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Self verification theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Individuals sometimes receive feedback from a romantic parter that is more positive than is their own perception of themselves. Individuals might feel they are uncreative, but their partner might feel they are very creative. Surprisingly, individuals also feel an urge to withdraw from these partners& they instead gravitate towards anyone who offers feedback that confirms their own perception of themselves--as substantiated in many studies (e.g., Burke & Stets, 1999; De La Ronde & Swann, 1998; Murray, Holmes, Dolderman, & Griffin, 2000; Ritts & Stein, 1995; Schafer, Wickrama, & Keith, 1996; Swann, De La Ronde, & Hixon, 1994).

Self verification can explain this interesting observation--as well as many other key findings. Many studies, for example, have examined whether diverse workgroups flourish or flounder. These diverse groups tend to flourish, provided that individuals feel that other members understand their qualities and thus confirm their perception of themselves (Swann, Kwan, Polzer, & Milton, 2003). That is, individuals feel more connected to any collective that seems to verify these perceptions (London, 2003; Polzer, Milton, & Swann, 2002; Swann, Milton, & Polzer, 2000; Swann, Polzer, Seyle, & Ko, 2004).

To explain these findings, self verification theory assumes that individuals construct an identity of themselves--their perception of their roles, reputation, qualities, behaviors, and values, for example. This identity affords individuals with a sense of certainty and composure as well as guides their choices and actions. Accordingly, individuals strive to maintain these identities, attempt to avert sources of feedback that challenge these perceptions of themselves. Instead, they seek feedback that aligns with these identities.

Evolution of self verification theory

Self verification theory evolved from two key themes in the literature. First, this theory emanated from the tradition of symbolic interaction (e.g., Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). From this perspective, individuals tend to construct their identity from feedback and information they derive from the environment. The treatment they receive from other individuals, for example, shapes this identity.

Second, self verification theory emerged from other models that highlight the need to maintain self consistency (e.g., Festinger, 1957). That is, individuals feel uneasy when their behaviors diverge from their attitudes. They also feel anxious or uneasy when they receive feedback that contradicts some of their perceptions of themselves. They like their identity and concept of themselves to be consistent rather than contradictory.

Thus, according to self verification theory (Swann, 1983), individuals continuously strive to construct, refine, and defend their identity of themselves. These identities include many characteristics, such as their roles in life, their strengths, their values, their limitations, their beliefs, their reputation, and so forth.

These identities afford individuals with many key functions. When these identities are unambiguous rather than hazy, individuals can more readily predict events that are unlikely to unfold in the environment. They can predict whether they will be harmed or helped. They can predict which behaviors will be embraced or rejected, and so forth. In other words, these identities ensure the world seems coherent and knowable as well as govern the decisions and behaviors of individuals (Swann, 1983).

Because of the importance of this clarity, individuals strive to maintain or defend these identities (Swann, 1983). In particlar, they will engage in several processes to maintain these identities. First, they will often reject, dismiss, or trivialize feedback that contradicts their perception of themselves, to ensure the identities remain intact. Instead, they attempt to cultivate opportunities that are likely to confirm these perceptions of their traits, deficiencies, and characteristics. Second, they will sometimes refine their identities gradually, to ensure these perceptions can withstand future information and feedback. Third, they will often deliberately engage in acts that affirm their identities. If they regard themselves as patriotic, for example, they might choose to fight for their country (e.g., Swann, Gamez, Seyle, Morales, & Huici, 2009).

Variations of self verification theories

According to the original formulations of self verification theory, the cognitive and affective responses to information can be independent and distinct (e.g., Swann, Griffin, Predmore, & Gaines, 1987). In particular, after individuals who perceive themselves negatively receive negative feedback, their cognitive response is positive. That is, they recognize this information confirms their expectations and perceive the social environment as more predictable. Nevertheless, because this feedback is negative, they experience unpleasant affective responses.

