Self-Verification & Self-Enhancement

the re-enforcing nature of beliefs

With the concepts in our minds, we create beliefs about the world. More specifically, with the concepts in our self-schema, we form beliefs about ourselves. Like I stated earlier, concepts and schemas determine what we notice and what we do not notice in our reality. You usually don’t see what you’re looking at; you see what you’re looking with.
Our concepts direct our attention so that we pay attention to those things that our concepts refer to (that which they represent mentally).
A similar process happens for the beliefs we hold (about ourselves, as well as the world at large). We perceive reality and selectively pay attention to those things that confirm our beliefs. This process is called Self-Verification, because we have a tendency to seek and verify the beliefs we already hold in our minds. When we have found information that confirms our beliefs, we use it as evidence and a reference experience for the belief. The more evidence and reference experiences we gather for a belief, the stronger (our faith in) it grows.
In science, this is called the confirmation bias and it is widely advised to counter this tendency to self-verify by always looking at alternate theories and instances in which your belief or theory may be invalidated.

In everyday Life and in our self-schema, this phenomenon can influence our attention, mental processing and behaviour incredibly (Cook, 2007). For example: Let’s say that two beginners start a new sport: soccer. One of the two has a belief that he is good at sports like these, while the other has a belief that he is poor at soccer. Both players are likely to perform poorly the first time they play soccer. Yet, the first beginner will pay attention and later recall those instances of his play when he was doing well, whereas the second player will focus on instances of his play when he performed poorly. As a result of this, the first player will learn more when he reflects on his play and his skills are more likely to improve, further serving as evidence and reference experiences for his belief that he is good at soccer. The second player also finds confirmation and verification for his beliefs, only his performance doesn’t improve as much.

The reason we seek to verify our existing beliefs is simple, it keeps cognitive dissonance to a minimum. If we selectively seek out instances and aspects of reality that are consistent with the beliefs we hold in our minds, no tension and anxiety will arise in the form of cognitive dissonance. It is for the same reason, that our minds direct our behaviours to be consistent with the beliefs and concepts we hold about ourselves.

Behavioural consistency with the self-schema

In order to minimize cognitive dissonance, I strive to behave consistent with my self-schema. I will attempt to act in accordance with the ideas I hold about myself. When I notice that my behaviour deviates from what is in my self-schema, I will either:
rationalize it away, change my self-schema or change my behaviour.

Another way of saying this would be ‘being true to myself’; so I could say that my actions and ideas about myself are congruent with each other. There is another term for this:


“Being and acting consistently with who you hold yourself out to be for others, and who you hold yourself to be for yourself.” (Erhard, Jensen, Zaffron & Granger, 2010)

As a human being, I like to think of myself as being real and authentic, not phony and fake. Yet, sometimes I may not be authentic and my being and acting may be out of alignment with who I hold myself out to be. Given my brain’s capacity for selective attention, self-deception and denial, this may even happen outside of my awareness; I may be oblivious to it. Inauthenticity may be obvious, apparent and self-evident to the people around me, while I have no sense of acting inauthentic.
People act inauthentic more often than they realize.

“Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently; unaware
of the contradiction between their espoused theory and
their theory-in-use, between the way they think
they are acting, and the way they really act.”
(Argyris, 1991, as quoted in Erhard et. al., 2010)

Human beings may violate their tendency to behave in a manner consistent with their self-schema if there are rewards or pay-offs for doing so. The most common of these rewards/payoffs is approval or validation from other people. Erhard et. al. (2010) refers to this as admiration and more simply as wanting to ‘look good’. In the scientific realm this pathetic need for looking good is referred to as:


I like for my self-schema to look good. I like to think of myself as the greatest person in the world. I like to jump at opportunities that confirm what an amazing person I am. I like to pay attention and focus on aspects of reality that highlight my positive sides. I like to compare myself with others and notice I am better than them. I like to win. I like to receive compliments, applause and approval from other people.

