Self-presentation is the process by which individuals represent themselves to the social world. This process occurs at both conscious and nonconscious (automatic) levels and is usually motivated by a desire to please others and/or meet the needs of the self. Self-presentation can be used as a means to manage the impressions others form of oneself. Strategic or tactical self-presentation (impression management) occurs when individuals seek to create a desired image or invoke a desired response from others.

The concept of self-presentation emerged from the symbolic interactionist (SI) tradition. The SI tradition is a uniquely sociological contribution to the field of social psychology that attends to the processes by which individuals create and negotiate the social world. SI proposes that it is through interaction and the development of shared meanings (symbolism) that individuals navigate the social world. The works of Erving Goffman, especially The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), exemplify the SI tradition and are seminal contributions to the study of impression management and self-presentation.

Goffman employs a dramaturgical metaphor in which he maps elements of social interaction to the stage. Working at the microsociological level, Goffman focused on the process by which actors construct roles and portray them to an audience. The social actor works to create a front that is both believable and elicits the approval of others. Goffman’s work on impression management and self-presentation provides a roadmap for understanding human behavior and the tension between the individual and society.

Subsequent to Goffman’s early articulations of ideas of self-presentation, experimental social psychologists such as Edward E. Jones and Barry R. Schlenker devised experimental methods for the study of self-presentation. This fruitful work provided empirical data about self-presentation that fueled the development of theoretical accounts of self-presentation (e.g., Schlenker 1975). Jones’s important text Ingratiation presented ingratiation as a form of impression management by which actors can elicit positive responses from others (Jones 1964). One taxonomy of self-presentation strategies includes ingratiation, intimidation, self-promotion, exemplification, and supplication (Jones and Pittman 1982).

Self-presentation is an important part of social life and is largely a prosocial way that individuals negotiate social interactions. Yet, for the individual, the process of self-presentation may be fraught with tension. These tensions were presented in Goffman’s pioneering work, which provided a sensitive account of internal tensions that can arise in the trade-offs between the need for social approval and the desire for authenticity. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart (1983) focuses on the emotional work involved in self-presentation. Other scholars (e.g., Erickson and Wharton 1997) have also addressed the conflicts that can arise in self-presentation. Not all individuals attempt or are willing to portray an inaccurate image to their audiences. For some people, psychological needs other than the need for social approval drive behavior.

Self-presentation is complex: It is both an individual difference variable and a function of social situations. Self-presentation strategies differ across individuals but also are influenced by environmental factors. In addition to self-presentation differences observed according to age, gender, and culture, researchers have observed differences in self-presentation based on environmental factors. That is, individuals may elect to alter their self-presentations in response to cues from the social environment. As used here, cues refer to both environmental cues such as the social context (i.e., how public the setting is) and interpersonal cues such as the perceived responses of others. Individuals may also differ in the extent to which they engage in self-monitoring. Self-monitoring is the extent to which individuals monitor their behavior and self-presentation in response to real or perceived interactional cues.

Self-presentation is both an individual experience and a social phenomenon and highlights the tensions inherent in human interaction.

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