-verification strivings are not limited to people with globally negative self-views; even people with high self-esteem seek negative evaluations about their flaws (Swann, Pelham & Krull, 1989). Finally, even people with positive self-views appear to be uncomfortable with overly positive evaluations. For example, people with moderately positive self-views withdraw from spouses who evaluate them in an exceptionally positive manner (Swann, De La Ronde, & Hixon, 1994).
Other critics have suggested that when people with negative self-views seek unfavorable evaluations, they do so as a means of avoiding truly negative evaluations or for purposes of self-improvement, with the idea being that this will enable them to obtain positive evaluations down the road. Tests of this idea have failed to support it. For example, just as people with negative self-views choose self-verifying, negative evaluators even when the alternative is being in another experiment, they choose to be in another experiment rather than interact with someone who evaluates them positively (Swann, Wenzlaff, & Tafarodi, 1992). Also, people with negative self-views are most intimate with spouses who evaluate them negatively, despite the fact that these spouses are relatively unlikely to enable them to improve themselves (Swann et. al., 1994). Finally, in a study of people’s thought processes as they chose interaction partners (Swann, et al., 1992, people with negative self-views indicated that they chose negative evaluators because such partners seemed likely to confirm their self-views (an epistemic consideration) and interact smoothly with them (a pragmatic consideration); self-improvement was rarely mentioned.
Self-verification strivings bring stability to people’s lives, making their experiences more coherent, orderly, and comprehensible than they would be otherwise. These processes are adaptive for most people, because most people have positive self-views and self-verification processes enable them to preserve these positive self-views. Self-verification processes are also adaptive for groups and the larger society, in that they make people predictable to one another thus serve to facilitate social interaction. Not surprisingly, then, research indicates that when members of small groups receive self-verification from other group members, their commitment to the group increases and their performance improves (Swann, Milton, & Polzer, 2000). Self-verification processes seem to be especially useful in small groups composed of people from diverse backgrounds because it foster mutual understanding. Such understanding, in turn, encourages people to open up to their co-workers which, in turn, fosters superior performance (e.g., Swann, Polzer, Seyle & Ko, 2004)
Despite being adaptive for most people most of the time, self-verification strivings may have undesirable consequences for people with negative self-views (depressed people and those who suffer from low self-esteem). For example, self-verification strivings may cause people with negative self-views to gravitate toward partners who mistreat them, undermine their feelings of self-worth, or even abuse them. And if people with negative self-views seek therapy, returning home to a self-verifying partner may undo the progress that was made there (Swann & Predmore, 1984). Finally, in the workplace, the feelings of worthlessness that plague people with low self-esteem may foster feelings of ambivalence about receiving receiving fair treatment, feelings that may undercut their propensity to insist that they get what they deserve from their employers (Weisenfeld, Swann, Brockner, & Bartel, 2007). These findings and related ones point to the importance of efforts to improve the self-views of those who suffer from low self-esteem and depression (Swann, Chang-Schneider & McClarty, 2007)
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