Accuracy of Self-View
Accuracy of self-view refers to having accurate (or realistic) perceptions and making accurate evaluations about oneself (e.g., one’s traits, abilities, attitudes, and so on); it is usually operationalized as the extent to which the individual’s estimates of themselves agree with independent estimates obtained from knowledgeable others, observations of behavior, and implicit assessment.
The notion that accurate self-view is important has a long history dating back to the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” originally engraved on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. In theory, accurate self-knowledge enables one to establish realistic expectations of oneself and is essential for self-regulation and self-development. Indeed, accurate perception of self and reality is considered to be a prerequisite of mental health and psychosocial adjustment (e.g., American Psychiatric Association 2013). Yet, many findings highlight obstacles to accurate self-perception and suggest that most people are rather poor at self-assessment (e.g., Brown and Dutton 1995).
Perspectives on Accuracy of Self-View in the Psychological Literature
Over 100 years ago, Freud noted that the conscious mind is simply the tip of the iceberg. Thoughts, memories, and desires that are unacceptable to the rational and conscious self are held below the surface of conscious awareness, although they continue to exert a great influence on behavior. Their full expression is prevented by the unconscious deployment of defense mechanisms, some of which are more primitive (e.g., reaction formation) and other more mature (e.g., sublimation; Freud 1936). Although the defense processes in themselves are not pathological phenomena, they often turn out to be detrimental. Simply put, the cost of self-deception is psychopathology. And so, the aim of psychoanalysis is making the unconscious conscious, which requires subjecting an automatic and unconscious regulation to conscious thinking (Freud 1904). Insight and the attainment of accurate self-knowledge are seen as primary curative factors also in humanistic psychotherapy (Rogers 1951).
Many theorists share Freud’s skepticism about how well people can know themselves. In fact, the contention that information is processed unconsciously is now a basic assumption of cognitive science. The so-called cognitive unconscious is not the consequence of defenses against self-threatening perceptions, but reflects the architecture of the mind. Numerous dual-process theories posit the existence of two interactive modes of information processing and, hence, two ways of knowing oneself, one conscious (rational, analytic, controlled, explicit), and the other unconscious (experiential, intuitive, automatic, implicit; Wilson 2009). As postulated by Epstein’s (2003) cognitive-experiential self-theory, people’s self-views are best understood in terms of their implicit self-theories. These automatically constructed theories address the four basic needs: to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, to maintain relatedness with others, to maintain the stability and coherence of one’s conceptual system (i.e., self-verification), and to enhance self-esteem (i.e., self-enhancement). People’s implicit self-schemas cannot be accessed directly and may or may not be accurately reflected in their explicit self-evaluations. Previous studies on the relationship between implicit and explicit attitudes and self-esteem have shown that they are weakly to moderately correlated (e.g., Greenwald and Farnham 2000). Also, there is neurological evidence of divided consciousness, with the left and right hemispheres processing information differently and encoding different kinds of knowledge (Krebs et al. 1988).
The idea that people pursue accurate self-knowledge is a key assumption of social comparison theory (Festinger 1954) and self-assessment theory (Trope 1979). Other social-cognitive approaches posit that there are various motives affecting the way people expect, process, and react to the self-relevant information. According to Sedikides and Skowronski (2000), these are valuation motives (i.e., self-enhancement and self-protection), learning motives (i.e., self-assessment and self-improvement), and homeostatic motives (i.e., self-verification). Of these motives, only self-assessment prompts people to seek out accurate and objective self-relevant information, and it may operate independently, coincide, or conflict with other motives. Which of these self-motives governs one’s reaction to feedback depends on individual differences and situational influence (e.g., task or attribute ambiguity). Nonetheless, several studies have found defensive motives (i.e., esteem- and consistency-related) to be more powerful determinants of the self-evaluation process than accuracy concerns (e.g., Sedikides 1993). The self-serving attributional bias and the illusion of control are examples of the phenomena that reflect self-enhancement biases in self-perception (e.g., Krebs et al. 1988).
In order to integrate the various models of self-perception, and to capture the role of basic motivational, cognitive, and affective processes in the self-perception process, Robins and John (1997) offered four metaphors of the self-perceiver. In some ways people are scientists, motivated by self-assessment and dispassionately searching for truth. In some respects they act like consistency seekers, driven by self-verification, and in some they behave like egoists, motivated toward self-enhancement, and like politicians, concerned with popularity. These metaphors are not personality types, but serve as lenses through which self-perception accuracy and deviations from accuracy can be analyzed and interpreted.
