"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us ... To see ourselves as others see us," wrote Scotland's bard Robert Burns, asserting the oft-believed truism that we would all like to have the power to know exactly what it is that other people are saying and thinking about us. And yet, as the poet continues on to say, the more we think about this idea the less wholeheartedly we might well be to embrace it: Thinking about how others see us (and especially if they so precipitate as to tell us their precise thoughts) carries a very high degree of social and psychological risk. The high degree of risk so incurred arises in no small part from the fact that when we consider the idea that other people know what we are "really" like rather than the self-deception with which we cloak ourselves can give us -- to use a highly technical term -- the willies. This paper examines the concept of self-verification, which is a part of the process of how each person determines the (perceived) truth about what kind of person they are and the complex ways in which this psychological dynamic plays out as each individual negotiates a world that tips like a ship on a stormy sea.
Before examining four scholarly articles that address this issue and assessing the ways in which each of the writers performed her or his research, it seems useful to provide a general definition of the concept of self-verification. To omit this step would make it far more difficult to evaluate the following articles. Self-verification is a model or theoretical perspective that is based on the idea that each one of us wants to be understood by other people, and especially by those other people who are most important to us such as family members. We also tend to be especially sensitive to the opinions of those who have power over us such as work supervisors. This accords with common sense, for in all psychological dynamics we are likely to privilege those whom we love and those we fear.
In its broadest sense, this is something that we each already know: We have no doubt all had the experience of feeling either outraged or threatened when someone else holds us to a standard that we ourselves find at best irrelevant. For example, when a person we have just started dating criticizes us repeatedly and severely for not having matching hangers rather than acknowledging the fact that we have just started going to the gym every day, we have experienced the discord that self-verification is designed to allow us to avoid in our daily lives.
Self-verification is a very apt description of the widespread and perfectly reasonable desire for others to acknowledge that we are reasonable and even exemplary people by virtue of our beliefs. If other people judge us as we judge ourselves (health is more important than compulsory cleanliness, for example) then they not only make life more pleasant for us by extending their approval to us, but they validate our deeply held beliefs through the very act of using those beliefs and standards as benchmarks for their evaluation of us.
One final point in assessing the importance and usefulness of self-verification is that it is a part of the process through which we attempt to reduce the sense of uncertainty that faces each individual in a world that offers very little in the way of certainty and thus of personal control. Finding or creating a psycho-social niche in which we can assure ourselves that others see us how we believe they should (that is, in the same way in which we judge ourselves) this provides a measure of control and continuity to each one of us. Beyond this benefit for the individual, self-verification offers an important service on a macro-social level: Groups that practice (or enforce) collective self-verification are more predictable to other groups, a fact that may well reduce tension (up to and including war) amongst social groups. How we perceive ourselves is never a process that occurs without an audience.
Swann, W.B. & Ely, R. (1984). A battle of wills: Self-verification vs. behavioral confirmation. Journal of personality and social psychology 46(6), 1287-1302.
The first article examined in this section of the paper is an early article (1984) on the issue of self-verification and is included because it is co-written by William Swann, who is generally acknowledged to be the creator of the concept of self-verification, in this article addresses the problem of which person's opinion will triumph when a person's self-conception is radically different from an individual with whom the subject comes into contact. Swann & Ely (1984) write that established opinion at the time favored a model in which individual's generally ceded their opinion of themselves to that of the outside "perceiver," who imposed his or her beliefs, which then overrode the inherent self-concept of the subject.
While this model made rational sense, Swann & Ely (1984) found through a series of experiments that the actual results of such interactions are more complex and do not follow a single predictable outcome. Rather, in the most general terms, the person whose perception was likely to "win" was the person who held his or her views the most strongly. So a strong-willed, highly self-confident perceiver when faced with a subject with a low sense of self-confidence and self-identity, the perceiver's views were likely to succeed. When the converse conditions were true, the opposite result was the most likely as might be predicted.
When both parties were relatively tentative (or loosely wedded) to their opinions, the subject's view (the self-verification) of the subject was likely to prove to become the shared version of the subject's self. This may result from the fact that, in a case in which both subject and perceiver had equally strong (or, in this case, weak) opinions as to the subject's core identity and beliefs, then there is an inherent bias towards the acceptance of the subject's own self-perception. We may all believe (if only deep down) that the subject has the greatest authority to speak for her/himself.
London, M. (2003). Antecedents and consequences of self-verification: Implications for individual and group development. Human Resource Development Review 2(3), 273-293.
London (2003) examined another one of the dynamics that arises when the self-verification process employed by individuals becomes enmeshed in the ways in which individuals (each of whom is developing and either successfully or unsuccessfully maintain a sense of self) are required to negotiate that inner sense of self with other people's sense of self. This would be tricky enough if all of these identities were stable; however, it is nearly always the case that during interpersonal interactions self-identities begin to shift.
London (2003) found that the process of self-verification (using the term in the same way that Swann defined it) is often most strongly established through the twinned processes of self-disclosure and feedback about that enclosure creates a group atmosphere of what might be called collective self-verification. As individuals reveal who they are to each other and receive positive regard from others about this feedback (that is, as others show respect for each person's right to define himself or herself as well as a respect for the other person's most fundamental beliefs) creates a sense of interpersonal congruence.
Another way of stating this central belief of individuals in a group, according to London (2003), is that individuals like themselves more even as they acquire a stronger sense of self that allows them to like themselves even more. Each person begins to like herself or himself more and to grow stronger, a process that is magnified as each person in the group reinforces the positive self-regard of each other member of the group. The ability of groups to achieve interpersonal congruence can be most marked in groups that are in important ways heterogeneous: which especially helps groups that are heterogeneous and are "working on tasks that require judgment, or both."
London (2003) further develops his model to emphasize which specific elements of group-enhanced self-verification aid in the development of group cohesion and loyalty. He found these traits to be primarily self-awareness, confidence in self-other relationships, and self-development orientation." He also found that the leaders of groups that are striving to achieve greater cohesiveness are most likely to be successful when they emphasize certain traits to be successful in their goals.
Leaders who emphasize the importance of group facilitation and individual coaching and mentoring are creating an atmosphere in which self-disclosure is more likely to occur. This self-disclosure (as noted above) is the first and absolutely essential step toward creating (relatively) harmonious groups that are based on multiple and interactive strata of self-verification. Although it may seem contradictory that group cohesion is increased through the strengthening of self-verification and self-identification, London's experiment and our own experiences deny this. In other words, groups do better when their individual members do…