Impression management

Impression management is a conscious or subconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object or event. They do so by regulating and controlling information in social interaction.[1] It was first conceptualized by Erving Goffman in 1959, and then was expanded upon in 1967. An example of impression management theory in play is in sports such as soccer. At an important game, a player would want to showcase themselves in the best light possible, because there are college recruiters watching. Without a doubt, this person would have the flashiest pair of cleats and try and perform their best to show off their skills. Their main goal may not be to win the game but instead to impress the college recruiters in a way that increases their chances of being chosen for a college team.[2]

Impression management is usually used synonymously with self-presentation, in which a person tries to influence the perception of their image. The notion of impression management was first applied in face-to-face communication, but then was applied to computer-mediated communication. Also this concept was applied into different field of study from academic research in the field of psychology and sociology to practical fields such as corporate communication and media.


The foundation and the defining principles of impression management were created by Erving Goffman in his well-known work, The presentation of self in every day life. Impression management theory states that one tries to alter one's perception according to one's goals. In other words, the theory is about how individuals wish to present themselves, but in a way that satisfies their needs and goals. Goffman "proposed to focus on how people in daily work situations present themselves and, in so doing, what they are doing to others", and he was "particularly interested in how a person guides and control how others form an impression of them and what a person may or may not do while performing before them".[3]



A range of factors that govern impression management can be identified. It can be stated that impression management becomes necessary whenever there exists a kind of social situation, whether real or imaginary. Logically, the awareness of being a potential subject of monitoring is also crucial. Furthermore, the characteristics of a given social situation are important. Specifically, the surrounding cultural norms determine the appropriateness of particular nonverbal behaviours.[4] The actions have to be appropriate to the targets, and within that culture, so that the kind of audience as well as the relation to the audience influences the way impression management is realized. A person's goals are another factor governing the ways and strategies of impression management. This refers to the content of an assertion, which also leads to distinct ways of presentation of aspects of the self. The degree of self-efficacy describes whether a person is convinced that it is possible to convey the intended impression.[5]

A new study finds that, all other things being equal, people are more likely to pay attention to faces that have been associated with negative gossip than those with neutral or positive associations. The study contributes to a body of work showing that far from being objective, human perceptions are shaped by unconscious brain processes that determine what they "choose" to see or ignore—even before they become aware of it. The findings also add to the idea that the brain evolved to be particularly sensitive to "bad guys" or cheaters—fellow humans who undermine social life by deception, theft or other non-cooperative behavior.[6]

There are many methods behind self-presentation, including self disclosure (identifying what makes you "you" to another person), managing appearances (trying to fit in), ingratiation, aligning actions (making one's actions seem appealing or understandable), and alter-casting (imposing identities on other people). These self-presentation methods can also be used on the corporate level as impression management.[7]


Self-presentation is conveying information about oneself – or an image of oneself – to others. There are two types and motivations of self-presentation:

Self-presentation is expressive. Individuals construct an image of themselves to claim personal identity, and present themselves in a manner that is consistent with that image.[9] If they feel like it is restricted, they often exhibit reactance or become defiant – try to assert their freedom against those who would seek to curtail self-presentation expressiveness. An example of this dynamic is the "preacher's daughter", whose suppressed personal identity and emotions cause an eventual backlash at her family and community.

People adopt many different Self-presentation strategies, such as:

Self-presentation can be either defensive or assertive strategies. Whereas defensive strategies include behaviours like avoidance of threatening situations or means of self-handicapping, assertive strategies refer to more active behaviour like the verbal idealisation of the self, the use of status symbols or similar practices.[12]

These strategies play important roles in one's maintenance of self-esteem.[13] One's self-esteem is affected by their evaluation of their own performance and their perception of how others react to their performance. As a result, people actively portray impressions that will elicit self-esteem enhancing reactions from others.[14]

Social interaction

Goffman argued in his 1967 book, Interaction ritual, that people participate in social interactions by performing a "line", or "pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts", which is created and maintained by both the performer and the audience.[15] By enacting a line effectively, the person gains positive social value, which is also called "face". The success of a social interaction will depend on whether the performer has the ability to maintain face.[3] As a result, a person is required to display a kind of character by becoming "someone who can be relied upon to maintain himself as an interactant, poised for communication, and to act so that others do not endanger themselves by presenting themselves as interactants to him".[15]

