What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… Self-Verification Theory

Insights into psychology: Self-verification theory

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms.  This week’s term is self-verification theory.

Self-verification theory comes from social psychology, and it says that we want other people to see us the way we see ourselves. That might seem self-obvious, but what’s interesting is that this applies even when our self-views are negative. Instead of trying to tweak our self-views, we’re more likely to try to tweak our social milieu to match up with those views.

The why

Having stable self-views helps to maintain a coherent sense of self, allowing us to make predictions and navigate within social situations. It’s easier to maintain stable self-views when those views are being reinforced by others. By as early as mid-childhood, people have a preference for feedback that reinforces their self-views.

The how

People may seek self-verification in several ways. This may involve creating opportunities to be around people who are likely to verify their own self-views, displaying symbolic cues that make their identity clear, or actively seeking out feedback that’s consistent with their self-views. Selective recall can help with cherry-pickingenvironmental clues that confirm their self-views are accurate.

Because of self-verification, telling someone with low self-esteem how perfect and wonderful they are (or, as my ESL great-grandmother would have said, burfect-wonderful) probably isn’t going to go over well, because it’s so at odds with what they think of themselves. Someone with low self-esteem is actually more likely to prefer interacting with someone who provides negative appraisals. The same basic idea holds true in married relationships; people with negative self-views feel more committed to their partner when the partner’s appraisal matches their own self-views.

The problem

Whether self-verification of negative views is good or a bad depends on whether the view relates to something that’s changeable. If it relates to a permanent characteristic, self-verification can be adaptive. However, if a self-view is either inaccurate or related to something that can be changed, self-verification can hold the person back from making positive changes.

This can be particularly problematic in abusive relationships. If someone has unrealistic negative self-views that are reinforced by an emotionally abusive partner, it can be even harder for them to find a sense of self-efficacy to be able to the get out of the relationship

One study compared people with and without social anxiety, and those with social anxiety were more likely to rate positive feedback as being less accurate and negative feedback more accurate. They were also more comfortable receiving negative feedback.

The good and the bad

Does this mean we need to be reinforcing people’s negativity? No, but it does mean if there’s a big difference between where you’re aiming and where they’re at, the message is unlikely to get through as intended. One of my colleagues always used to say that if a therapist was telling a client what to do/think, they were doing it wrong. Where I think that fits in here is that you can’t make a person feel better about themselves, but you can help them find their own possibilities to explore.

I hadn’t actually heard of self-verification theory until I stumbled across it recently, but it does fit with my own observation that a good starting point is meeting people reasonably close to where they’re at.

I know I feel a twinge of annoyance at feedback that seems unrealistic, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing as self-verification. One thing that bugged me was when my grandma would praise my intelligence for navigating us to the restaurant we were going to; wayfinding is a different ability than intelligence, and the two abilities have nothing to do with one another. I’m also not a fan of getting feedback that I’m talented in a certain area where I’m not, and I just put in the time and effort to get something done. But I think that’s more my own pickiness about not saying that something is something it’s not rather than seeking verification of my own views. I can’t think of any clear examples of self-validation in my own experience, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Have you noticed the self-verification effect, either in yourself or in your interactions with others?

Sources

Psychology resources: What is... Insights into Psychology series and Psychological Tests collection

The What Is… Insights Into Psychology series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests here.

35 thoughts on “What Is… Self-Verification Theory”

  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking!

    I disagree that wayfinding isn’t intelligence, but I tend to see intelligence as having different expressions, like spatial intelligence, logical intelligence, musical intelligence, emotional intelligence, etc. For me, finding a place is very, very difficult unless I’m super-familiar with the neighborhood. Then I don’t stress it; but I do think it’s a form of intelligence to be able to get from point A to point B.

    But anyway, this is very interesting, and I see what you mean about how problematic it is in the context of domestic abuse. Yikes! That’s just dreadful, how the abuser plays into the victim’s already weakened sense of self. 🙁

    I had an experience with self-verification recently–I was talking to someone I’d just met on FB, and I complimented her for being nice. She had some sort of freakout over being called nice. “What?! I don’t know what you mean! I don’t know how to take that!” And I was like, “You don’t think you’re nice?” I was a bit confused. She admitted that she thinks poorly of herself and gets flustered whenever someone calls her nice. It was sort of weird, but I know that some people have a hard time handling compliments, like, “Nah, that’s not true,” or getting all blushy instead of saying, thanks! (For a moment there, I was afraid that “nice” had different connotations in her country! That was a scary moment, for sure! Fortunately, as Dr. Freud would say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.)