More recent formulations, however, assume the cognitive and affective responses are closely related to one another (e.g., Rehman, Ebel-Lam, Mortimer, & Mark, 2009; Swann, Wenzlaff, Krull, & Pelham, 1992). According to these variants, individuals experience a strong urge to ensure the social environment is predictable. Hence, even the affective response to negative information can be positive--at least in individuals who adopt unfavorable conceptualizations of themselves.

Even these revised formulations, however, assume that affective responses often follow cognitive evaluations. That is, these individuals first recognize the consistency between the negative feedback and their own perceptions of themselves. Next, they conclude the world seems predictable. Finally, because of this conclusion, they experience positive affective states. Accordingly, if cognitive operations are inhibited, negative feedback might not elicit positive emotions--a prediction that has been verified (Swann & Schroeder, 1995).

Evidence of self verification theory

Rehman, Ebel-Lam, Mortimer, and Mark (2009) accumulated some striking evidence to support the concept of self verification. In their study, some participants who were depressed as well as participants who were not depressed--all of whom were single--read three profiles about someone of the opposite sex. Next, they chose the person they prefer and conversed with this individual, who was actually a confederate, over the internet. Then, the individuals rated the extent to which they would like to meet each other.

Some of the participants were rejected by their partners. That is, their partner provided a rating of 4 out of 10. The partner also did not involve the participants in a subsequent game. The other participants were accepted by their partners. Their partner provided a rating of 8 out of 10 and did involve the participants in this subsequent game. Finally, participants rated the extent to which they feel anxious, depressed, angry, confused, fatigued, and vigorous.

The mood of participants who were not depressed did not depend significantly on whether or not they were rejected. Interestingly, and consistent with self verification theory, the mood of participants who were depressed actually improved if they were rejected rather than accepted--and this effect was mediated by anxiety. Presumably, positive feedback from their partners violated the expectations of depressed individuals, which reduces their sense of control and amplified anxiety.

Salience of the self concept

Many other studies have confirmed the principal tenets of self verification theory. To illustrate, one of the tenets of this theory is that feedback that contradicts identities should activate the self concept. That is, the self concept becomes more salient, enablying individuals to reinforce their identity.

Swann and Hill (1982) verified this principle. In their study, participants received feedback that was either concordant or discrepant with their own perception of themselves. Individuals who received discrepant, rather than concordant, information responded more rapidly to a subsequent questionnaire in which they had to evaluate whether or not a series of adjectives describes their character. This discrepancy, therefore, seemed to activate the self concept, ultimately to afford self verification, which facilitated reaction time.

These findings are consistent with the proposition that individuals who receive feedback that contradicts their perception of themselves feel motivated to seek information that clarifies this identity. Indeed, many studies have confirmed this argument (Swann & Read, 1981; Swann, Wenzlaff, & Tafarodi, 1992).

Gravitation towards partners who offer accurate feedback

According to self verification theory (Swann, 1983), individuals seek feedback that vindicates their perception of themselves--even if this feedback is negative and critical. Accordingly, individuals should gravitate towards partners who present this feedback. They should, in contrast, withdraw from a partner who presents feedback that diverges from their perception of themselves, regardless of whether or not these evaluations are positive.

Many studies have confirmed this proposition (e.g., Burke & Stets, 1999; De La Ronde & Swann, 1998; Murray, Holmes, Dolderman, & Griffin, 2000; Ritts & Stein, 1995; Schafer, Wickrama, & Keith, 1996; Swann, De La Ronde, & Hixon, 1994). Intimacy, for example, often diminishes when individuals receive feedback from a partner that overestimates their positive attributes.

Nevertheless, Marigold, Holmes, and Ross (2006) discovered an approach that reduces the inclination of people with a low self-esteem to shun praise. In particular, when people consider why they received a compliment and its significance to the relationship, this aversion to praise tends to diminish.

For example, in one study, participants were instructed to reflect on a compliment they had received in the past from their partner. Some participants were then asked to consider why they received this compliment and its significance to the relationship. This thoughts tends to evoke an abstract construal, in which people are attuned to broader patterns instead of specific details (see construal level theory) . Other participants merely described the precise words and details of the context. These thoughts tend to evoke a concrete construal, in which people are attuned to specific features. Next, participants were asked questions that gauge their self-esteem at that moment and their attitudes towards the relationship.

