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Symbolic self completion theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Symbolic self completion theory argues that many of the activities that individuals enact--such as the possessions they purchase--are intended to substantiate their definition of themselves, clarifying their identity (Wicklund & Gollwizter, 1982). These acts are especially prevalent when individuals feel uncertain or threatened.

Symbolic self completion theory can explain some important findings. For example, this theory can explain the observation that individuals are more inclined to perceive a building owned by their company as especially valuable after they informed this organization is deteriorating (Ledgerwood, Liviatan, & Carnevale, 2007). In addition, individuals are more inclined to overestimate their credibility if their level of education in some cherished domain is limited rather than extensive (Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1981).

Description of the theory

According to symbolic self completion theory, promulgated by Wicklund and Gollwizter (1982), individuals attempt to define themselves with various labels. They might, for example, define themselves as a musician, athlete, scientist, or professional. This identity or definition, however, is occasionally threatened or questioned. Individuals who define themselves as musicians, for example, might perform appallingly in a music competition.

To compensate, these individuals will engage in activities that can be conceptualized as a substitute to these deficiencies, effectively nullifying their shortfalls, referred to as the compensation hypothesis (Brunstein & Gollwitzer, 1996). In particular, they might emit some verbal statement, such as "I have performed in many concert halls", to substantiate their identity of themselves. Alternatively, they might engage in some behavior that demonstrates this identify, such as hone their musical skill. Finally, they might utilize some material symbol, perhaps purchasing an expensive guitar, to compensate. These acts, called symbols of completeness, are all intended to substantiate the identities that individuals use to define themselves.

When individuals attempt to substantiate some definition of themselves, they will tend to engage in behaviors their community recognizes align to this identity (Gollwitzer & Wicklund, 1985). To establish they are indeed a musician, they will enact activities that perhaps their community would deem to typify this role. They will, for example, become more likely to perceive their guitar as valuable if they feel the community would regard this instrument as a symbol of their musical identity.

Empirical evidence

Verbal statements

The symbolic self completion theory emerged from evidence that was uncovered by Wicklund and Gollwitzer (1981). In their study, individuals defined themselves with various labels, such as musician, athlete, or scientist. These participants were then asked how many individuals they were willing to teach. Participants were willing to teach more individuals, and depicted themselves as more influential, if their education in the domain they chose was limited rather than extensive.

If their education in some domain is limited, individuals are more inclined to verbalize the merits of their influence to compensate. Gollwitzer, Wicklund, and Hilton (1982) showed this inclination to highlight their merits persists even when individuals are specifically instructed to describe their shortcomings instead (for consistent results, see also Wicklund & Gollwitzer, 1983).


Brunstein and Gollwitzer (1996) showed how symbolic self completion theory can explain changes in performance after apparent failure. In particular, they showed that after individuals fail on some key activity--an activity that is germane to their professional goals--their performance on subsequent tasks that are also related to this pursuit improves.

Interestingly, their performance on subsequent tasks that are not related to this pursuit deteriorates. This finding is consistent with the interference hypothesis--the proposition that individuals whose identity is threatened are less inclined to direct their attention to activities that are not germane to this definition of themselves (Brunstein & Gollwitzer, 1996).


Symbolic self completion theory implies that individuals are more likely to demonstrate materialism--the inclination to conceptualize success as an accumulation of wealth and possessions--if their definitions of themselves are uncertain or threatened. That is, the pursuit of wealth and possessions might reflect an attempt of individuals to substantiate their definitions of themselves--a desire that is more intense when this identity is threatened. Consistent with this premise, Chang and Arkin (2002) showed that even exposure to words that threaten this identity, such as "doubtful", "uncertain", and "incompetent", was sufficient to promote materialistic values.

Likewise, individuals who are materialistic tend to be less satisfied with their life, as shown by Swinjyard, Kau, and Phua (2001). This finding also aligns with the proposition that materialism might reflect an attempt to override the dissatisfaction that ensues when a sense of identity or clarity is threatened.

