Self-Enhancement

What Is Self-Enhancement?

Self-enhancement can be viewed as a type of motivation varying along several bipolar dimensions, as noted by Sedikides and Gregg (2008). One dimension ranges from self-advancing to self-protecting and typically involves augmenting the positivity or diminishing the negativity of the self-concept or self-esteem (Arkin, 1981).

This dimension of self-enhancement may be a subset of the more general distinction between approach and avoidance (Alicke & Sedikides, 2009; Elliot & Mapes, 2005), a fundamental motivational dimension present in most living organisms (Schneirla, 1959).

Self-enhancement thus consists in a preference for positivity over negativity for self-image. It is one of the four self-evaluation motives along with self-assessment (the drive for an accurate self-concept), self-verification (the drive for a self-concept congruent with one's identity) and self-improvement (the act of bettering one's self-concept). Self-evaluation motives drive the process of self-regulation, that is, how people control and direct their own actions.

There are a variety of strategies that people can use to enhance their sense of personal worth or self-image. For example, they can downplay skills that they lack or they can criticise others to seem better by comparison. These strategies are successful, in that people tend to think of themselves as having more positive qualities and fewer negative qualities than others.

Although self-enhancement is seen in people with low self-esteem as well as with high self-esteem, these two groups tend to use different strategies. People who already have high esteem enhance their self-concept directly, by processing new information in a biased way. People with low self-esteem use more indirect strategies, for example by avoiding situations in which their negative qualities will be noticeable.

Self-Enhancement versus Self-Protection

Self-enhancement and self-protection consist in the motivation to enhance or protect one’s self-image. Whereas self-enhancement refers to a tendency to claim greater standing on a characteristic, or more credit, than is objectively warranted, self-protection refers to tactics that are adopted to avoid falling below a desired standard (Alicke & Sedikides, 2009).

Despite being subject to periodic critiques, self-enhancement and self-protection motivations have been among the most actively researched topics by social and personality psychologists, perhaps more actively researched at present than at any previous time.

Self-enhancement and self-protection can be viewed as particular types of motives, namely, motives whose directive function is either to elevate self-regard toward a more desired level or to avoid reducing it. The energizing aspect of these motives refers to how much effort people are willing to expend and how much distortion they will tolerate to achieve these goals.

Self-enhancement and self-protection efforts are applied most vigorously to central characteristics—those that are especially vital to one’s self-concept and global self-esteem. On the other hand, for less important or peripheral characteristics, self-enhancement and protection strategies may be engaged only weakly and readily abandoned if contradicted by objective data. Self-enhancement and self-protection motives apply not only to oneself but also extend to others in whom one is invested, such as children and relationship partners.

Several individual-difference measures are relevant to the dispositional tendencies to engage in self-enhancement or self-protection. For example, persons high on narcissism, self-concept certainty or clarity, and self-handicapping Opens in new window engage in more self-enhancement than their counterparts, whereas persons high on repression, shyness, and depression engage in more self-protection than their counterparts (see Sedikides & Gregg, 2008; Sedikides & Strube, 1997; Morf, Horvath, & Torchetti, Chapter 19).

Historical Background

The construct of “self” emerged in the late 1940s (Lecky, 1945) and became central to Roger’s (1961) theorizing. The roots of self-enhancement can be traced to Roger’s discussion of the need for positive self-regard. Self-regard in Roger’s system entailed a form of self-appreciation that could overcome “conditions of worth,” that is, conditions that require people to adjust their preferences and values to satisfy others’ expectations.

An important component of Rogerian therapy, therefore, involves establishing or recouping the individual’s true needs and goals divorced from the desire to satisfy others. Although this is a lofty goal, the fact remains that social approval is one of the most basic of all human motives (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and it would be neither feasible nor desirable completely to shun others’ expectations.

In the same vein, although countless self-help books have echoed Roger’s encouragement to grant oneself unconditional positive regard (Branden, 1995; McKay & Fanning, 2000; Webber, 2002), life, unfortunately, provides a smorgasbord of negative self-evaluation opportunities, and most people are aware of their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

Thus people must navigate their way through self-enhancement opportunities without exaggerating their capacities beyond believability and in way that satisfies their need to be accepted by others. Self-serving attributions, the better-than-average effect, over-optimism, the illusion of control, and the misconstrual and misremembrance of events all have limits that are determined by what people believe is feasible to themselves and to others (Alicke & Govorun, 2005; Higgins, 2005; Sedikides & Gregg, 2003, 2008).