    I love these thinker blog posts!! Keep them coming!!

    1. Wayfinding actually is a distinct ability from intelligence. I can’t remember the name of the documentary I watched, but it has to do with the particular way the brain creates mental maps. To become taxi drivers in London, which apparently is very complex, people need but need top-notch wayfinding abilities, but general intelligence isn’t relevant for the job.

  2. Rightly or wrongly, I think directional intelligence IS intelligence. I know somebody who made the best, most savvy traveller you could ever find, but he flunked his schooling massively (later finding out it was due to dyslexia, but that was in the days when it wasn’t recognised). I always saw how this wrist had ‘life skills’ which is the type of intelligence I value the most. I used to have such great mind-mapping intelligence and I really miss it now my brain is dulled by multiple lesions, but while I had it, I really valued it. And I knew I was head and shoulders above the rest when it came to mind-mapping. I think it’s a great skill to have!

    1. Oh, it’s absolutely a skill. I was just trying to say it’s a separate thing from basic intelligence, so someone could be highly intelligent and terrible at directions, or amazing at directions but flunked out of school.

            1. Drive me to the airport versus engineer the plane I’ll get on at the airport. 😉. Different skill sets, both equally necessary.

  3. Great post. I think it’s important to know why a person needs to seek external validity or if it’s the only way they can feel “positively or negatively” about themselves. And I believe it’s common in the ED community, often something that has to be worked on in recovery. Relearning internal validity and not relying any external verification or validation. But really I reckon it’s a balance of learning one’s internal and external verification cues.
    🙂

    1. That’s a good point, and the more aware we can become of what we’re seeking out automatically, the better the position we’re in to make changes to that.

  4. We don’t want to be seen as a typical example of our gender, so we alter our appearance to reflect who we want to be and how we feel, which is a combination, somewhere on a gender continuum. Is that self-verification?

    We want to be accepted for that person that we want to be.

    We definitely rebuff positive feedback. But we also hear criticism in almost everything that isn’t overly positive. That makes us hard to interact with!

    Spouse thinks we are pretty nifty for replacing the kitchen faucet, but we think we did shitty work and are just waiting for the faucet to fail. We are not fishing for contradiction, but we also don’t want Spouse to criticize our work.

    Mostly, we want to be invisible. Except when we want something or can be of service to someone in an un-ambivalent way.

    Sounds pretty disfunctional.

  5. You know I saw this post’s image and thought “The PsyCorps?” and then “no, the corps is not mother, the corps is not father!!”
    (Babylon 5 on the brain?)

  6. I believe, if I recall my Gardner (theory of multiple intelligences) right, that wayfinding is spatial intelligence.
    and
    ” same basic idea holds true in married relationships; people with negative self-views feel more committed to their partner when the partner’s appraisal matches their own self-views”
    Ick. I’ve observed this to be true, but changing it is so hard.

  7. Hi Ashleyleia,

    Thanks for this. I have something to share…

    Though I have read that schizophrenic patients have language impairments, I hardly thought that I have the same problem despite such earlier diagnosis of mine. Maybe this is because I have been majoring in English language or linguistics.

    During my Masters study, I struggled with my linguistic expressions but I always attributed this to my lack of proficiency as a novice, by taking into account the high standard of proficiency for academic writing.

    For now, I am studying cohesion in language for my PhD. There have been many times when I look back at my written work and find many illogical patterns in my writing. I am confused and scared. Am I too paranoid due to my lack of confidence in academic writing or is my language pathological to a certain extent when it comes to academic writing? I am thinking too much, maybe… But the fear is real.

    Sometimes, it is good that I become aware of my own obvious language mistakes by myself with the privilege of time. But it is always scary and I need to stop writing in order to tidy up my fearful emotions then continue.

    1. It’s probably normal, at least to some extent, to look back and wonder how we made such basic errors. I know I do that when I look back at my older writing. I think it’s probably a sign of growing as a writer.

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