Swann & Buhrmester 2014: Self-Verification: The Search for Coherence

Full Reference

Swann, W. B., & Burhmester, M. D. (2014). Self-verification: The search for coherence. In M. R. Leary & J. P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (Second, pp. 405–424). New York, NY, USA: Guilford Press.


Before getting into the details, some thoughts about how the article might be useful, and additional questions raised.

  • If game workers are trying to self-verify as gamers (or as something similar) as they do their IT work, Figure 19.1 (included below) might be a guide for illustrating these behaviors  and showing how they differ from behaviors of other IT workers. Since producers and designers seem to have large effects on the work environment and how the team processes information, they might have an even more detectable impact.
  • Is work on a game that one doesn’t enjoy dis-confirming feedback for one’s game-centered identities?
  • For IT workers, what impact does your identifying as one of your users have on both job satisfaction and product performance?
  • Should commonly held identities improve software team performance, or at least make the creation of a self-verifying environment easier? Should diversity/acceptance be more effective at improving team performance?
  • What are the different game-centered identities, and what are the differences in content?
Article Details

A definition of self-verification theory:

Self-verification theory (Swann, 1983, 1987, 1990, in press) assumes that stable self-views provide people with a crucial source of coherence and continuity, an invaluable means of defining their existence, organizing experience, predicting future events, and guiding social interaction (cf. Cooley, 1902; Lecky, 1945; Mead, 1934; Secord & Backman, 1965). Moreover, by stabilizing behavior, stable self-views make people more predictable to others (Goffman, 1959). This added predictability, in turn, stabilizes the way others respond. In this way, stable self-views foster a coherent social environment, which, in turn, further stabilizes people’s self-views.

This reasoning suggests that people may seek self-verification for one or both of two reasons: to bolster their feelings of psychological coherence (“epistemic” concerns) or to ensure that their interactions proceed smoothly (“pragmatic” concerns). For this reason, just as being perceived in a self-congruent manner may bolster feelings of existential security and calm the waters of social interaction, being perceived in an incongruent manner may produce the epistemic and pragmatic equivalents of a tidal wave. People strive to avoid such disasters by entering into and creating social worlds that confirm their self-views (p. 407).

The authors offer the following figure to explain the self-verification process.

People self-verify by “developing a self-confirmatory social environment” (p. 408).

The notion that people seek social contexts that provide them with self-confirmatory feedback has been around for several decades (e.g., Secord & Backman, 1965). Until recently, the evidence for this hypothesis was anecdotal or based on field studies. For instance, Pervin and Rubin (1967) reported that students tended to drop out of school if they found themselves in colleges that were incompatible with their self-views (see also Backman & Secord, 1962; Broxton, 1963; Newcomb, 1956) (p. 408).

The same should be generally true of workers who find themselves in disconfirming organizations, who should feel dissatisfied and seek alternative employment, or perhaps “act out” within the discofnirming organization, effectively self-confirming until someone removes them from the organization, or perhaps just feel miserable in their job because another identity (“providing parent”) is more salient.

Presumably the increased feelings of connectedness that grow out of self-verification encourage members
of self-verifying groups to work together more often, thereby ensuring that people are associated with self-verifying partners not only in their intimate relationships but also in the classroom and workplace (p. 409).

This seems to indicate that an environment that verifies a shared game-centered identity would improve performance of game software teams. Game studios are often characterized by heavily decorated cubicles, which serve to display identity cues.

The cars people drive, the homes they live in, and the bumper stickers they display on their cars also may be
used to tell others who they are and how they expect to be treated (Goffman, 1959; Schlenker, 1980).

Furthermore, Gosling, Ko, Mannarelli, and Morris (2001) have shown that people structure their personal environments (e.g., bedrooms, offices) to communicate negative as well as positive identities to others (p. 410).

What if the project one is working on does not reflect one’s identities? What effect would the following have on one’s work behavior if the work is in strong conflict with one’s identities?

