Roy Baumeister has noted that the self is not really a single topic at all, but rather an aggregate of loosely-related subtopics 1998, cited in Tice & Baumeister, 2001, p.73. Understandably, it is sometimes easy to forget this when faced with the veritable ocean of information available on 'self-esteem' alone. Borne out of the early 1980's, and popular focus on 'dressing for success', the Western obsession with self-improvement has seen psychologically-dubious 'esteem-building' exercises become almost as popular as 'nip/tucks' and other surgical-enhancement surgeries. Indeed, the last thirty years has seen self-esteem become a dominant term within psychology and popular culture, though it is just one of the 'subtopics' Baumeister mentioned, when understanding the 'self' (1998, cited in Tice & Baumeister, 2001, p.73).
Overshadowed by its more-popular brother, self-enhancement is also an integral part of self-perception: the process of how we each come to understand the person that we are. Self-esteem and self-enhancement are related, but not identical. Self-esteem is an evaluation of one's feelings about their own worth, which can be either positive or negative. It absorbs the views that other people have of you: the so-called 'looking-glass self' proposed by Cooley (1902, cited in Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.93). We internalise these views, and accept ourselves this way. It can be measured with standard scales, such as Rosenberg's RSE scale (1965), though it is quite unstable (fluctuating with mood, etc). This is fraught with problems, including distorted self-concepts; and the lack of benefits of self-esteem is prominent (Mecca, Smelser and Vasconcellos, 1989, in Tice & Baumeister, 2001, p.73). Self-enhancement, conversely, is defined as 'the tendency to maintain positive feelings about one self' (Weiten, Lloyd, Dunn & Hammer, 2008, p.157; Sedikides & Strube, 1997). People seek to purvey a positive image, by collecting positive information only about their-selves. Here, we outline the role played by self-enhancement when building and maintaining a positive self-concept.
'You can't handle the truth'- How to use self-enhancement
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Self-enhancement is a motivational process actively used by people to build a positive image of their selves (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.212). For example, we may perceive ourselves as being smarter than other students in the class, or more efficient than our work-colleagues. While these views may (not) be entirely accurate, people actively seek them out rather than accept the truth, which may damage their self-concept (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.218). A positive self-image can help build self-esteem, thus self-enhancement is a complementary process (Weiten et al., 2008, p.157). Though self-perception can be monitored through a number of strategies, including self-assessment and self-improvement, the most widely-engaged-in approach is self-enhancement.
Self-enhancement allows us to critically examine our self-concept, in a way that enables us to place more value in our strengths than our flaws. People have a tendency to focus more on positive feedback than negative comments (Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. B., & Zeiss, A. R., 1973), and to process information more quickly when it is self-relevant (Skowronski, J. L, Betz, A. L., Thompson, C. P., & Shannon, L., 1991), thus enabling them to maintain a positive self-image. One hundred percent of people like to believe that they are above-average (which is statistically improbable!), so the manner in which we construe ourselves is highly-subjective (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.216). The person plays an active role in creating their self-image, rather than passively accepting all potentially-unkind views (as is the case with introspection, in self-esteem). This gives the person an illusion of control over their fate, which has implications for coping strategies and mental well-being (which we shall discuss shortly).
'I'm definitely doing better than him...'- Using social comparison
In understanding the self, we must accept that the concept of 'self' is relative, and cannot be separated from social influence (Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.91). It reflects the views that other people have of you, forming a 'looking-glass' for you to see yourself in (Cooley, 1902, cited in Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.93). Concluding that 'I am a nice person' involves examining the view that others have of you in relation to another, who you perceive as less-benevolent that yourself. Thus, social comparison is a key part of self-enhancement. By actively comparing yourself against others, it allows you to selectively-build a positive 'reflected self' (Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.100). Social comparisons can work in many directions: upwards, against somebody you feel is better than you (to motivate you, to reach a higher standard); downwards, against somebody inferior to you (to make yourself appear better); or laterally, against someone of equal ability (to maintain a standard). In self-enhancement, a downward comparison may result in increased psychological adjustment, reduced feelings of anxiety, and increased self-esteem (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.217). For example, cancer patients sometimes compare themselves to chronically-severe cases, to prove to themselves that they are coping better with the disease (Taylor, Aspinwall, Giuliano, Dakof, & Reardon, 1993; cited in Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.222).
