When we’re socialising and we try to make a certain impression – to appear confident, say, or smart – doing so affects our perception of the person we’re talking to, leading us to think they have less of the same trait that we’re trying to demonstrate in ourselves. Bryan Gibson and Elizabeth Poposki showed this in five experiments involving hundreds of undergrads.
In each experiment participants watched a short film before discussing it with another student (actually a stooge working for the researchers) in two brief (15 and 8 second) exchanges over a webcam. Crucially, half the participants were given a specific ‘impression management’ goal. This was either to appear introverted, extraverted, smart, confident or happy, depending on the experiment. Afterwards the participants rated themselves and the student they’d conversed with.
The central finding was that, compared with the control participants, students given an impression management goal tended to rate their conversation partner lower on whichever trait they’d tried to demonstrate in themselves, but not on other traits.
Gibson and Poposki’s theory is that this effect occurs via two mechanisms. Striving to make a particular impression causes us to adopt a comparison mindset, they say. And by shifting our own self-construct on a given trait, our conversation partner appears as a consequence to have less of that trait in comparison with ourselves.
This explanation was borne out by the various experiments. For example, the effect still occurred even when participants were given an impression management goal, but no chance to act on it – they were tricked into thinking their webcam was broken, so they could see and hear their partner but their partner couldn’t see or hear them. This suggests the mere formation of an impression management goal is enough to shift the self-concept and affect our perception of others. On the other hand, this study’s central effect didn’t occur when the researchers recruited participants who reported having a particularly fixed self-construct with regards to the relevant trait. In other words, when a person’s self-construct wasn’t shifted by an impression management attempt, their perception of their conversation partner wasn’t altered.
Gibson and Poposki said their findings raise many interesting questions for future research. One of these concerns narcissists, who have an ongoing desire to come across as highly intelligent. This could cause them to chronically underestimate other people’s intelligence, which might well contribute to their social difficulties.
‘Our research highlights the notion that the impressions we form of others are not made in a social vacuum,’ the researchers concluded. ‘By selecting particular impression management goals to guide our social interactions, we may unwittingly influence how we come to view others as much as we influence how they come to view us.’
Gibson B and Poposki EM (2010). How the adoption of impression management goals alters impression formation. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 36 (11), 1543-54 PMID: 20921279