When Goffman turned to focus on people physically presented in a social interaction, the "social dimension of impression management certainly extends beyond the specific place and time of engagement in the organization". Impression management is "a social activity that has individual and community implications".[3] We call it "pride" when a person displays a good showing from duty to himself, while we call it "honor" when he "does so because of duty to wider social units, and receives support from these duties in doing so".[15]

Another approach to moral standards that Goffman pursues is the notion of "rules of conduct", which "can be partially understood as obligations or moral constraints". These rules may be substantive (involving laws, morality, and ethics) or ceremonial (involving etiquette).[3] Rules of conduct play an important role when a relationship "is asymmetrical and the expectations of one person toward another are hierarchical."[3]

Dramaturgical analogy

Goffman presented impression management dramaturgically, explaining the motivations behind complex human performances within a social setting based on a play metaphor.[16] Goffman's work incorporates aspects of a symbolic interactionist perspective,[17] emphasizing a qualitative analysis of the interactive nature of the communication process. Impression management requires the physical presence of others. Performers who seek certain ends in their interest, must "work to adapt their behavior in such a way as to give off the correct impression to a particular audience" and "implicitly ask that the audience take their performance seriously".[3]

The actor, shaped by the environment and target audience, sees interaction as a performance. The objective of the performance is to provide the audience with an impression consistent with the desired goals of the actor.[18] Thus, impression management is also highly dependent on the situation.[19] In addition to these goals, individuals differ in responses from the interactive environment, some may be non-responsive to an audience's reactions while others actively respond to audience reactions in order to elicit positive results. These differences in response towards the environment and target audience are called self-monitoring.[20] Another factor in impression management is self-verification, the act of conforming the audience to the person's self-concept.

The audience can be real or imaginary. IM style norms, part of the mental programming received through socialization, are so fundamental that we usually do not notice our expectations of them. While an actor (speaker) tries to project a desired image, an audience (listener) might attribute a resonant or discordant image. An example is provided by situations in which embarrassment occurs and threatens the image of a participant.[21]

Goffman proposes that performers "can use dramaturgical discipline as a defense to ensure that the 'show' goes on without interruption."[3] Goffman contends that dramaturgical discipline includes:[3]

  1. coping with dramaturgical contingencies;
  2. demonstrating intellectual and emotional involvement;
  3. remembering one's part and not committing unmeant gestures or faux pas;
  4. not giving away secrets involuntarily;
  5. covering up inappropriate behavior on the part of teammates on the spur of the moment;
  6. offering plausible reasons or deep apologies for disruptive events;
  7. maintaining self-control (for example, speaking briefly and modestly);
  8. suppressing emotions to private problems; and
  9. suppressing spontaneous feelings.

Manipulation and ethics

In business, "managing impressions" normally "involves someone trying to control the image that a significant stakeholder has of them". The ethics of impression management has been hotly debated on whether we should see it as an effective self-revelation or as cynical manipulation.[3] Some people insist that impression management can reveal a truer version of the self by adopting the strategy of being transparent, which is a kind of openness. Because transparency "can be provided so easily and because it produces information of value to the audience, it changes the nature of impression management from being cynically manipulative to being a kind of useful adaptation".[3]


Face-to-face communication

Self, social identity and social interaction

The social psychologist, Edward E. Jones, brought the study of impression management to the field of psychology during the 1960s and extended it to include people's attempts to control others' impression of their personal characteristics.[22] His work sparked an increased attention towards impression management as a fundamental interpersonal process.

The concept of self is important to the theory of impression management as the images people have of themselves shape and are shaped by social interactions (Schlenker 1980, pp. 47). Our self-concept develops from social experience early in life.[23] Schlenker (1980) further suggests that children anticipate the effect that their behaviours will have on others and how others will evaluate them. They control the impressions they might form on others, and in doing so they control the outcomes they obtain from social interactions.