If participants had considered the broader significance or meaning of these compliments, rather than focused on the details, praise tended to increase self-esteem and attitudes towards the relationship--especially in people with a low self-esteem. That is, this abstract construal of these compliments overcame the usual resistance of these individuals to praise.

When individuals adopt a concrete construal, they may assume these compliments are confined to a specific event. They feel they may disappoint the other person in the future. In contrast, when individuals adopt an abstract construal, they recognize these compliments may apply to other facets of their life in the future. They feel confidence and proud.

Relevance of feedback

According to self verification theory, the relevance of feedback might affect whether or not this information is embraced. Specifically, individuals with a high self esteem tend to perceive themselves as exemplary on attributes they regard as central rather than peripheral. As a consequence, and as substantiated by Seta, Donaldson, and Seta (1999), negative feedback about these central and important attributes violates their perception of themselves. Because of this violation, these individuals are especially inclined to dismiss negative feedback about central rather than peripheral attributes.

In contrast, individuals with a low self esteem, however, do not perceive themselves as exemplary on attributes they regard as central or importance. Accordingly, as Seta, Donaldson, and Seta (1999), negative feedback about these central attributes does not violate their perception of themselves. These individuals are no more inclined to dismiss negative feedback that is central to their identity. Indeed, they tend to disregard criticisms that relate to more trivial or peripheral characteristics.

Inattention to personal stories

According to Pasupathi and Rich (2005), individuals often relate stories about themselves to construct their identity. That is, as individuals share anecdotes about themselves, they develop more clarity about their own values, aspirations, roles and interests, epitomizing self-verification.

The behavior of listeners, however, affects the impact of storytelling on self-verification. If the other person is inattentive, individuals are not as motivated to elaborate on these stories& they are not, therefore, as likely to clarify their identity. Furthermore, the individuals are not as likely to feel the constructs they utilize to describe themselves are meaningful to other people& they doubt their own perspectives of themselves. Self-verification is thus impeded. Indeed, as Pasupathi and Rich (2005) showed, self-verification needs are more likely to be fulfilled when the listener is disagreeable than when the listener is inattentive. Disagreeable listeners, at least, can actually foster elaboration.

Specifically, in this study, some participants played an enjoyable computer game, called SIMS, for 15 minutes. They were next instructed to describe this game to someone else. In one condition, this listener had been told to disagree and dissuade the other person. In another condition, this listener had been told to seem distracted. Finally, in one condition, the listener received neither of these instructions. Before and after these conversations, participants were asked to indicate their interest in SIMS.

If the listener was inattentive, participants expressed more interest in SIMS before rather than after the conversation. The inattentive listener, therefore, did not verify the interest of participants in SIMs. Self-verification of this interest in SIMS had been impeded. In contrast, if the listener was attentive, the conversation did not reduce this interest in SIMS--even if this person was disagreeable. Self-verification of this interest was not impeded.

Implications of self verification theory

Positive self statements

Self verification theory can also explain the finding, uncovered by Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009), that positive affirmations can impair the wellbeing of some individuals. Since the popular book, entitled "The power of positive thinking", written by Norman Vincent Peale, many individuals repeat affirmations to themselves: like "I?m powerful", "I?m strong", or "I?m a lovable person".

In their study, participants were instructed to transcribe any thoughts or emotions they experienced over the course of four minutes. Some participants were also told to repeat the phrase "I am a lovable person" each time a particular sound was emitted. The sound was emitted 16 times.

If participants who reported a high self esteem, these affirmations improved mood--as gauged by projective techniques, such as estimations of the probability that 30 year old person is involved in a loving romance. If participants who reported a low self esteem, these affirmations actually impaired mood (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009).

These findings, according to Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009), could be ascribed to self verification theory. If individuals experience an impaired self esteem, positive affirmations diverge from their concept of themselves. This divergence undermines their certainty, evoking negative emotional states.

