Self-enhancement is the desire to maintain and cultivate positive feelings of the self. It is the driving force behind the search for self-knowledge, and is thus the focal point of much clinical research. While several researchers suggest that self-enhancement is integral to an individual’s well-being, emerging research has shown convincing evidence that self-enhancement can be detrimental to one’s mental health, social standing, and physical well-being. The conflicting findings call for analytic measures of the experimental procedures used in these cases to decipher which theories can be withheld.
The Mental, Physical, and Social Implications of Self Enhancement
Self-enhancement is thought to be the foremost motive in the perpetual search for self-knowledge (Sedikides, 1993). It is defined as a desire to magnify positive aspects of self-conceptions while distancing oneself from negative feedback and information. The motive is driven by a fundamental need to maximize feelings of self-worth; to feel good about oneself (Brown, 1998). This pursuit of a positive self construct is an active undertaking, as individuals are quite selective in their interpretations of their surroundings (Brown; Sedikides & Gregg, 2007). These biased views of the self are maintained by several tendencies exhibited by individuals in moments of self-enhancement.
A number of these positivist strategies have been detailed in the literature. Self-serving bias helps to maintain and develop positive views of the self by attributing positive outcomes as being internally based, but the negative consequences of actions as being externally caused (Sedikides & Gregg, 2007). In other words, individuals are inclined to credit successes to their disposition and shortcomings to their environment. In the cases of others, individuals tend to apply the opposite labeling, meaning that they accredit the character of others to their faults and the environment to their fortunes (Brown, 1998). Mnemic neglect is a strategy in which the individual self-enhances via a selective memory; they are more likely to remember instances of praise rather than criticism (Brown; Sedikides & Gregg). Strategic construal is also used as a method of self-enhancement by creating a concept of the world based on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. They diagnose abilities they hold as being more telling of their selves than skills they lack. Sedikides and Gregg go on to discuss several more of the self-enhancing tendencies individuals exhibit.
While knowledge of the self construed from self-enhancement motives is often inaccurate, these illusionary interpretations are believed to be essential for well-being (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Holding accurate views of the self is not indicative of the typical individual, who holds of overly positive self-evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control, and unrealistic optimism. More people see themselves as being above average than being below average, which is not statistically possible. Individuals who gamble perceive to have control over the outcomes of games of chance, and most test subjects see their future as being brighter than that others’. Despite the irrationality of such individuals, Taylor and Brown suggest that these applications of self-enhancement are actually beneficial to mental health.
Individuals who hold illusionist views are reported to be more happy that individuals who do not carry these views of themselves (Taylor & Brown, 1988). There is a correlation between self-enhancement and self-esteem, thus those individuals that self-enhance tend to be more content. Overly positive views are also correlated with better acuity in social settings (Taylor & Brown). Again, self-enhancement leads to higher levels of self-esteem, and thus individuals displaying those characteristics fare better in settings of social interaction. Positive illusions are also believed to promote productivity. Taylor and Brown say of overly positive views “First, these illusions may facilitate intellectually creative functioning itself; second, they enhance motivation, persistence, and performance” (pp. 198). It is thought that self-enhancement can facilitate the organizational storage of memory, and that increased levels of optimism foster elevated work ethic.
Further bolstering the belief that self-enhancement is advantageous, there have been studies showing that self-enhancement is beneficial to one’s health (Taylor, Lerner, Sherman, Sage, & McDowell, 2003). AIDS patients holding overly positive views of their situation have been found to have a less rapid course of illness and live longer than patients who do not carry excessively optimistic views of their state. High self-enhancers are also found to be physiologically less effected by stress. They tend to have lower cardiovascular responses, quicker cardiovascular recovery, and lower cortisol levels when exposed to stressful stimuli than low self-enhancers. The use of self-enhancement seems to aid not only in their mental well-being, but physical well-being as well.
If these findings seem to suggest that self-enhancement is a key to health and happiness, then one could postulate that self-enhancement is the panacea for all of life’s problems. The more one builds themselves up and the more farfetched positive illusions they hold, the more prosperous they will be. However, in contrast to the aforementioned research, there are numerous findings that suggest that the exact opposite; that self-enhancement can be detrimental to one’s well-being. Attempts to improve feelings of self-worth and merit through self-enhancement can lead to poor mental health, negative peer evaluations, and increased risks of bodily harm.
Colvin, Block, and Funder challenge the discoveries that Taylor and Brown lay out in their article (1988), finding in their own research that self-enhancement is not correlated with well-being, but rather poor social skills and psychological maladjustment (1995). They argue that Taylor and Brown did not employ adequate criteria of self-enhancement in their research; that their means of measuring self-enhancement were too broad. Instead of using generalizations in measurements of self-enhancement, a comparison between an individual’s self-description and some external criteria would yield far more accurate and valid measures of the characteristic. When using unspecific measures, individuals may self-enhance in defining areas of their self-concept, that is to say self-relevant areas, which may not be representative of what the experimenter was trying to elicit in their experiment.
