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definition - Impression management

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Impression management


In sociology and social psychology, impression management is a goal-directed conscious or unconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object or event; they do so by regulating and controlling information in social interaction (Piwinger & Ebert 2001, pp. 1–2). It is usually used synonymously with self-presentation, in which a person tries to influence the perception of their image. The notion of impression management also refers to practices in professional communication and public relations, where the term is used to describe the process of formation of a company's or organization's public image.



While impression management and self-presentation are often used interchangeably, some authors have argued that they are not the same. In particular, Schlenker (1980) believed that self-presentation should be used to describe attempts to control ‘self-relevant’ (pp.6) images projected in “real or imagined social interactions’. This is because people may manage impressions of entities other than themselves such as businesses, cities and other individuals (Leary & Kowalski 1990).

  Motives and strategies

There are several motives that govern impression management. One is instrumental: we want to influence others and gain rewards (Schlenker 1980, pp. 92). Conveying the right impression aids the acquisition of desired social and material outcomes. Social outcomes can include approval, friendship, assistance or power while conveying an impression of competency in the workforce can bring about positive material rewards such as higher salaries or better working conditions.[1]

The second motive of self-presentation is expressive. We construct an image of ourselves to claim personal identity, and present ourselves in a manner that is consistent with that image.[2] If we feel like this is restricted, we exhibit reactance/be defiant. We try to assert our freedom against those who would seek to curtail our self-presentation expressiveness. A classic example is the idea of the "preacher’s daughter", whose suppressed personal identity and emotions cause an eventual backlash at her family and community.

People adopt many different impression management strategies. One of them is ingratiation, where we use flattery or praise to increase our social attractiveness by highlighting our better characteristics so that others will like us (Schlenker 1980, pp. 169).

Another strategy is intimidation, which is aggressively showing anger to get others to hear and obey us.[3]

A strategy that has garnered a great amount of research attention is self-handicapping.[4] In this case people create 'obstacles' and 'excuses’ (Aronson et al. 2009, pp.174) for themselves so that they can avoid self-blame when they do poorly. People who self-handicap choose to blame their failures on obstacles such as drugs and alcohol rather than their own lack of ability. Other individuals devise excuses such as shyness, anxiety, negative mood or physical symptoms as reasons for their failure. [5]

Concerning the strategies followed to establish a certain impression, the main distinction is between defensive and assertive strategies. Whereas defensive strategies include behaviours like avoidance of threatening situations or means of self-handicapping, assertive strategies refer to more active behaviour like the verbal idealisation of the self, the use of status symbols or similar practices.[6]

These strategies play important roles in one's maintenance of self-esteem. [7] One's self-esteem is affected by his evaluation of his own performance and his perception of how others react to his performance. As a result, people actively portray impressions that will elicit self-esteem enhancing reactions from others.[8]


Impression management (IM) theory states that any individual or organization must establish and maintain impressions that are congruent with the perceptions they want to convey to their publics.[9] From both a communications and public relations viewpoint, the theory of impression management encompasses the vital ways in which one establishes and communicates this congruence between personal or organizational goals and their intended actions which create public perception.

The idea that perception is reality is the basis for this sociological and social psychology theory,[citation needed] which is framed around the presumption that the other’s perceptions of you or your organization become the reality from which they form ideas and the basis for intended behaviors.

  Basic factors

A range of factors that govern impression management can be identified. It can be stated that impression management becomes necessary whenever there exists a kind of social situation, whether real or imaginary. Logically, the awareness of being a potential subject of monitoring is also crucial. Furthermore, the characteristics of a given social situation are important. Specifically, the surrounding cultural norms determine the appropriateness of particular nonverbal behaviours.[10] The actions have to be appropriate to the targets, and within that culture, so that the kind of audience as well as the relation to the audience influences the way impression management is realized. A person's goals are another factor governing the ways and strategies of impression management. This refers to the content of an assertion, which also leads to distinct ways of presentation of aspects of the self. The degree of self-efficacy describes whether a person is convinced that it is possible to convey the intended impression.[11]

A new study finds that, all other things being equal, people are more likely to pay attention to faces that have been associated with negative gossip than those with neutral or positive associations. The study contributes to a body of work showing that far from being objective, our perceptions are shaped by unconscious brain processes that determine what we "choose" to see or ignore — even before we become aware of it. The findings also add to the idea that the brain evolved to be particularly sensitive to "bad guys" or cheaters — fellow humans who undermine social life by deception, theft or other non-cooperative behavior. [12]

