There are a myriad of concepts central to understanding the self. Thanks to ongoing research, it is not quite the black box it once was. The self reflects how we think and feel about ourselves, who we are, our personalities, attributes and abilities. It is mediated by cognition, attention and regulation (Leary & Tangney, 2003). However, the self is not an isolated entity; it is entwined and partially defined by one’s interpersonal relationships. To an extent, it is coloured by others’ evaluations of the individual. When others evaluate us positively, we in turn radiate a positive self-view and in turn feel good, demonstrating high self-esteem. However, this pattern is not replicated in those with low self-esteem (Leary & Tangney, 2003).
The relationship between self-esteem and understanding the self has received phenomenal academic and general societal attention in recent times. Self-esteem can be defined as the extent to which a person values, approves, likes or appreciates themselves (Blascovich & Tomaka, 1991). Easily measurable with the Rosenberg Scale, it is correlated with coping behaviours, physical and psychological well-being (Smith, Wethington & Ghan, 1996). However, categorizing self-esteem as the most fundamental element in understanding the self serves to address a mere segment of the self. Self-esteem appears to be only one evaluation of well-being. However, what preceding processes influence affect ratings? Besides others’ evaluations of the self, what facilitates and helps maintain positive conceptions, feelings and goal directed processes of the self? Perhaps emphasizing the positive elements of the self reflects how one feels about themselves. ‘Self-esteem’ yields 697,000 links on the Google database, however, ‘self-enhancement’ leads to a mere 15,500 links. However, this paper aims to illustrate that self-enhancement is also a core feature to understanding, boosting and protecting the self system.
Self-enhancement is the motivation to bolster the positive elements of one’s self-concept (Sedikides & Skowronski, 2000). In line with hedonistic principles, individuals seek pleasure (self-enhancement) and avoid pain (self-protection). People tend to overestimate their attractiveness, intelligence, athletic performance and sociability as superior to others (Alicke, 1985). There is also a tendency to maintain optimistic biases about life chances and future successes (Sedikides et al., 2003).
According to Sedikides, Skowronski and Gaertner (2004), self-enhancement has been theorized as being an adaptive feature of evolution. Valuation motives incorporate both self-protection and self-enhancement. Although both work in tandem with each other, we aim to address the former. Individuals have been postulated to select goal-directed tasks such as hunting, mate selection and alliance formation. Successful outcomes facilitate self-efficacious behaviour higher, self esteem and a stable self-concept. This has implications for psychological well-being. The concept is inversely related to neuroticism, depression, hostility and anxiety. Those who emanate self-enhancement are highly likely to be considered amiable, attractive and valuable (Sedikides et al., 2004).With regard to the self, it can be theorized that self-enhancing tendencies influence others’ evaluations of the individual. For example, if somebody is regarded as skilled, resourceful and clever, others may wish to associate with and think favourably of them. Recent research found that those who self-enhance in job application letters are likely to be perceived as more skilled than applicants who self-enhance to a lesser extent. They also have a better chance of being hired (Varma, Toh & Pichler, 2006).
It is felt that a number of cognitive processes facilitate self-enhancement. Namely, negative information is filtered out as it may be damaging to the self-concept. This is seen in Taylor’s (1991) iconic Mobilization-Minimization Hypothesis. Negative information is immediately confronted with “physiological, affective, cognitive and behavioural responses” (Taylor, 1991, p.67). These serve to reduce and buffer against the impact of potentially harmful information. The impact of negative material is reduced by overriding it with positive affect such as ‘relief’. The self is systematically returned to a level of homeostasis. Such a reaction is not required for incoming positive information. While negativity is buffered against, the opportunity to absorb and in turn exude positive information is facilitated.
According to Festinger’s (1954) Social Comparison Theory, individuals tend to compare themselves with others. For example, those who attain higher grades may perceive themselves as more successful than their peers. Such downward comparisons lead to an enhanced self-concept, higher self-esteem and self-efficacy. This pattern is akin to ‘Irish’ stereotypical personality traits. While some people don’t seem to explicitly self-enhance, they may be-little others’ achievements or attributes. In turn, people may feel good about themselves. This could be categorized as covert self-enhancement. Here, it seems inextricably linked with self-esteem.
Those who excessively engage in upward social comparisons are associated with depression. Perhaps people may be left feeling inadequate or inferior in certain dimensions. Recent challenges to the theory and measures of self enhancement found that a sample of Danish participants failed to self-enhance on the basis of social comparisons. While their culture emphasises equality, it was found that social relationships were the main predictors of self-enhancement (Thomsen, Sidanius, & Fiske, (2007). While maintaining a superiority complex leads to enhanced wellbeing, it also suggests that there is a thin line between positive self-regard and narcissism. As alluded to later in this paper, the comparison model may be culturally dependent.
With Thomsen and colleagues’ (2007) findings in mind, it is necessary to examine the relationship between self-enhancement and interpersonal selves. It appears to be a cyclical process. If individuals self-enhance, they may influences others’ positive evaluations of them. In turn, self-views may be formed, confirmed or disconfirmed as a result of others’ impressions and reactions towards the individual. The latter is known as the “looking glass self” (Cooley, 1902). It has been advocated that the central facet of the interpersonal self is the need to belong. Therefore those who emit positive self-regard are more likely to become group members and attract spouses. Forming relationships is associated with happiness and health, while severed social ties correlate with reduced well-being (Tice & Baumeister, 2001). It is felt that self-enhancing tendencies are significant in forming groups and relationships. Successful alliances both require and contribute significantly to self-esteem, self-concept clarity and self-efficacy. For example, when somebody attracts and be-friends another person, the individual gains self-insight into the type of person he/she is and in turn develops self-confidence in the ability to form future relationships. This underlines the significance of the self as an interdependent multidimensional construct.