Social identity refers to how people are defined and regarded in social interactions (Schlenker 1980, pp. 69). Individuals use impression management strategies to influence the social identity they project to others.[23] The identity that people establish influences their behaviour in front of others, others' treatment of them and the outcomes they receive. Therefore, in their attempts to influence the impressions others form of themselves, a person plays an important role in affecting his social outcomes.[24]

Social interaction is the process by which we act and react to those around us. In a nutshell, social interaction includes those acts people perform toward each other and the responses they give in return.[25] The most basic function of self-presentation is to define the nature of a social situation (Goffman, 1959). Most social interactions are very role governed. Each person has a role to play, and the interaction proceeds smoothly when these roles are enacted effectively. People also strive to create impressions of themselves in the minds of others in order to gain material and social rewards (or avoid material and social punishments).[26]

Cross-cultural communication

Understanding how one's impression management behavior might be interpreted by others can also serve as the basis for smoother interactions and as a means for solving some of the most insidious communication problems among individuals of different racial/ethnic and gender backgrounds.[27]

"People are sensitive to how they are seen by others and use many forms of impression management to compel others to react to them in the ways they wish" (Giddens, 2005, p. 142). An example of this concept is easily illustrated through cultural differences. Different cultures have diverse thoughts and opinions on what is considered beautiful or attractive. For example, American's tend to find tan skin attractive, but in Indonesian culture, pale skin is more desirable.[28]

Another illustration of how people attempt to control how others perceive them is portrayed through the clothing they wear. A person who is in a leadership position strives to be respected and in order to control and maintain the impression. This illustration can also be adapted for a cultural scenario. The clothing people choose to wear says a great deal about the person and the culture they represent. For example, most Americans are not overly concerned with conservative clothing. Most Americans are content with tee shirts, shorts, and showing skin. The exact opposite is true on the other side of the world. "Indonesians are both modest and conservative in their attire" (Cole, 1997, p. 77).[28]

Companies use cross-cultural training(CCT) to facilitate effective cross-cultural interaction. CCT can be defined as any procedure used to increase an individual's ability to cope with and work in a foreign environment. Training employees in culturally consistent and specific Impression Management(IM) techniques provide the avenue for the employee to consciously switch from an automatic, home culture IM mode to an IM mode that is culturally appropriate and acceptable. Second, training in IM reduces the uncertainty of interaction with FNs and increases employee's ability to cope by reducing unexpected events.[27]

Team-working in hospital wards

Impression management theory can also be used in health communication. It can be used to explore how professionals 'present' themselves when interacting on hospital wards and also how they employ front stage and backstage settings in their collaborative work.[29]

In the hospital wards, Goffman's front stage and backstage performances are divided into 'planned' and 'ad hoc' rather than 'official' and 'unofficial' interactions.[29]

Planned front stage is the structured collaborative activities such as ward rounds and care conferences which took place in the presence of patients and/or carers.

Ad hoc front stage is the unstructured or unplanned interprofessional interactions that took place in front of patients/carers or directly involved patients/carers.

Planned backstage is the structured MDT meetings in which professionals gathered in a private area of the ward, in the absence of patients, to discuss management plans for patients under their care.

Ad hoc backstage is the use of corridors and other ward spaces for quick conversations between professionals in the absence of patients/carers.

Offstage is the social activities between and among professional groups/individuals outside of the hospital context.[29]

Results show that interprofessional interactions in this setting are often based less on planned front stage activities than on ad hoc backstage activities.While the former may, at times, help create and maintain an appearance of collaborative interprofessional 'teamwork', conveying a sense of professional togetherness in front of patients and their families, they often serve little functional practice. These findings have implications for designing ways to improve interprofessional practice on acute hospital wards where there is no clearly defined interprofessional team, but rather a loose configuration of professionals working together in a collaborative manner around a particular patient. In such settings, interventions that aim to improve both ad hoc as well as planned forms of communication may be more successful than those intended to only improve planned communication.[29]