  Erving Goffman

Strategic interpersonal behavior to shape or influence impressions formed by an audience is not a new field. Plato spoke of the "stage of human life"[13] and Shakespeare crafted the famous sentence "All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players".[14] In the 20th century, Erving Goffman also followed a dramaturgical analogy in his seminal book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he said, "All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn't are not easy to specify."[9]

Goffman presented impression management dramaturgically, explaining the motivations behind complex human performances within a social setting based on a play metaphor.[15] Goffman's work incorporates aspects of a symbolic interactionist perspective,[16] emphasizing a qualitative analysis of the interactive nature of the communication process.

The actor, shaped by the environment and target audience, sees interaction as a performance. The objective of the performance is to provide the audience with an impression consistent with the desired goals of the actor.[17] Thus, impression management is also highly dependent on the situation.[18] In addition to these goals, individuals differ in responses from the interactional environment, some may be irresponsive to audience's reactions while others actively respond to audience reactions in order to elicit positive results. These differences in response towards the environment and target audience are called self-monitoring.[19] Another factor in impression management is self-verification, the act of conforming the audience to the person's self-concept.

The audience can be real or imaginary. IM style norms, part of the mental programming received through socialization, are so fundamental that we usually do not notice our expectations of them. While an actor (speaker) tries to project a desired image, an audience (listener) might attribute a resonant or discordant image. An example is provided by situations in which embarrassment occurs and threatens the image of a participant.[20]

  Impression management and social psychology

The social psychologist, Edward E. Jones, brought the study of impression management to the field of psychology during the 1960s and extended it to include people’s attempts to control others' impression of their personal characteristics.[21] His work sparked an increased attention towards impression management as a fundamental interpersonal process.

  Self, social identity and social interaction

The concept of self is important to the theory of impression management as the images people have of themselves shape and are shaped by social interactions (Schlenker 1980, pp. 47). Our self-concept develops from social experience early in life [22]. Schlenker (1980) further suggests that children anticipate the effect of their behaviours will have on others and how others will evaluate them, they control the impressions they might form on others and in doing so they control the outcomes they obtain from social interactions.

Social identity refers to how people are defined and regarded in social interactions (Schlenker 1980, pp. 69). Individuals use impression management strategies to influence the social identity they project to others.[23] The identity that people establish influences their behaviour in front of others, others treatment of them and the outcomes they receive. Therefore, in their attempts to influence the impressions others form of themselves, a person plays an important role in affecting his social outcomes. [24]

  The media

The medium of communication influences the actions taken in impression management. Self-efficacy can differ according to the fact whether the trial to convince somebody is made through face-to-face-interaction or by means of an e-mail.[19] Communication via devices like telephone, e-mail or chat is governed by technical restrictions, so that the way people express personal features etc. can be changed. This often shows how far people will go.

  Significance in empirical research and economy

Impression management can distort the results of empirical research that relies on interviews and surveys, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "social desirability bias". Impression management Theory nevertheless constitutes a field of research on its own.[25] When it comes to practical questions concerning public relations and the way organizations should handle their public image, the assumptions provided by impression management theory can also provide a framework.[26]

An examination of different impression management strategies acted out by individuals who were facing criminal trials where the trial outcomes could range from a death sentence, life in prison or acquittal has been reported in the forensic literature.[27] The Perri and Lichtenwald article examined female psychopathic killers, whom as a group were highly motivated to manage the impression that attorneys, judges, mental health professions and ultimately, a jury had of the murderers and the murder they committed. It provides legal case illustrations of the murderers combining and/or switching from one impression management strategy such as ingratiation or supplication to another as they worked towards their goal of diminishing or eliminating any accountability for the murders they committed.