'You're not singing anymore...'- How to deflect a negative association
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An everyday social example of self-enhancement is 'basking in reflected glory' (otherwise known as BIRGing). Here, the person seeks to improve their status in the eyes of others, by associating themselves with a successful person or group (Cialdini, 1976, p.366). There is a multitude of research on this strategy amongst sports fans (Cialdini, 1976; Wann & Branscombe, 1990), which shows that fans will publicise a connection to their team after a victory, and distance themselves from it after a defeat (a related phenomenon known as CORFing: 'cutting-off reflected failure'; Weiten et al., 2008; Cialdini, 1976). Each of these strategies is a valuable tool in self-perception, as they deal with reflections on the self which are sometimes impossible to avoid. For example, the person may have a psychological attachment to certain groups (e.g., sports teams): some may be prestigious, but not always so. They cannot divorce themselves from these associations in times of defeat, so they must employ a deflection strategy in order to protect their self-image (Wann & Branscombe, 1990, p.104).
A well-versed example in this context is the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Allegedly cursed in 1945 by an irate fan, the Cubs haven't made the World Series since (Stout & Johnson, 2004, p.192). While they may indeed be cursed, it is also a useful excuse for loyal Cubs fans to deploy, to explain their poor run of performances. Rather than admit that the team they love may be under-performing, it is easier for the downtrodden fan to claim that they cannot win due to external forces (a curse, in this instance). As we mentioned previously, self-enhancement strategies grant us a sense of control over our self-concept. Though the fan has no control over the team's results, they do have power over how this association affects their image. Here, self-enhancement enables them to retain control over their self-image, by selectively downplaying the negative association. This allows them to function as efficiently as before, while protecting their self-image from the consequences of such an association (Wann & Branscombe, 1990, p.105).
'Too much of a good thing...'- Problems with self-enhancement
Naturally, the tendency to avoid all negative knowledge about the self can have several adverse consequences. By comparing ourselves to others, and finding ourselves deficient in some area, we are motivated to improve ourselves; but this may come at a cost. Firstly, willing attempts to change one-self - to fit in, or please others - is a proven factor in one's susceptibility to brainwashing (Tice & Baumeister, 2001, p.78). The ability to recognise your strengths should be balanced with the motivation to improve on your weak points, which self-enhancement often neglects. Alternatively, an overload of positive information may lead a person to develop a narcissistic personality, where they consistently view all others as inferior to themselves. This renders them unwilling to improve upon any part of themselves, and they become motivated primarily by continued self-enhancement (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.246), dispensing with opportunities to improve.
Finally, it is possible that cultural variations on the importance of the self impact the way in which people perceive themselves. A plethora of research shows that Eastern cultures emphasize the actions of the collective group over the individual, whereas Western cultures promote individual achievement (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.245; Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.96). This may skew the amount and type of reflection a person engages in, and affect the self-concept they build. Sedikides & Strube (1997) conclude that individuals in collectivist cultures are more likely to put their group-member 'self' ahead of their 'individual' self, thus promoting the positive trait of 'good group member' at the expense of individual growth (1997, p.245).
As we have seen, self-enhancement is a useful tool in the daily maintenance of one's self-concept. Self-esteem is an idiosyncratic marker of self-worth, which is passively accepted by the person, and is prone to fluctuating in different circumstances (Mecca, Smelser and Vasconcello, 1989, in Tice & Baumeister, 2001, p.73). Self-enhancement, however, is an inherently social process, which builds on the views of one's social group, to form a purely-positive self-concept (Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.212). While it is possible to overstretch this tendency to the point of narcissism, it can help a person to identify their strengths and weaknesses. In terms of everyday application, engaging in a period of self-enhancement prior to an exam or a job interview may give us an extra boost of confidence, which in turn may enhance our performance. This is due to success-related information becoming more accessible to our self-concept (for more on priming and accessibility, see: Higgins, Rholes & Jones, 1977). As we saw earlier, chronically-ill people can benefit from a period of self-enhancement, and this may change the way in which they perceive their condition (Taylor et al., 1993, cited in Sedikides & Strube, 1997, p.222).
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Though self-esteem has received more attention over the last three decades, we can see that self-enhancement is equally relevant to our understanding of the 'self'. One advantage it has over esteem-building is that self-enhancement is an active, social process, whereby the person controls how their social network sees them, and strives to maintain this 'reflection' (Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.103). By giving us the illusion of control over our identity, it leads us to increase our estimation of our abilities (Tice & Wallace, 2003, p.97). This is a powerful motivator, perhaps better than traditional esteem-building strategies, such as goal-visualisation (a comparably-passive individual process). While self-enhancement is used interchangeably with, and in complement to, self-esteem, it has clear benefits of its own, which cannot be overlooked for the sake of popularity; and future research should focus on the 'psychological-enhancement' strategies employed by people, when building and maintaining their self-concept.