Experimental studies also indicate that materialism can impede wellbeing. As Bauer, Wilkie, Kim, and Bodenhausen (2012) demonstrated in a series of studies, cues that prompt consumerism tend to inhibit social values and, ultimately, diminish wellbeing.

For example, to cue materialism and consumerism, some participants observed 24 images of luxury goods. Other participants observed neutral pictures. Next, all participants were asked to allocate time to various activities, such as social activities and other activities as well as complete measures of mood. After participants were exposed to images of luxury goods, they were not as likely to allocate time to social activities. Furthermore, they were more likely to report elevated levels of anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame.

In another study, some participants were exposed to the words that correspond to consumerism and materialism, embedded within a sentence unscrambling task--words that could prime materialism and consumerism. In the control condition, other participants were exposed to neutral words instead. Next, they completed questions that gauge the degree to which people feel competitive, such as "Doing better than others gives me a sense of self-respect" as well as participate in various social activities. After they were exposed to words that are synonymous with consumerism and materialism, they were more likely to feel competitive as well as engage in activities that demand minimal social engagement rather than considerable social engagement. The final study showed that words that correspond to consumerism and materialism also foster distrust and impede altruistic motivations.

Overall, when consumerism and materialism are salient, individuals are more inclined to be competitive and distrusting, sometimes eliciting anxiety and other negative emotions. In addition, people often consume prestigious products to override feelings of inadequacy. Over time, therefore, they associate consumerism and materialism with these unpleasant feelings.

Titles and qualifications

References to professional qualifications also provide the function of symbolic self completion. For example, Harmon-Jones, Schmeichel, and Harmon-Jones (2008) examined symbolic self completion theory in an academic setting. They showed that professors who were not ranked highly in research--as measured by publications, citations, and rankings of their department--were more likely to refer to professional titles, such as professor or PhD in the email signatures. Presumably, these professional titles provided the roles of symbols to define their accomplishments.

Display of status symbols

According to self completion theory, individuals become more likely to value symbols, such as possessions, that reinforce identities to which they feel insecure but committed. Rather than merely value these possessions, individuals also like other people to recognize these symbols. After all, if individuals feel respected by other people, they are likely to perceive themselves as elevated in status. If they are derided by other people, they are not as likely to perceive themselves as elevated in status. The perceptions of other people affect identity.

According to this reasoning, if the socioeconomic status of individuals is unstable or insecure, individuals may feel especially inclined to display status symbols. Carr and Vignoles (2011) verified this possibility. In this study, 100 adolescents first completed a series of scales. These scales were intended to assess the extent to which these individuals were materialistic (e.g., "The things I own say a lot about how well I'm doing in life"), socioeconomic status, as gauged by the occupation and education of their parents, and stability of socioeconomic status, as measured by changes in family affluence over recent generations.

In addition, participants were asked to list 10 of their possessions, such as an iPod or ring. They rated these possessions on a range of attributes, such as the degree to which this item could be perceived as a status symbol. Finally, participants were told they will, several minutes later, be granted an opportunity to discuss 5 of these 10 possessions to another person. Their task was to chose which 5 possessions they would like to discuss.

Many of the participants decided they would prefer to speak about the possessions they rated as status symbols. Presumably, these participants were motivated to display their status. Interestingly, this inclination was more pronounced in participants whose socioeconomic status was unstable--either because of increases or decreases in affluence over time. This association between the inclination of individuals to display status and instability in socioeconomic status was observed only in participants who reported elevated levels of materialism.

Presumably, if socioeconomic status is unstable, individuals feel insecure about this facet of their lives. They know their socioeconomic status is not permanent. If they also value this facet of their lives, as reflected by materialism, they will experience the need to override this instability. That is, they become more inclined to display symbols of status to diminish this insecurity.

Extensions to the original theory

Ledgerwood, Liviatan, and Carnevale (2007) extended symbolic self completion theory, arguing that individuals also engage in acts that are intended to substantiate the identity of their group not only the identity of themselves. In particular, individuals like to substantiate the identities or definitions of the groups to which they belong. Usually, they like to perceive these groups favorably, perhaps conceptualizing their organization as productive, innovative, and successful, for example. When this group identity is threatened, they are more likely to seek symbols that nullify this shortfall. They might, for instance, overestimate the value of possessions or contributions that relate to the organization.