Since the 1990s, researchers in the area of sport and exercise psychology have studied self-presentation. Concern about how one is perceived has been found to be relevant to the study of athletic performance. For example, anxiety may be produced when an athlete is in the presence of spectators. Self-presentational concerns have also been found to be relevant to exercise. For example, the concerns may elicit motivation to exercise. [28]

More recent research investigating the effects of impression management on social behaviour showed that social behaviours (e.g. eating) can serve to convey a desired impression to others and enhance one’s self image. Research on eating has shown that people tend to eat less when they believe that they are being observed by others [29]

  See also


  1. ^ Leary;Kowalski 1990.
  2. ^ Schlenker 1980, p. 37.
  3. ^ Felson 1984, p. 187.
  4. ^ Aronson et al., 2009.
  5. ^ Aronson et al., 2009.
  6. ^ Piwinger; Ebert 2001, p. 26.
  7. ^ Leary; Kowalski 1990.
  8. ^ Hass 1981
  9. ^ a b Goffman 1959
  10. ^ Kamau, C. (2009) Strategising impression management in corporations: cultural knowledge as capital. In D. Harorimana (Ed) Cultural implications of knowledge sharing, management and transfer: identifying competitive advantage. Chapter 4. Information Science Reference. ISBN 978-1-60566-790-4
  11. ^ Doering 1999, p. 261-2.
  12. ^ http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21596956 The Visual Impact of Gossip Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA
  13. ^ http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/philebus.1b.txt
  14. ^ Shakespeare, William. "Wikisource link to Act II". As You Like It. Wikisource. 
  15. ^ Dillard et al., 2000
  16. ^ Schlenker; Barry 1980, p. 34.
  17. ^ Barnhart, 1994
  18. ^ Goffman 2006, p. 40.
  19. ^ a b Döring 1999, p. 262.
  20. ^ Goffman 1956
  21. ^ Leary; Kowalski 1990
  22. ^ Schlenker 1980, p. 85.
  23. ^ Schlenker 1980, p. 85.
  24. ^ Schlenker 1980, p. 90.
  25. ^ Tedeschi 1984
  26. ^ Piwinger; Ebert 2001, p. 3.
  27. ^ Perri, Frank S. and Lichtenwald, Terrance G. (2010). "The Last Frontier: Myths & The Female Psychopathic Killer," Forensic Examiner, Summer 2010, 50-67.
  28. ^ Martin Ginis, K.A., Lindwall, M., & Prapavessis, H. (2007). Who cares what other people think? Self-presentation in exercise and sport. In R. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 136–153). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiles & Sons.
  29. ^ Herman; Roth; Polivy 2003


  • Aronson, Elliot; Wilson, Timothy D; Akert, Robin M (2009). Social Psychology (Seventh Edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 
  • Barnhart, Adam (1994), Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
  • Goffman, Erving (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday. 
  • Goffman, Erving (1956). "Embarrassment and Social Interaction". The American Journal of Sociology 62 (3): 264–71. 
  • Goffman, Erving (2006), Wir alle spielen Theater: Die Selbstdarstellung im Alltag, Piper, Munich.
  • Dillard, Courtney et al. (2000), Impression Management and the use of procedures at the Ritz-Carlton: Moral standards and dramaturgical discipline, Communication Studies, 51.
  • Döring, Nicola (1999), Sozialpsychologie des Internet: Die Bedeutung des Internet für Kommunikationsprozesse, Identitäten, soziale Beziehungen und Gruppen Hogrefe, Goettingen.
  • Felson, Richard B (1984): An Interactionist Approach to Aggression, in: Tedeschi, James T. (Ed.), Impression Management Theory and Social Psychological Research Academic Press, New York.
  • Hass, Glen R. (1981),Presentational Strategies, and the Social Expression of Attitudes: Impression management within Limits, in: Tedeschi, James T. (Ed.): Impression Management Theory and Social Psychological Research, Academic Press, New York.
  • Herman, Peter C; Roth, Deborah A; Polivy, Janet (2003). "Effects of the Presence of Others on Food Intake: A Normative Interpretation". Psychological bulletin 129 (6): 873-86. 
  • Leary, Mark R; Kowalski, Robin M (1990). "Impression Management: A Literature Review and Two-Component Model". Psychological bulletin 107 (1): 34-47. 
  • Piwinger, Manfred; Ebert, Helmut (2001). "Impression Management: Wie aus Niemand Jemand wird". in: Bentele, Guenther et al. (Ed.), Kommunikationsmanagement: Strategien, Wissen, Lösungen. Luchterhand, Neuwied. 
  • Schlenker, Barry R. (1980). Impression Management: The Self-Concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations. Monterey/California: Brooks/Cole. 
  • Tedeschi, James T.; Riess, Marc (1984), Identities, the Phenomenal Self, and Laboratory Research, in: Tedeschi, James T. (Ed.): Impression Management Theory and Social Psychological Research, Academic Press, New York.
  • Smith, Greg (2006), Erving Goffman, Routledge, New York.

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