8.23: Self-Disclosure and Impression Management

Let us consider two related concepts in the psychological literature - self-disclosure and impression management. Self-disclosure is the open and honest presentation of one's self, whereas impression management is the creation by a person of some desired impression on other people. Those concepts are related not only to one another but to databanks, on the one hand, and to autonomy, on the other hand, and will thus serve to link databanks to autonomy.

The principal advocate of self-disclosure was Sidney Jourard.6 Being a therapist, Jourard aspired to encourage self-disclosure in his clients and found that he could indeed help create a climate for self-disclosure by practicing self-disclosure himself. However, he found that, even in the therapeutic situation which is explicitly designed for self-disclosure, there was a great deal of impression management.

The principal advocate of impression management is Erving Goffman, who uses the metaphor of the theatre to describe how we present ourselves in everyday society.7 Traditional literature in psychology focussed on impression formation - that is, the process by which the subject built up an impression of another person (How important is the first impression?). Goffman, recognizing the importance of personal power, has shifted the focus to impression management - that is, the process by which the subject creates an impression on another person (How do I make a good first impression? ).

Mark Snyder has described the process of impression management as self-monitoring.8 This is the process by which people adjust their "performance" in terms of feedback from their "audience". He has developed a Self-Monitoring Scale, which identifies high self-monitors, who view themselves as flexible people who can tailor their social behavior to each situation, and low self-monitors, who view themselves as open and honest people who prefer self-disclosure to impression management. Those two views are based on different concepts of the self - the low self-monitor believes that there is one self which should not vary from situation to situation whereas the high self-monitor believes that there are many selves which differ from situation to situation.

Our initial reaction is probably to favor self-disclosure over impression management. However, perhaps people have good reason to "disclose" to strangers in trains and planes, to group therapists and marriage counselors in the next town, and to local therapists and priests, only on the understanding that the information is confidential. They know that knowledge is power and that knowledge about themselves in the wrong hands (or, rather, heads) makes them vulnerable. In a perfect world, where total self-disclosure were possible, personal databanks would offer no threat. The only concern would be that the information be complete and accurate so that they would contribute to an "open and honest" presentation of the person.9 In our imperfect world, however, a person may reasonably choose to be less open and less honest with some people than with others.

People may choose, for example, to disclose themselves in their intimate relationships and manage their impressions in their contractual relationships.10 This distinction, by Salvadore Maddi, can be illustrated by a person buying groceries for his mate. His relationship with the grocer is contractual. It does not really matter to him that this particular grocer stocks and serves the goods and to the grocer that this particular customer selects and buys them. However, it does matter to his mate that he cooks dinner for her and to him that he is doing it for her. His relationship with his mate is intimate. The participants in the relationship are not interchangeable. Part of the understanding in such a relationship is that one discloses oneself, since it is that unique self which is involved in the relationship. Part of the understanding in the contractual relationship is that one plays one's role and reveals only that part of oneself which is appropriate to that role.11

6   Jourard, S. M. Self-Disclosure: An Experimental Analysis of the Transparent Self. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1971.

7   Goffman, E. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959.

8   Snyder, M. "The Many Me's of the Self-Monitor". Psychology Today, March, 1980, Pages 33-40, 92.

9   "Open and honest" may initially appear redundant. However, "open" refers to the capacity of a person to disclose all of themselves and "honest" refers to the capacity of a person to be truthful in whatever they choose to disclose. The first term covers sins of omission and the second term covers sins of commission. Hence, a complete databank would contribute to openess and an accurate databank to honesty.

10   Maddi, S. I. "The Search For Meaning" in W. J. Arnold and M. M. Page (Editors). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Volume 18. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

11   Even those of you who, like myself, believe that relationships are intrinsically intimate (a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet) must concede that we can handle only so much intimacy. Even if only because there is only so much time. There is a penumbra of intimacy about contractual relationships but there is an understanding, based on mutual respect, that the full potential intimacy will not be realized.