Ledgerwood et al. (2007) accumulated evidence that supports this extension. In their study, some students were informed their university is deteriorating, whereas other students were informed their university is flourishing. They then received a historical description of a building in their university. Students tended to perceive this building as elevated, not modest, in value if they had been informed their institution was deteriorating. Personal criticisms, however, did not affect the perceived value of this building. That is, when the identity of their group--the university--was threatened, they were more inclined to value any symbols that exemplify the defining features of this collective.


Self completion theory, however, departs from self affirmation theory. According to self completion theory, when a specific identity is threatened, individuals feel motivated to engage in activities that substantiate this specific definition of themselves (Wicklund & Gollwizter, 1982). According to self affirmation theory, however, when a specific identity is threatened, individuals are motivated to engage in behaviors that enhance their global perception of themselves (Steele & Liu, 1983;; see also Self affirmation theory).

These theories have not been reconciled convincingly. Perhaps, individuals are indeed motivated to engage in activities that substantiate the threatened identity. However, because this endeavor could fail, they can also shift their identities, activating other definitions, and thus motivating different behaviors.

Practical implications


Organizations often want to ensure that some product, such as a CD, is perceived as valuable by customers. To fulfill this goal, you should first consider which social categories the product epitomizes. Perhaps a CD of techno music, for example, represents individuals who frequent night clubs. Second, you should highlight some perceived problems with this social category, such as individuals who frequent night clubs might be perceived as unproductive. Third, you should demonstrate the relationship between this social category and the product. To illustrate, a typical advertisement could include the message "Although we are sometimes regarded as weak, this CD demonstrates our strength" (see Ledgerwood, Liviatan, & Carnevale, 2007).


To improve wellbeing in employees, organizations should not encourage materialistic values, which are inversely related to life satisfaction (Swinjyard, Kau, & Phua, 2001). First, they should not, for example, spend exorbitantly on fittings and other luxuries. Second, they should be encouraged to challenge materialistic values, perhaps highlighting that materialism is often pursued to compensate feelings of shame.


Bauer, M. A., Wilkie, J. E. B., Kim, J. K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2012). Cuing consumerism: Situational materialism undermines personal and social well-being. Psychological Science, 23, 517-523. doi: 10.1177/0956797611429579

Brunstein, J. C., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1996). Effects of failure on subsequent performance: The importance of self-defining goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 395-407.

Carr, H. L., & Vignoles, V. L. (2011). Keeping up with the Joneses: Status projection as symbolic self-completion. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 518-527. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.812

Chang, L., & Arkin, R. M. (2002). Materialism as an attempt to cope with uncertainty. Psychology and Marketing, 19, 389-406.

Gollwitzer, P. M., & Wicklund, R. A. (1985). Self-symbolizing and the neglect of others' perspectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 702-715

Gollwitzer, P. M., Wicklund, R. A., & Hilton, J. L. (1982). Admission of failure and symbolic self-completion: Extending Lewinian theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 358-371.

Harmon-Jones, C., Schmeichel, B. J., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Symbolic self-completion in academia: Evidence from department web pages and email signature files. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 311-316.

Ledgerwood, A., Liviatan, I., & Carnevale, P. J. (2007). Group-identity completion and the symbolic value of property. Psychological Science, 18, 873-878.

Steele, C. M., & Liu, T. J. (1983). Dissonance processes as self-affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 5-19.

Swinjyard, W. R., Kau, A., & Phua, H. (2001). Happiness, materialism, and religious experience in the US and Singapore. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, 13-32

Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1981). Symbolic self-completion, attempted influence, and self-deprecation. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 2, 89-114.

Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwizter, P. M. (1982) Symbolic self-completion. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wicklund, R. A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (1983). A motivational factor in self-report validity. In J. Suls & A. G. Greenwald (Eds.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 2, pp. 67-92). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Last Update: 6/28/2016