Using more specific criteria for measuring self-enhancement, research shows that self-enhancers are described as being “guileful and deceitful, distrustful of people, and as having a brittle ego-defense system” (Colvin et al., 1995, pp. 1154). Individuals less apt to self-enhancement are seen as being more respected, intelligent, and consistent people. A negative correlation between self-enhancement and ego-resiliency is also noted. Overall, it is found that negative views observers hold of self-enhancers suggest they are maladjusted individuals, which runs contrary to the theses of Taylor and Brown (1988). While self-enhancement may boost one’s self-esteem in the short run, in the long run this boosting of one’s moral can cause one to alienate themselves from their peers (Colvin et al., 1995).
Other studies have further explored the short-term and long-term mental implications of self-enhancement (Robins & Beer, 2001). Again, the proposition in this research is that Taylor and Brown (1988) inadequately measured positive illusions in their studies, and thus their conclusions should not be considered valid. These more recent findings seem to suggest that self-enhancement is linked to disinterest in academic contexts, lowered levels of self-esteem, and decreased well-being (Robins & Beer). Narcissism also appears to be linked to overly positive views of the self. In addition, Robins and Beer find that self-enhancers do not necessarily perform better academically than non-self-enhancers, and that self-enhancers are no more likely to graduate from college than non-self-enhancers, which seems to disprove the theory that positive illusions are motivational. In conclusion, it is found that self-enhancement may be beneficial to mental health and well being in the short-run, but in the long-run there appear possible negative implications for the self.
Self-enhancement, especially in group situations, can be costly to one’s ulterior motives (Anderson, Ames, & Gosling, 2008). Individuals who exhibit this type of behavior are seen as disruptive to group processes and thus suffer a few implications. These individuals are said to be less accepted by other group member and are paid less for their work. Having positive illusions about one’s status in a group seems to be generally frowned upon by group members and is seen as a form of aggrandizement. Prior studies have suggested that self-enhancement can be used as a motivational tool, so while it can increase work ethic, there must be a fine line between the types of self-enhancement methods used in group and work settings (Anderson et al., 2008; Taylor & Brown, 1988).
In the context of relationships, self-enhancement appears to be detrimental to the quality and outcome of the courtship (Busby, Holman, & Niehuis, 2009). There is evidence to show that couples who rate themselves individually as the more affable partner suffer poorer relationship outcomes. The tendency to attribute a positive characteristic to themselves, rather than their partner, is detrimental to the health of the relationship. On the contrary, couples who each see their partner as the more affable of the pair experience more positive relationship outcomes. Other-enhancement, rather than self-enhancement, is more beneficial to the success of romantic relations, and thus in most cases an individual’s mental well-being.
Excessive self-enhancement in the context of interpersonal relationships can also result in negative outcomes (Joiner, Vohs, Katz, Kwon, & Kline, 2003). Undergraduate roommates were subject of a study aiming to determine the affect of self-enhancement among roommates. It was found that males that were excessive self-enhancers received unfavorable evaluations from their roommates. Excessively self-enhancing females on the other hand received positive evaluations from their roommates. It is thought that self-enhancing women received favorable evaluations because of the thought that women are more oriented towards interdependence than men. Thus, the self-enhancement style of women will display an inclination and motive to be held in high-esteem by their peers, while men self-enhance in ways that promote independence and alienate themselves from fellow man.
Efforts of self-presentation, a form of self-enhancement, can lead to risk taking and unhealthy behavior (Leary, Tchividijian, & Kraxberger, 1994). Self-presentation is little more than public self-enhancement; individuals make attempts to influence how they are perceived by other people, hoping for reinforcement of their positive self-views. However, the lengths at which individuals strive to uphold their desired self-presentation can carry some serious health risks. For example, individuals often feel embarrassment over purchasing condoms, and to uphold self-presentational ideals, do not purchase them. Even in cases where the individual does purchase a condom, self-presentational concerns may deter them from using it. They may not want to appear as though they anticipated sex or had intentionally tried to seduce their partner. This leaves them at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, which are well documented to be stigmatized conditions, and would cause far worse self-presentational concerns in the future than simply buying contraception in the present moment.