As noted by Funder (2003), the avoidance of judgment error and the achievement of accuracy should not be treated as the same things. His realistic accuracy model suggests that accuracy is a function of the relevance, availability, detection, and utilization of behavioral cues. In other words, the accurate judgment of personality is possible provided that one emits relevant behavior, notices, and interprets it correctly. The model implicates that to know oneself better, one should first and foremost seek out contexts that encourage one’s self-expression (Funder 2003).
Evolutionary Account of Accuracy of Self-View
The evolutionary adaptive utility of an accurate self-view appears to include enhancing functioning of the individual within the group as well as facilitating functioning of the group as a whole. For example, accurate self-knowledge allows individuals to engage in environments that match their skills and abilities – if an individual discovers that they are good at child-watching, exercising this skill to its fullest extent would likely benefit them and the group. Also, accurate self-knowledge enables individuals to find their positions in the social hierarchy, hence reducing conflict with conspecifics (Sedikides and Skowronski 2000). If an accurate self-view is adaptive, why would an inaccurate one be tolerated by the selection process?
Some theorists suggest that self-deception make individuals better able to deceive others (e.g., von Hippel and Trivers 2011). Because humans inadvertently reveal their deceptive intent through verbal and nonverbal clues, those who are taken in by their own lies make their deception harder to detect. Also, self-deception benefits deceivers by reducing the cognitive load associated with deceiving and by reducing retribution if their lies are exposed. It should be noted that, by helping to better deceive others, self-deceptive beliefs serve both short-term strategies of cheating and long-term strategies that depend on maintaining reciprocity relationships (Nesse 1990).
Others argue for a pragmatist view of knowledge and suggest that biases in self-conception function as pragmatic shortcuts for self-understanding that, all in all, give rise to functional conclusions and behaviors that enhance an individual’s fitness (e.g., Krebs et al. 1988). Beliefs that make one feel good, secure, and in control are adaptive, regardless of whether or not they are accurate in an ultimate sense, because they enhance one’s health, chances for success, and social attractiveness and, thereby, also the likelihood of survival. Moreover, false beliefs tend to validate themselves – a phenomenon known as the self-fulfilling or behavioral confirmation effect (e.g., Snyder 1984). There is, however, a limit to self-deception. Since, from an evolutionary perspective, the benefits of group living exceed the costs, the adaptive value of false self-beliefs will depend upon the support they receive from others.
Measurement of Accuracy of Self-View
Because of a lack of absolute measures of a person’s attitudes, traits, abilities, and so on, there is no way to know the person’s true personality, and so it is difficult to evaluate whether one’s self-view is accurate. The most commonly used methods for the assessment of accurate self-knowledge rely on comparison of self-reports of personality with: (1) ratings of personality provided by knowledgeable others, (2) observed behavior in relevant situations, and (3) implicit personality measures. None of these sources provides objective criteria against which self-perceptions can be compared, but rather reflects different definitions of accuracy. Thus, the so-called criterion problem remains.
Robins and John (1997) proposed a framework that identifies six conceptually based categories of accuracy criteria: operational/reality (i.e., whether individuals’ self-perceptions correspond to direct operational criteria), social consensus (i.e., whether individuals’ self-perceptions match up with how others see them), functional/pragmatic (i.e., whether individuals’ self-perceptions serve adaptation), normative models (i.e., whether individuals’ self-perceptions align with the prescriptions of the normative model), information processing (i.e., whether individuals’ self-perceptions result from the use of valid cues), and internal consistency (i.e., whether individuals’ self-perceptions are consistent with their other self-beliefs or across social roles). As recommended by these authors, accuracy researchers should use multiple criteria to examine accuracy and should always state explicitly which ones they have chosen and why (Robins and John 1997).
Accuracy of self-view is an area of some debate within the psychology literature, and the question of whether people’s self-views reflect what they are truly like will likely remain open to further discussion. Despite this, there seems to be a consensus among authors that parts of self-related knowledge are difficult to access consciously (e.g., information that is self-threatening and/or was acquired in early childhood). It is also recognized that both accurate and biased self-perceptions have an adaptive value, although the distorted ones are more likely to prove costly in the long run.
- Epstein, S. (2003). Cognitive-experiential self-theory of personality. In T. Millon & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of psychology, volume 5: Personality and social psychology (pp. 159–184). Hoboken: Wiley.Google Scholar
- Freud, A. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1904). Freud’s psychoanalytic procedure. Standard Edition, 7, 247–254.Google Scholar
- Funder, D. C. (2003). Toward a social psychology of person judgments: Implications for person perception accuracy and self-knowledge. In J. P. Forgas, K. D. Williams, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), Social judgments: Implicit and explicit processes (pp. 115–133). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
- Snyder, M. (1984). When belief creates reality. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 18, pp. 247–305). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar