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.
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.
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-picking environmental 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.
Whether self-verification of negative views is good or 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 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, although both are important. 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?
- Howarth, M. P., & Forbes, M. (2015). Examining self-verification processes in social anxiety. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist.
- SpringerLink Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences: Self-Verification Theory
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.