Another example of risk taking behavior in regards to self-presentational and self-enhancing behavior is sunbathing (Leary et al., 1994). In order to achieve their desired glow, individuals will expose themselves to dangerous amounts of sunlight which can potentially cause melanoma. Individuals know that they putting their health at risk, but motives to self-present and self-enhance outweigh logic. Eating disorders are also a crux of self-presentation. Individuals go to far lengths to achieve and maintain a certain look. This can be gone about in a healthy way, but many people try to achieve their desired body type by through disordered eating habits, which leads to the deterioration of one’s health. Leary et al. discuss several more damaging characteristics self-presentation, such as alcohol, tobacco, and drug use, steroid use, failure to exercise, and cosmetic surgery. All these activities have negative implications for one’s physical health and are motivated in large part by a drive for self-enhancement.
Efforts to self-enhance also cause individuals to misremember negative information about themselves (Croyle et al., 2006). This can be unfavorable to one’s health in certain situations. For example, participants were screen for cholesterol levels. The subjects who had the worst cholesterol levels remembered their scores as being lower than they actually were when tested a few months later. This could be considered a form of mnemic neglect (Brown, 1998). While this type of self-enhancement may not directly cause harm one’s body, in the long run it could expose an individual to increased risk of health problems such as heart attack or stroke if they were to think that they were in better shape then they actually were. They may dissuade themselves from taking precautions and changing their lifestyle. Self-enhancing biases of self-relevant health information can be nearly as dangerous as the self-presentational risks described earlier (Leary et al., 1994).
With strong evidence both supporting and eschewing claims that self-enhancement is beneficial to an individual’s well-being, it is difficult to discern which side presents the soundest argument. Taylor and Brown were groundbreaking with their study and seem to draw fairly conclusive evidence to support their claim that self-enhancement is normal and that because most people display tendencies towards it, there must be positive correlations associated with it (1988). Their finding that low self-esteem and depressed individuals do not self-enhance as much as the majority people is strong evidence to show that it is a vital key of a person’s success and happiness.
The central argument against their findings is that they used inadequate means for measuring self-enhancement (Colvin et al., 1995; Robins & Beer, 2001). It appears to be somewhat difficult to obtain accurate measures of self-enhancement, thus there may be no conclusive evidence to support either case. Without universal means to gauge an individual’s positive illusions, there will always be room for argument, as the postulates in this field of research are based upon measuring self-enhancement. It may be the case that specific types of self-enhancement need to be measured during future research, rather than self-enhancement in general. For example, in the Colvin et at. article, they set out to use external and valid criteria for measuring self-enhancement. This seems logical, but perhaps they should have taken their research a step further and honed in on the specific self-enhancing tendencies such as strategic construal, mnemic neglect, and self-serving bias and measured these traits individually, rather than an overall blueprint of self-enhancement.
With that being said, there are some very convincing arguments that self-enhancement is detrimental to one’s well-being, especially in regards to negative affect of the body. The evidence that Leary et al. provide concerning risks individuals take in order to self-present in particular seems sound (1994). The only issue in regards to self-enhancement is that they do not directly measure levels of self-enhancement in their study, but it is commonly recognized that self-presentation is merely a public form of self-enhancement. Further research in this field would require some means to measure individual’s levels of self-presentation and self-enhancement in these health risking situations, as there is some evidence that self-enhancement can be beneficial to the body (Taylor et al., 2003).
In regards to the social implications of self-enhancement, it seems that some studies do show evidence supporting claims that it is detrimental to social interactions, but it appears to only be a specific type of self-enhancement that causes these issues (Anderson et al., 2008). Namely, status self-enhancement is what elicits negative evaluations by peers. The paper does not delve into other types of self-enhancement and how they may or may not be perceived by a group. It seems as only public self-enhancement is viewed downwardly. Privately held notions of self-enhancement would not be acknowledged by anyone but the individual, and may increase their resolve and self-esteem, enabling them to function better within the group.
Finally, in terms of the affects of self-enhancement on mental health, it appears that research is inconclusive. Taylor and Brown are steadfast in their belief that holding overly positive illusions is advantageous for one’s well-being (1988), while Colvin et al. correlate self-enhancement with maladjustment (1995). With such contrasting findings in this area, one must question whether the experimental procedures employed by each research group influenced the outcome of their tests to support their hypotheses. Colvin et al. even explicitly mention the shortcomings of Taylor and Brown’s assessment of individuals’ self-enhancement, which means they may have unintentionally have overextended in efforts to avoid those mistakes, and thus forced measurements of self-enhancement to swing in negative correlation with well being.
The research in this field is intriguing because of the conflicting findings. In the future there may be more adequate and specific guidelines from measuring self-enhancement and more conclusive results will be able to be formed. As of now, it seems that in specific situations and in specific types of self-enhancement, some valid conclusions have been drawn in regard to the benefits and costs of these self-enhancing tendencies. It appears to be a complex topic that may never be fully understood, but having some knowledge of potential implications of it can help to give psychologists a better grasp on what makes people act in the days that they do.
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