Nevertheless, as conceded by Wood, Perunovic, and Lee (2009), alternative theories could also explain this pattern of results. When individuals repeat aphorisms, they emphasize the salience of some domain, such as the extent to which they are loved. If they feel deficient in this domain, this emphasis merely amplifies their faults, evoking negative mood states (cf., Eisenstadt & Leippe, 1994).

Alternatively, these affirmations could magnify the salience of counterarguments. After individuals repeat the words "I am lovable", instances that violate this aphorism might be elicited.

Self fulfilling prophecies

Self verification can also explain the effects of self fulfilling prophecies. For example, as Scherr, Madon, Guyll, Willard, and Spoth (2011) showed, if mothers believe their children will thrive at school, the academic aspirations of these children during adolescence are elevated. Because of self verification motives, these aspirations tend to translate into performance.

Previously, many studies had examined the mediators that underpin the effect of self fulfilling prophecies. For example, when teachers expect a student to fail, they do not wait as long for these pupils to answer a question. These students, therefore, over time, learn to withhold their effort, compromising their improvement. Hence, the negative expectations of teachers can undermine the learning of students (Brophy, 1983). Similarly, if teachers predict that a student will fail, they are not as likely to detect improvements in these pupils& these students receive less praise and encouragement than other students (Brophy, 1983; for many other mediators, see Harris & Rosenthal, 1985). These behaviors, however, may not mediate the effects of self fulfilling prophecies in other contexts, outside the school environment.

In contrast to these studies, Scherr, Madon, Guyll, Willard, and Spoth (2011) sought a mediator that is relevant to all instances: self verification. They argued that people may, often inadvertently, internalize the expectations of someone else into their own self concept. If individuals feel that someone expects them to fail, they internalize their incompetence into their perception of themselves. Then, because of self verification, they become inclined to enact behaviours that align with this internalized expectation.

Scherr, Madon, Guyll, Willard, and Spoth (2011) examined 332 mothers and their adolescent children four times, across a six year period. A variety of measures were examined. Two items assessed the expectations of mothers about the educational attainment of their children, including "How far do you expect this child to go in school?" on a 6 point scale from less than high school to Law, Medicine, or a postgraduate degree. To gauge the educational aspirations of adolescents, these students were asked "If you could go as far as you wanted in school, how much education would you like to have", using the same scale that was applied to gauge the expectations of mothers. Grade point average and school reports, together with enrolment in courses after school, were utilized to examine educational attainment of students. Other variables were also assessed and controlled, including academic self concept, academic motivation, school problems, and experience of peer pressure in the adolescents as well parental social class and involvement with school related activities of their children.

The expectations of mothers predicted the aspirations of their adolescent children at a later time. These aspirations then predicted the educational attainment of these students. These relationships persisted after other variables that tend to predict educational attainment were controlled, although the effect size was generally small. Therefore, the expectations of mothers were not merely derived from accurate sources of information: Even expectations that were unrelated to established determinants of educational attainment predicted the aspirations and progress of their children.

Therapeutic implications

Because individuals like to verify and reinforce their identity, they are not always willing to change a trait, even if this transformation could be perceived as desirable. This reluctance to change was underscored by Riis, Simmons, and Goodwin (2008). In one of their studies, participants were instructed to imagine that a pill had been developed that can permanently enhance particular characteristics. They were told to assume this pill is entirely safe, transforming only the intended characteristic.

A list of 19 traits, including social, emotional, and cognitive capabilities, was presented, such as concentration, creativity, empathy, kindness, music ability, and self confidence. For each trait, participants specified the extent to which the pill would change who they are fundamentally. In addition, they were asked whether this pill would change their sense of authenticity. Other participants were asked whether or not they would be willing to consume this pill.

