Self-verification theory proposes that people want others to see them as they see themselves. For example, those who see themselves as relatively dominant want others to see them as dominant, and those who see themselves as relatively submissive want others to recognize them as submissive. The theory was developed by William B. Swann Jr. (1983). Drawing on earlier theorizing, he assumed that people form self-views so that they can predict the responses of others and know how to act toward them. Thus, for example, those who see themselves as intelligent expect that others will notice their insightfulness and so are inclined to pursue activities that require intelligence. Because self-views play a critical role in making sense of their experiences and guiding their actions, people become invested in maintaining them by obtaining self-confirming information.
Among persons with positive self-views, the desire for self-verification complements another important motive, the desire for self-enhancing or positive evaluations. For example, those who view themselves as “organized” find that their desires for both self-verification and self-enhancement compel them to seek feedback that confirms their positive, “organized” self-view. People with negative self-views, however, find that the two motives conflict: Although the desire for self-verification compels such persons to seek negative evaluations, the desire for self-enhancement compels them to seek positive evaluations. Self-verification theory points to the conditions under which people with negative self-views resolve this conflict by seeking self-verification rather than self-enhancement.
Considerable evidence supports self-verification theory (Swann 1996). In one study, researchers asked participants with positive and negative self-views whether they would prefer to interact with evaluators who had favorable or unfavorable impressions of them. Those with positive self-views preferred favorable partners, but contrary to self-enhancement theory, those with negative self-views preferred unfavorable partners.
Many replications of this effect using diverse methodologies have confirmed that people prefer self-verifying evaluations and interaction partners. For example, not only do self-verification strivings influence the relationships people enter initially, they also influence whether or not people remain in certain relationships. Research on married couples, college roommates, and dating partners show that people gravitate toward partners who provide verification and drift away from those who do not—even if this means withdrawing from positive partners. And even if people wind up with partners who do not see them in a self-verifying manner, they may correct the situation by changing their partners’ minds. College students who were mildly depressed, for instance, were especially likely to solicit negative evaluations from their roommates, and such activities made their roommates more inclined to derogate and reject them at the semester’s end. And even if people should somehow fail to elicit self-confirming evaluations, information-processing biases in attention, memory, and interpretation may make their social works appear to be more confirming than they actually are, thus stabilizing their self-views.
Self-verification strivings are adaptive for most people because most people have positive self-views, and self-verification processes enable them to preserve these positive self-views. Also, within small groups, verification of negative as well as positive self-views may also facilitate commitment and performance. Yet for people with negative self-views, self-verification strivings may have undesirable consequences, causing them to gravitate toward partners who undermine their feelings of self-worth.
The major criticism of self-verification theory has been that, relative to self-enhancement, it is a rare phenomenon that is restricted to people with terribly negative self-views. As evidence, critics cite hundreds of studies indicating that people prefer, seek, and value positive evaluations more than negative ones. Such critiques overlook two important things. First, because most people have relatively positive self-views, the fact that they display a preference for positive evaluations may reflect a preference for evaluations that are self-verifying (as well as self-enhancing). Second, self-verification strivings are not limited to people with globally negative self-views; even people with high self-esteem seek negative evaluations about their flaws, and even people with moderately positive self-views withdraw from spouses who evaluate them in an exceptionally positive manner.
Swann, William B., Jr. 1983. Self-Verification: Bringing Social Reality into Harmony with the Self. In Social Psychological Perspectives on the Self. Vol. 2, eds. Jerry Suls and Anthony G. Greenwald, 33–66. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Swann, William B., Jr. 1987. Identity Negotiation: Where Two Roads Meet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53: 1038–1051.
Swann, William B., Jr. 1996. Self-Traps: The Elusive Quest for Higher Self-Esteem. New York: Freeman.
Swann, William B., Jr., Chris De La Ronde, and J. Gregory Hixon. 1994. Authenticity and Positivity Strivings in Marriage and Courtship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 66: 857–869.
William B. Swann Jr.