Computer-mediated communication

The hyperpersonal model of computer-mediated communication (CMC) posits that users exploit the technological aspects of CMC in order to enhance the messages they construct to manage impressions and facilitate desired relationships. The most interesting aspect of the advent of CMC is how it reveals basic elements of interpersonal communication, bringing into focus fundamental processes that occur as people meet and develop relationships relying on typed messages as the primary mechanism of expression. "Physical features such as one's appearance and voice provide much of the information on which people base first impressions face-to-face, but such features are often unavailable in CMC. Various perspectives on CMC have suggested that the lack of nonverbal cues diminishes CMC's ability to foster impression formation and management, or argued impressions develop nevertheless, relying on language and content cues. One approach that describes the way that CMC's technical capacities work in concert with users' impression development intentions is the hyperpersonal model of CMC (Walther, 1996). As receivers, CMC users idealize partners based on the circumstances or message elements that suggest minimal similarity or desirability. As senders, CMC users selectively self-present, revealing attitudes and aspects of the self in a controlled and socially desirable fashion. The CMC channel facilitates editing, discretion, and convenience, and the ability to tune out environmental distractions and re-allocate cognitive resources in order to further enhance one's message composition. Finally, CMC may create dynamic feedback loops wherein the exaggerated expectancies are confirmed and reciprocated through mutual interaction via the bias-prone communication processes identified above."[30]

According to O'Sullivan's (2000) impression management model of communication channels, individuals will prefer to use mediated channels rather than face-to-face conversation in face-threatening situations. Within his model, this trend is due to the channel features that allow for control over exchanged social information. The present paper extends O'Sullivan's model by explicating information control as a media affordance, arising from channel features and social skills, that enables an individual to regulate and restrict the flow of social information in an interaction, and present a scale to measure it. One dimension of the information control scale, expressive information control, positively predicted channel preference for recalled face-threatening situations. This effect remained after controlling for social anxiousness and power relations in relationships. O'Sullivan's model argues that some communication channels may help individuals manage this struggle and therefore be more preferred as those situations arise. It was based on an assumption that channels with features that allow fewer social cues, such as reduced nonverbal information or slower exchange of messages, invariably afford an individual with an ability to better manage the flow of a complex, ambiguous, or potentially difficult conversations.[31] Individuals manage what information about them is known, or isn't known, to control other's impression of them. Anyone who has given the bathroom a quick cleaning when they anticipate the arrival of their mother-in-law (or date) has managed their impression. For an example from information and communication technology use, inviting someone to view a person's Webpage before a face-to-face meeting may predispose them to view the person a certain way when they actually meet.[3]

Corporate brand

The impression management perspective offers potential insight into how corporate stories could build the corporate brand, by influencing the impressions that stakeholders form of the organization. The link between themes and elements of corporate stories and IM strategies/behaviours indicates that these elements will influence audiences' perceptions of the corporate brand.[32]

Corporate storytelling

Corporate storytelling is suggested to help demonstrate the importance of the corporate brand to internal and external stakeholders, and create a position for the company against competitors, as well as help a firm to bond with its employees (Roper and Fill, 2012). The corporate reputation is defined as a stakeholder's perception of the organization (Brown et al., 2006), and Dowling (2006) suggests that if the story causes stakeholders to perceive the organization as more authentic, distinctive, expert, sincere, powerful, and likeable, then it is likely that this will enhance the overall corporate reputation.

Impression management theory is a relevant perspective to explore the use of corporate stories in building the corporate brand. The corporate branding literature notes that interactions with brand communications enable stakeholders to form an impression of the organization (Abratt and Keyn, 2012), and this indicates that IM theory could also therefore bring insight into the use of corporate stories as a form of communication to build the corporate brand. Exploring the IM strategies/behaviors evident in corporate stories can indicate the potential for corporate stories to influence the impressions that audiences form of the corporate brand.[32]