Participants were not willing to consume all the pills. They were more willing to consume a pill, and thus change, on a characteristic they did not perceive as fundamental to their identity, roughly consistent with self verification theory. They did not want to change attributes that could transform who they are or compromise their sense of authenticity. In general, they were more willing to change their cognitive or motor abilities, such as rote memory, math ability, and reflexes--capacities they perceived as less fundamental to themselves. They were not as willing to change their social or emotional attributes, such as their level of kindness, empathy, self confidence, and mood.

According to Riis, Simmons, and Goodwin (2008), individuals abstain from changes that could threaten their perception of themselves. To confirm this possibility, in a subsequent study, participants were exposed to an advertisement in which they could purchase a pill that enhances concentration or social comfort. In general, participants were more interested in a pill that enhances concentration, because this trait is not perceived as fundamental to their identity. However, if the tagline "Become who you are" rather than "Become more than who you are" was included, this reluctance dissipated. Presumably, the tagline "Become who you are" implied the pill could enable individuals to reinforce their identity, overcoming their concerns.

Related or contrasting theories

Self affirmation theory

Self verification theory shares some overlap with self affirmation theory (e.g., Steele, 1988; see also Self affirmation theory). According to self affirmation theory, individuals do not strive to perceive themselves favorably in every facet of their live. They merely attempt to maintain a global perception of themselves as positive?-that is, to demonstrate integrity. When a specific attribute is challenged?-for example, individuals might be informed they cannot sing?-they do not necessarily feel the motivation to trivialize or deny this criticism. Instead, they can reinforce their image of themselves through other means, often by merely highlighting their values. These exercises are intended to activate the facets of the self that individuals regard as worthy.

Both self verification and self affirmation theory share the assumption that individuals like to maintain a positive identity of themselves. Specifically, when these positive identities are challenged, such as when a quality they cherish in themselves is questioned, they might attempt to derogate the source of this feedback.

Nevertheless, in contrast to self affirmation theory, self verification theory also implies that individuals reject positive feedback that contradicts their perception of themselves. That is, self affirmation theory implies that individuals primarily strive to maintain a positive perception of themselves--a perception that positive feedback reinforces. Self verification theory implies that individuals strive to maintain their existing perception of themselves, and hence they can feel threatened by positive feedback that contradicts this identity.

SCENT model

In contrast to the notion of self-verification, according to the Self-Concept Enhancing Tactician or SCENT model (Sedikides & Strube, 1997), people seek information about themselves ultimately to foster a positive self-concept. To foster this positive self-concept, they will often seek biased information about themselves. For example, they may compare themselves to inferior people or attribute successes to their own disposition, called self-promotion. Similarly, they may avoid comparisons to superior people, called self-protection. Alternatively, they may actually attempt to enhance their qualities, called self-improvement.

Interestingly, everyday activities, such as gossip, can fulfill all these needs. For example, negative or critical gossip about other people underscores the shortcomings of individuals and, therefore, can fulfill self-promotion needs and may evoke pride. Furthermore, when individuals receive this information, they feel respected, also instilling self-promotion needs. In contrast, positive gossip can instill some feelings of inferiority, magnifying self-protection needs. Yet, negative gossip may demonstrate the environment is judgmental, also magnifying self-protection needs, potentially culminating in feelings of fear and anxiety. Finally, gossip about the competence of other people can activate self-improvement needs& positive gossip in particular can be informative and inspiring.

To explore these relationships, Martinescu, Janssen, and Nijstad (2014) conducted a pair of studies. In one study, participants first recalled a time in which they worked in teams and heard either positive or negative information about the competence of a team member. Next, they completed a series of measures about whether this information activated self-promotion needs (e.g., "The information I received made me feel that I am doing well compared to X in the group assignment"), self-protection concerns (e.g., "The information I received made me feel that I must protect my image in the group"), and self-improvement motives (e.g., "The information I received made me think that I can learn a lot from X in this group assignment").

Positive gossip about individuals evoked self-improvement motives, whereas negative gossip about individuals fulfilled self-promotion needs and magnified self-protection concerns. The following study extended these findings, demonstrating that such self-promotion and self-protection evoked pride and fear respectively.


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