Self-enhancement refers to an unduly inflated self-image and to the processes that make it so. As a process, self-enhancement is a motivated attempt to seek and emphasize positive feedback and to shield the self from negative feedback (where the shielding is more properly termed self-protection ). Successful performance, social victories, or acceptance by others can be selectively recalled or embellished in memory, whereas failures, social defeats, or rejections can be reinterpreted, forgotten, or outright rejected. This operation of motivated self-enhancement is constrained by the motive of self-verification, which calls for the construction and maintenance of a stable self-image. The conflict between these two motives is apparent only when self-esteem is low. High self-esteem enables thoughts that are simultaneously self-enhancing and self-verifying. Hence, the process of self-enhancement can provide a buffer against depression (Bernichon, Cook, and Brown 2003).
Some processes of self-enhancement are conscious and strategic. Optimistic predictions regarding future events, such as a high perceived probability of succeeding at a job or a low perceived probability of contracting a dreaded disease, can be self-enhancing. When people care more about the hit rate of their predictions than about the false positive rate, self-enhancement may be the expression of rational decision utilities. These utilities are malleable: Predictions become more modest when people are accountable to others or when their actual outcomes are soon to be revealed. Mood states and the task difficulty also moderate predictions, such that a positive mood heightens self-enhancement and a difficult task lowers it.
Other processes are implicit or even unconscious. People with positive self-images automatically associate their own attributes with positive feelings and approach behavior. For example, the initials of one’s own name and the date of one’s birth come to be seen as highly desirable through repeated exposure. As a consequence, people like others who share these attributes, however irrelevant they might be for social behavior. When relocating, for example, people prefer to move to states whose names begin with the same letter as their own.
The prevalence of self-enhancement has spawned studies on stable individual differences. As a trait construct, self-enhancement is derivative because it is assessed as a discrepancy between the positivity of a person’s self-image and some index of what the person is “really like.” The idiographic approach is to ask people how they see themselves relative to the average person. This approach is problematic because many people who claim to be better than average may actually be better. The alternative approach is nomothetic in that it uses the discrepancy between a self-judgment and the aggregate judgment made by observers as a measure of self-enhancement. This method seeks to solve the criterion problem by statistical aggregation over observer judgments, assuming that observers are on average unbiased (Krueger 1998).
The methodological debate over how best to capture individual differences is bound up with the substantive question of whether self-enhancement is beneficial or detrimental to a person’s well-being. This question remains open because the answer strongly depends on the method used. Idiographic studies suggest adaptive advantages, whereas nomothetic studies suggest that self-enhancers are narcissistic and disliked.
SEE ALSO Self-Affirmation Theory; Self-Serving Bias; Self-Verification
Bernichon, Tiffiny, Kathleen E. Cook, and Jonathon D. Brown. 2003. Seeking Self-Evaluative Feedback: The Interactive Role of Global Self-Esteem and Specific Self-Views. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84: 194–204.
Krueger, Joachim. 1998. Enhancement Bias in the Description of Self and Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 24: 505–516.
Joachim I. Krueger