Corporate document

Firms use more subtle forms of influencing outsiders' impressions of firm performance and prospects, namely by manipulating the content and presentation of information in corporate documents with the purpose of "distort[ing] readers" perceptions of corporate achievements" [Godfrey et al., 2003, p. 96]. In the accounting literature this is referred to as impression management. The opportunity for impression management in corporate reports is increasing. Narrative disclosures have become longer and more sophisticated over the last few years. This growing importance of descriptive sections in corporate documents provides firms with the opportunity to overcome information asymmetries by presenting more detailed information and explanation, thereby increasing their decision-usefulness. However, they also offer an opportunity for presenting financial performance and prospects in the best possible light, thus having the opposite effect. In addition to the increased opportunity for opportunistic discretionary disclosure choices, impression management is also facilitated in that corporate narratives are largely unregulated.[33]


The medium of communication influences the actions taken in impression management. Self-efficacy can differ according to the fact whether the trial to convince somebody is made through face-to-face-interaction or by means of an e-mail.[20] Communication via devices like telephone, e-mail or chat is governed by technical restrictions, so that the way people express personal features etc. can be changed. This often shows how far people will go.

Profiles on social networking sites

Social networking users will employ protective self-presentations for image management. Users will use subtractive and repudiate strategies to maintain a desired image.[34] Subtractive strategy is used to untag an undesirable photo on Social Networking Sites. In addition to un-tagging their name, some users will request the photo to be removed entirely. Repudiate strategy is used when a friend posts an undesirable comment about the user. In response to an undesired post, users may add another wall post as an innocence defense. Michael Stefanone states that "self-esteem maintenance is an important motivation for strategic self-presentation online."[34] Outside evaluations of their physical appearance, competence, and approval from others determines how social media users respond to pictures and wall posts. Unsuccessful self-presentation online can lead to rejection and criticism from social groups. Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and StudiVZ are popular means of communicating personality. Recent theoretical and empirical considerations of homepages and Web 2.0 platforms show that impression management is a major motive for actively participating in social networking sites.[35]


Impression management can distort the results of empirical research that relies on interviews and surveys, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "social desirability bias". Impression management theory nevertheless constitutes a field of research on its own.[36] When it comes to practical questions concerning public relations and the way organizations should handle their public image, the assumptions provided by impression management theory can also provide a framework.[37]

An examination of different impression management strategies acted out by individuals who were facing criminal trials where the trial outcomes could range from a death sentence, life in prison or acquittal has been reported in the forensic literature.[38] The Perri and Lichtenwald article examined female psychopathic killers, whom as a group were highly motivated to manage the impression that attorneys, judges, mental health professions and ultimately, a jury had of the murderers and the murder they committed. It provides legal case illustrations of the murderers combining and/or switching from one impression management strategy such as ingratiation or supplication to another as they worked towards their goal of diminishing or eliminating any accountability for the murders they committed.

Since the 1990s, researchers in the area of sport and exercise psychology have studied self-presentation. Concern about how one is perceived has been found to be relevant to the study of athletic performance. For example, anxiety may be produced when an athlete is in the presence of spectators. Self-presentational concerns have also been found to be relevant to exercise. For example, the concerns may elicit motivation to exercise.[39]

More recent research investigating the effects of impression management on social behaviour showed that social behaviours (e.g. eating) can serve to convey a desired impression to others and enhance one's self-image. Research on eating has shown that people tend to eat less when they believe that they are being observed by others.[40]