People also self-enhance by criticizing their past selves in order to evaluate current selves more favourably. Wilson & Ross (2001) found that middle aged individuals rated their self-confidence, social skills and common sense as having improved with age. While improvements may be illusory, self-enhancement is facilitated without over-aggrandizing individual attributes. According to temporal self-appraisal theory, subjectively recent and important events are evaluated favourably while distant events are regarded as negative. Recent achievements are celebrated, for example, performing well on an exam. However, negative events are dissociated and viewed as distant from the current self. For example, “yes, I did poorly on that exam, but it was ages ago and it doesn’t really matter anyway”. This can be construed as a self-protecting mechanism. By engaging in valuation motives, it can be theorized that the self-concept and self-esteem are both enhanced and buffered from threatening information. Criticizing past selves facilitates self-enhancement that doesn’t exceed bordering on narcissism (Ross & Wilson, 2003).
Self-enhancement is also intertwined with autobiographical memory. As memory for events is associated with constructing a self-narrative, it is clear why people exude positivity biases when recalling memories. Such biases are especially acute in older adults; they tend to enhance positive information while filtering out negative memories. This has been attributed to emotional and reduced cognitive abilities (Mather, 2006). On reminiscing, one’s life can be viewed with a veil of fulfilment. Supporting the self-enhancement view, the fading affect bias (FAB) outlines how negative affect associated with memories fades faster than positive affect (Walker, Vogl, & Thompson, 1997). Those with dysphoria don’t tend to replicate the FAB (Walker, Skowronski, Gibbons, Vogl, & Thompson, 2003). For them, negative information draws heavily upon their cognitive resources. This suggests the importance of maintaining a positivity bias for psychological well-being. According to Bryant (2003), this is achieved through ‘savouring’ by anticipating, presently enjoying and reminiscing about pleasant memories.
Is self-enhancement a universal feature across cultures? On the surface, it would appear that North American culture (Western; individualistic) demonstrates much self-enhancement, but what of Asian societies (Eastern; collectivistic)? Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama (1999) maintained that Japanese were more likely to engage in critical self-focus as opposed to positive self-regard. Such results would deny the universality of self-enhancement. In light of these findings, research undertaken by Sedikides, Gaertner, and Toguchi (2003) found that Westerners self-enhanced on attributes that were significant to individualistic cultures. Cultural norms influenced which attributes individuals self-enhanced on. For example, Westerners bolstered self-evaluations of uniqueness and individuality while Easterners self-enhanced on ratings of social harmony and connectedness (Sedikides, Gaertner, & Vevea, 2005).
However, the idiosyncratic nature of cultural self-enhancement is quite strong. While seemingly universal, it is a relative feature. A sample of Danes were found to self-enhance less than Americans even though ‘independence’ values are stronger in Denmark. The significance of an egalitarian society was also felt to reduce self-enhancement (Thomsen et al., 2007). Not only does self-enhancement appear to be universal, it is also correlated with psychological health. Research with Japanese participants indicates that it is positively associated with self serving attributions, self-efficacy, self-esteem, life satisfaction and optimism. It was inversely correlated with depression (Kobayashi & Brown, 2003; Kurman, 2003). Self-enhancement, like self-esteem seems to be a universal construct, albeit relative to cultural norms. Again, this highlights the significance of investigating self processes through the lens of self-enhancement.
While a seemingly core feature of the self, self-enhancement can be taken to excesses. This is exemplified through narcissism. Narcissists over-estimate their attributes such as intelligence, attractiveness and general significance in society. Such judgements detract from accurate self-evaluation. When making downward social comparisons, they can be overtly rude and insulting to others. Such attributes might render socialising with narcissists quite unpleasant. Sedikides, Horton and Gregg (2007) found that inflated self-views are reduced when individuals scrutinize why they may/may not hold particular attributes. This type of introspection led to reduced self-enhancement in narcissists and non-narcissists. Therefore, perhaps rumination (a feature of depression) inhibits bolstering positive self-regard. This underlines the relationship with self-enhancement and wellbeing.
Maintaining a rose-tinted glasses approach towards life requires reduced levels of objective introspection. Perhaps this is also in line with autobiographical memory in older adults. Research suggests that they tend to maintain a positivity bias by focusing on emotional regulation. They remember a higher proportion of positive events. In comparison with younger adults who were more ‘memory accuracy’ focused, older adults who self-enhanced demonstrated improved mood (Mather & Carstensen, 2005).
This paper sought to argue that self-enhancement is a key component in understanding the self. In this regard, it is felt to be as important as self-esteem in uncovering ‘self’ mechanisms. Not only does it illuminate the manner in which one views oneself (introspection), it also influences how people are viewed by others (interpersonal relations). Those who self-enhance are viewed as being more attractive, resourceful and appealing. Individuals internalize and emulate others’ evaluations of them. Hence, the self is moulded and re-moulded. While self-esteem and self-enhancement are dynamic elements in uncovering the self, the ‘self’ puzzle is still not complete. It is entwined with other processes such as self-concept clarity, self-efficacy and self-esteem. It is noteworthy that self-enhancement is not an isolated feature. In order to keep the self at a level of homeostasis, self-protection as well as self-enhancement is required. For example, deciding whether to enrol in an advanced class or choose a slightly easier counterpart. Future research ideas might address the applicability of self-enhancing techniques when treating those with depression or anxiety. Also, it might be useful to investigate whether incorporating self-enhancement teaching practices into school curricula. Emphasizing self-enhancement techniques (albeit, without bordering on narcissism) from an early age may lead to increased wellbeing.