“This is because you want people to know to how good, attractive, generous, funny, wild and clever you really are.
Fear or revere me, but please, think I’m special.
You share an addiction: We are approval junkies.
We’re all in it for the slap on the back and the gold watch; the hip-hip-hoo-fucking-raw. Look at the clever boy with the badge, polishing his trophy.
Shine on; you crazy diamond.
‘Cause we’re just monkeys, wrapped in suits,
begging for the approval of others.”

~ Revolver – Guy Ritchie ~

In order to self-enhance, I seek to behave in ways that will gain me the approval of others. In doing so, a dilemma may arise. My self-schema may be inconsistent with how other people want me to act. My tendency to self-verify and act consistent with my self-schema may conflict with my tendency to self-enhance. This conflict may result in either:

  • Compromising both self-verification and authenticity
  • Compromising self-enhancement (approval from others)

When compromising authenticity, I go along with what others want from me, but feeling inauthentic (phony and fake) about my demeanour (cognitive dissonance will arise from behaving inconsistent with my self-schema). One way to deal with this is to simply change my self-schema; to bend and conform my beliefs to what other people believe.
Another option is to refuse going along with how other people want me to act. In this instance, my authenticity is intact, but I will risk facing disapproval from other people. As social animals, human beings need the approval of other people in order to co-operate and form relationships with them. As a result of this, a trade-off has to be made when expectations and beliefs of the self are in conflict with those of the people around the self.

How Science compromises Authenticity

Mouton & Marais (1988) describe one of the social mechanisms that operate within the scientific community. They note there is a sort of trade-off that happens between a researcher and the scientific community. In this trade-off, the researcher receives community specific rewards (such as academic recognition in the form of publications in high-status journals or receiving awards) in exchange for producing adequate scientific knowledge or information. By this means, the scientific community has a sort of social control “because of the fact that scientists seek recognition” and “tend to accept the goals and values of the research community”. This academic recognition is a sort of carrot that gets hung in front of students and starting researchers that helps to stimulate them to produce studies and articles based upon the rules and guideline provided by the scientific community. The rookie scientist sees academic recognition as a worthwhile goal to strive for.

When I first started my education in Psychology at university I always thought this was a pretty weird kind of motivation.
My approach to education had always been to learn useful information and skills that I could apply to make my Life (and other people’s lives) better. This kind of recognition seemed totally useless to me. Over the years I started to think more about this type of motivation. I know see it as a form of self-enhancement, and a compensating for a lack of self-esteem.

If I can get recognition and acclaim in the scientific world, it must mean I’m a smart and intelligent person…

This whole notion of impressing everyone with how intelligent I am is pretty strange. It can only serve a person who does not naturally feel great about himself or herself. It’s also important to realize that this tendency is not logical, it is emotional. If my research, studies and investigations are motivated by a desire to get acclaim in the scientific world, then my works will be coloured by a need to impress my peers and I’ll be highly likely to conform to whatever the status quo of the scientific community is. This does not sound like a good recipe for breakthroughs, creativity and independent thinking to me, nor does this sound like it will make an authentic contribution to the world. In my opinion, scientific research should be geared towards empowering people, not necessarily towards gaining consensus and approval.

Self-enhancement is about the Self-schema,
not about Life Quality

Self-enhancement is about enhancement of the self-schema, making it mostly a mental act. The term should not be mistaken by other commonly used terms like self-improvement, self-help or self-development, which are focused on improving the conditions and quality of my Life. Self-enhancement is about enhancing the way I perceive myself (‘How can I make myself look good?’). Self-improvement is about learning new skills, growing as a person and improving the quality of my Life.

The next book piece drops at Monday January 30th on the topic of internally- and externally based concepts for the Self-schema

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One Response to Self-Verification & Self-Enhancement

  1. Pingback: Selective Attention & the Self-schema | identityisdynamic

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