See also


  1. Piwinger, Manfred; Ebert, Helmut (2001). "Impression Management: Wie aus Niemand Jemand wird". in: Bentele, Guenther et al. (Ed.), Kommunikationsmanagement: Strategien, Wissen, Lösungen. Luchterhand, Neuwied.
  2. "Impression Management in Sociology: Theory, Definition & Examples".
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Browning, Larry D.; Saetre, Alf Steinar; Stephens, Keri; Sornes, Jan-Oddvar (2010-09-28). Information and Communication Technologies in Action: Linking Theories and Narratives of Practice. Routledge. ISBN 9781135889432.
  4. Kamau, C. (2009) Strategising impression management in corporations: cultural knowledge as capital. In D. Harorimana (Ed) Cultural implications of knowledge sharing, management and transfer: identifying competitive advantage. Chapter 4. Information Science Reference. ISBN 978-1-60566-790-4
  5. Doering 1999, p. 261-2.
  6. Anderson, E; Siegel, EH; Bliss-Moreau, E; Barrett, LF (Jun 2011). "The visual impact of gossip.". Science. 332 (6036): 1446–8. doi:10.1126/science.1201574. PMC 3141574Freely accessible. PMID 21596956.
  7. "What is Impression Management?". wiseGEEK.
  8. Baumeister, Roy F. (1987). "Self-Presentation Theory: Self-Construction and Audience Pleasing". Springer Series in Social Psychology. Theories of Group Behavior.
  9. Schlenker 1980, p. 37.
  10. Millon, Theodore (2003). Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology. John Wiley & Sons. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-471-38404-5.
  11. Felson 1984, p. 187.
  12. Piwinger; Ebert 2001, p. 26.
  13. Leary; Kowalski 1990.
  14. Hass 1981
  15. 1 2 3 Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Chicago: Aldine.
  16. Dillard et al., 2000
  17. Schlenker; Barry 1980, p. 34.
  18. Barnhart, 1994
  19. Goffman 2006, p. 40.
  20. 1 2 Döring 1999, p. 262.
  21. Goffman 1956
  22. Leary; Kowalski 1990
  23. 1 2 Schlenker 1980, p. 85.
  24. Schlenker 1980, p. 90.
  25. Moffitt, Kimberly. "Social Interactions: Definition & Types".
  26. Brown, Jonathon. "CHAPTER 07 SELF-PRESENTATION" (PDF).
  27. 1 2 Rosenfeld, Paul; Giacalone, Robert A.; Riordan, Catherine A. (1994-03-01). "Impression Management Theory and Diversity Lessons for Organizational Behavior". American Behavioral Scientist. 37 (5): 601–604. doi:10.1177/0002764294037005002. ISSN 0002-7642.
  28. 1 2 Norris, Ashley (2011). "Impression Management: Considering Cultural, Social, and Spiritual Factors".
  29. 1 2 3 4 Lewin, Simon; Reeves, Scott (2011-05-01). "Enacting 'team' and 'teamwork': using Goffman's theory of impression management to illuminate interprofessional practice on hospital wards". Social Science & Medicine (1982). 72 (10): 1595–1602. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.03.037. ISSN 1873-5347. PMID 21549467.
  30. Walther, Joseph B. (2007-09-01). "Selective self-presentation in computer-mediated communication: Hyperpersonal dimensions of technology, language, and cognition" (PDF). Computers in Human Behavior. 23 (5): 2538–2557. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2006.05.002.
  31. Feaster, John Christian (2010-10-01). "Expanding the Impression Management Model of Communication Channels: An Information Control Scale". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 16 (1): 115–138. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2010.01535.x. ISSN 1083-6101.
  32. 1 2 Sara Spear; Stuart Roper (2013-11-01). "Using corporate stories to build the corporate brand: an impression management perspective". Journal of Product & Brand Management. 22 (7): 491–501. doi:10.1108/JPBM-09-2013-0387. ISSN 1061-0421.
  33. University, Bangor. "Dr Doris Merkl-Davies | Bangor Business School | Bangor University". Retrieved 2016-03-11.
  34. 1 2 Rui, J. and M. A. Stefanone (2013). Strategic Management of Other-Provided Information Online: Personality and Network Variables. System Sciences (HICSS), 2013 46th Hawaii International Conference on.
  35. Krämer, Nicole C.; Winter, Stephan (2008-01-01). "Impression Management 2.0". Journal of Media Psychology. 20 (3): 106–116. doi:10.1027/1864-1105.20.3.106. ISSN 1864-1105.
  36. Tedeschi 1984
  37. Piwinger; Ebert 2001, p. 3.
  38. Perri, Frank S. and Lichtenwald, Terrance G. (2010). "The Last Frontier: Myths & The Female Psychopathic Killer". Forensic Examiner, Summer 2010, 50-67.
  39. Martin Ginis, K.A., Lindwall, M., & Prapavessis, H. (2007). Who cares what other people think? Self-presentation in exercise and sport. In R. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 136–153). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiles & Sons.
  40. Herman; Roth; Polivy 2003


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