From mother to best friend, carer or lover, we play many roles in life. How we see ourselves varies dramatically depending on which of these roles we’re in and who we’re interacting with. Now Barry Schlenker and colleagues have taken this idea further, showing that the mere thought of different people significantly impacts the way we perceive ourselves, even influencing our scores on a personality test.
Dozens of female university students were led to believe they were participating in an investigation into the effect of visualisation on heart rate, with the appropriate medical paraphernalia in place to make the story more convincing.
The students were asked to visualise a range of fairly mundane items or experiences and then at the end they were asked to visualise in detail either one of their parents, a recent romantic partner, or a friend. Afterwards they completed a range of personality and self-esteem tests. Post-experimental debriefing confirmed they hadn’t guessed the true purpose of the study.
Students who visualised a parent subsequently rated themselves as less sensual, adventurous, dominant, extraverted and industrious, than did students asked to visualise a friend or romantic partner, consistent with the idea that people revert to a more submissive “child role” with their parents.
A second study revealed some interesting interactions between self-esteem and the effect of visualising different people. Low self-esteem female students who visualised a romantic partner subsequently rated themselves as less sensuous, relaxed and physically attractive, than did students with high self-esteem (however no such difference emerged after visualising a same-sex friend). Meanwhile imagining a same-sex friend led low self-esteem, but not high self-esteem, students to subsequently rate themselves as less socially dominant.
The researchers concluded that people could benefit from being more aware of the influences the mere thought of others can have. “If people recognise that imagined audiences could influence their thoughts, feelings, and actions, thereby perpetuating patterns that exist in specific relationships and possibly carrying over to new relationships, they can try to circumvent any undesirable effects through a conscious override.” In other words, when it comes to seeing yourself in the best possible light for a given situation, mind who you think of.
SCHLENKER, B.R., WOWRA, S.A., JOHNSON, R.M., MILLER, M.L. (2008). The impact of imagined audiences on self-appraisals. Personal Relationships, 15(2), 247-260. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2008.00196.x