In sociology, impression management refers to the conscious and unconscious acts that we perform to influence how others see us.
It includes appearance, behaviors, and messages, all of which we use to portray a desired image to others (Omarzu, 2012). Think about your workplace. You go there dressed in a certain way, interact with colleagues politely, and display a general sense of professionalism.
All this is quite different from how you behave at home or with your friends. This does not mean that you are authentic in one situation and not in another; rather, our behavior is subject to the social context and how we want others to perceive us.
We engage in impression management—that is, presenting a certain image of ourselves—in order to achieve specific goals. So, we go to a meeting dressed in formal clothes (not in shorts) to demonstrate that we are professionals who take our work seriously.
Impression Management: Sociological Definition
The theory of impression management was developed by Erving Goffman in his book The Presentation of Everyday Life (1959), which was later expanded in 1967. According to Goffman, impression management is
[How an individual in] “ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them” (1959)
In brief, it includes all those things we do to influence how people see us. Impression management is often used synonymously with the concept of self-presentation since both focus on presenting a specific image.
Goffman’s Theatre Analogy: “All the World is a Stage”
Shakespeare famously wrote that “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” In Sociology, Goffman similarly used the same analogy to explain his theory, called dramaturgical analysis.
Goffman believed that every individual is like an actor and every social interaction is a performance, which is shaped by the environment and the target audience.
As actors, individuals must “work to adapt their behavior in such a way as to give off the correct impression to a particular audience”, and the audience must also “take their performance seriously”. (Browning, 2010).
The “correct impression” is one that helps the actor achieve their desired goals. Impression management is highly dependent on the situation, and the audience’s reactions are also significant: some actors may actively respond to those actions to get positive results.
Goffman suggested that we can learn from dramaturgical discipline to better manage impressions. For example, we must remember our parts, not give away secrets involuntarily, cover up inappropriate behavior on the part of teammates, etc. (Browning).
For more on Goffman, see: Social Identity Theory
Components of Impression Management
According to sociologists Leary & Kowalski, impression management is constituted by two processes: impression motivation and impression construction (1990).
1. Impression Motivation
Impression motivation refers to the underlying psychological factors that drive individuals to engage in influencing how people see them.
It is concerned with how much people are motivated to engage in impression management and includes the following factors:
- Link with goals: How closely the public image is linked to a goal affects impression management. For example, if what we want is highly dependent on public image, then we invest more time and energy in influencing how we are seen. This is also why we are more careful in our attempts to influence how we are perceived by powerful, high-status people.
- Valuation of goals: The more we value our goals, the more motivated we are to engage in impression management. So, by influencing how others see us, we get closer to our cherished goals.
- The discrepancy between desire & reality: Finally, the discrepancy between how we want to be perceived and how we believe we are actually perceived shapes our motivation. If there is a huge discrepancy—say there has been a public scandal—then an individual would invest a lot of time & energy to repair the tarnished image.
2. Impression Construction
Impression construction is the active process by which we try to shape how others see us.
It consists of five factors: the first two of these are related to an individual’s relationship with themselves, and the next three are about how the individual connects with others. They are:
- Self-concept: This is how an individual sees themselves, which is a major determinant of impression management, along with social context. The difficulty is that, while we want people to see us as we actually are, we need to consciously manage impressions to do so. In other words, our real identity needs to be performed. Usually, we try to present a public image that is consistent with who we actually are, otherwise, we risk facing social sanctions. The level of congruence between people’s self-concept and self-presentation also varies: highly self-conscious people have less congruence between the two.
- Desired identity: It comprises our desired and undesired selves: who we want to be and who we do not want to be. We try to manage impressions in such a way that our public image aligns with our desired self and stays away from our undesired self. This can happen when we openly claim values consistent with our desired self and reject those aligning with the undesired self. For example, a brand may publicly celebrate pride month to show its support for the LGBTQ+ community.
- Target value: This consists of the people we are targeting to influence and their values. We usually tailor our performance to the values of those we want to influence. This does not mean that we misrepresent who we are; instead, we selectively portray those aspects of ourselves that we feel coincide with the values of our target audience. So, in a job interview, we talk about our hobbies, even if we usually prefer relaxing in front of a TV during weekends.
- Role constraints: The social roles that we take and the social norms of a given context shape our performance. Usually, we try to make impressions that are consistent with both the role and norms. Some roles may also carry special requirements about what should or shouldn’t be conveyed. For example, it would be quite inappropriate for a doctor to smoke outside their own clinic; we expect them to have a healthy lifestyle.
- Social image: This includes our current/potential social image, that is, how we think we are perceived by others. If we feel that others see us in a negative way, we try to refute such impressions and present alternative (more positive) impressions of who we are.
Impression Management Examples
- At workplaces: Both organizations and individuals engage in impression management at the workplace. In the industry, an organization wants to be seen as a good place to work: organized, supportive, and financially stable (BetterUp). They also manage their communication with clients, investors, and the large public to maintain the right image. Individuals try to influence impressions even before they join, that is, in the interview itself. They showcase their skills & experience in the best way, and later as employees, they portray themselves as competent professionals.
- Social media activity: Impression management was first used to study face-to-face communication but is now also applied to computer-mediated interactions. On social media, we try to present a certain image of ourselves. If we do not like a picture in which we are tagged, we remove the tag or request the photo to be deleted. We selectively share things that align with our desired image: so we may publicly share an achievement but send a meme to a friend via personal message.
- For political candidates: Peter Hall introduced the concept of “Political impression management” to refer to the art of making a candidate look capable and electable (1972). This is especially crucial for presidential candidates, whose appearance, image, and narrative are all significant parts of their campaign. Today, candidates also use social media to promote their campaigns and present themselves in a likable way.
- Health communication: Impression management is also used by medical professionals to present themselves when interacting with patients. They do this in both front-stage (taking ward rounds) and back-stage (discussing management plans) settings.
- False or Dangerous Behavior: Sometimes, people may engage in false or dangerous behavior to influence impressions. For example, someone may try to appear ill/injured to get support or avoid responsibilities. They may also perform dangerous acts, such as fast driving, to create a certain image.
Impression management refers to all those things we do to influence how people see us.
We engage in impression management to create a certain image of ourselves, which is a means to achieve our goals. Goffman used the analogy of theatre to explain this theory, and it helps to see how as actors we use everything—from our appearance to the way we speak—in our performance.
Impression management consists of two key components: impression motivation and impression construction. The former includes the underlying factors determining how much we engage in impression management and the latter comprises factors affecting the process.
Browning, L. D., Saetre, A. S., Stephens, K., & Sornes, J. O. (2010). Information and communication technologies in action: Linking theories and narratives of practice. New York: Routledge.
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
Hall, P. M. (1972). A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics. Sociological Inquiry, 42(3‐4), 35-75. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-682X.1972.tb00229.x
Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). “Impression management: A literature review and two-component model”. Psychological bulletin, 107(1), 34.
Omarzu, J, and Harvey, J.H. (2012). “Interpersonal Perception and Communication” in (ed.) V.S. Ramachandran’s Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. Elsevier.