If people are motivated to bring others to verify their self-conceptions, they should intensify their efforts to elicit self-confirmatory reactions when they suspect that they are misconstrued, a phenomenon known as compensatory self-verification.

…having the opportunity to resist the discrepant feedback insulated participants against changes in their self-views!

…high self-concept certainty was associated with higher resistance in the face of disconfirmation (p. 410).

I found this interesting, but I’m not sure how it directly fits with office behavior. Maybe it maps to work cliques, seeking out confirming partners after disconfirming work experiences:

Furthermore, other research suggests that merely seeing a self-verifying partner after receiving discrepant feedback may exert a similar stabilizing effect on people’s self-views (Swann & Predmore, 1985). Such evidence of “partner verification” suggests that when people find partners who see them congruently, they will enjoy a steady supply of self-verifying feedback in the future (p. 411).

What happens when you receive disconfirming feedback?

When people with negative self-views received positive feedback, they were physiologically “threatened” (distressed and avoidant); when they received negative feedback, participants with negative selfviews were physiologically “challenged” or “galvanized” (i.e., cardiovascularly aroused but in a manner associated with approach motivation). People with positive self-views displayed the opposite pattern (p. 413).

Is it more effective, in terms of team and product performance, to have a more homogeneous work environment that confirms a commonly held identity, or to have a diverse environment where employees are adept at confirming others’ identities?

Self-verification processes seem to be particularly beneficial in diverse groups. Presumably, members of diverse groups are often careful not to express controversial ideas out of a fear that they will be misunderstood. Self-verification may diminish such fear by convincing such individuals that they are understood. They may accordingly open up to their coworkers, which may, in turn, lead them to express offbeat ideas that lead to creative solutions to problems. Performance may benefit accordingly (Polzer, Milton, & Swann, 2002).

…recent investigations of “identify fusion” (Swann, Gómez, Seyle, Morales, & Huici, 2009) indicate that self-verification strivings may promote progroup behavior. This work is predicated on the assumption that people who feel fused with a social group feel a deep sense of connectedness and oneness with that group. This feeling of oneness is so powerful that challenging a personal self-view is functionally equivalent to challenging a social self-view. For this reason, when the personal self-views of fused people are challenged, their compensatory self-verification activities may spill over to progroup behavior. Thus, challenging the personal self-views of fused persons increases the likelihood that they endorse progroup behavior (p. 414).

Does strategic self-verification happen in office settings?

Apparently, people with negative self-views recognize that their relationships will remain viable only insofar as they are perceived positively on relationship-relevant dimensions. We dubbed this phenomenon strategic self-verification, as people gained verification for strategic selves that were more positive than their chronic selves.

How can evidence of strategic self- verification be reconciled with the aforementioned evidence that people seek and elicit self-verifying evaluations? Apparently, people with negative self-views prefer and seek negative evaluations regarding characteristics that are low in relationship relevance (e.g., intelligent, artistic), presumably because verification of such negative qualities will not necessarily threaten the relationship (p. 417).

Apparently, people seek verification of their negative self-views only if doing so does not risk being abandoned, for abandonment would completely cut off the supply of verification (p. 418).

What happens when one does not share the identity of a group they’re tied to? While the following example is based on religion, it seems to apply to work environments where one finds that one is not like one’s co-workers. I’m still trying to sort out the implications for office environments, though.

Going one step further, others have asked whether individuals seek verification of in-group identities that they do not personally possess (Gómez et al., 2009). For instance, a Catholic may perceive his or her group as rigidly rule-bound but see him- or herself as carefree and flexible. Regardless of the nature of their personal self-views, people preferred to interact with evaluators who confirmed both positive and negative group identities. In addition, whereas previous verification work has focused exclusively on the content of identities (e.g., whether one has high or low self-esteem), the investigators were the first to provide evidence that individuals seek verification for the valence of their identities (i.e., preference for evaluations that confirm whether one values or devalues a group identity). Taken together, these studies point to the generality of self-verification strivings, in that they influence feedback seeking in regard to one’s personal self, the collective self, and group identities that are not even descriptive of oneself (p. 420).


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