Self and Self-Perception Processes


(a) Accuracy and Bias in Self Perception


The third aspect of my research program involves self-perception. I have conceptualized self-perception as a special case of social perception where both the perceiver and the target of perception are the same person. In an earlier series of papers (John & Robins, 1993, 1994; Robins & John, 1997a, 1997b; Gosling et al., 1998, reprinted in 2001), I have provided evidence that social perception processes operate differently when the target of perception is not another person but the self. One core issue is whether self-perception is inherently biased and, if so, does this bias promote adjustment? This question has led to a protracted debate between those who believe that psychologically healthy individuals perceive themselves accurately (a position my research findings support) and those who believe that it is more adaptive to have overly positive, self-enhancing illusions (such as Shelly Taylor at UCLA).


Gosling, S. D., John, O. P., Craik, K. H., & Robins, R. W. (1998).  Do people know how they behave?  Self-reported act frequencies compared with on-line codings by observers.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1337-1349. Reprinted in Funder, D. C., & Ozer, D. J. (Eds.). (2001). Pieces of the personality puzzle: Readings in theory and research (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

John, O. P., & Robins, R. W. (1993).  Determinants of interjudge agreement: The Big Five, observability, evaluativeness, and the unique perspective of the self.  Journal of Personality, 61, 521-551.

John, O. P., & Robins, R. W. (1994).  Accuracy and bias in self-perception: Individual differences in self-enhancement and the role of narcissism.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 206-219.

John, O. P., & Robins, R. W. (1994).  Trait and types, dynamics and development: No doors should be closed in the study of personality.  Psychological Inquiry, 5, 137-142.

Robins, R. W., & John, O. P. (1996).  Toward a broader agenda for research on self and other perception.  Psychological Inquiry, 7, 279-287.

Robins, R. W., & John, O. P. (1997).  Self-perception, visual perspective, and narcissism: Is seeing believing?  Psychological Science, 8, 37-42.

Robins, R. W., & John, O. P. (1997).  The quest for self-insight: Theory and research on the accuracy of self-perception.  In H. Hogan, J. Johnson, and S. Briggs (Eds.), Handbook of personality psychology (pp. 649-679).  New York: Academic Press.



(b) Types of Self-Enhancement


I have followed up this work in several new directions. Whereas self-enhancement bias has previously been conceptualized as a single unitary phenomenon, one potential resolution to the continuing debate is that there are multiple ways in which individuals can self enhance. In a recent review of the literature on personality traits and defense mechanisms (Paulhus & John, 1998), we found evidence for individual differences in two distinct self-enhancing tendencies—the "egoistic bias" and "moralistic bias." The two biases are self-deceptive in nature and can be traced to two fundamental values, agency and communion, that impel two corresponding motives. The two sequences of values, motives, and biases form two personality constellations, Alpha and Gamma. The Alpha constellation is an egoistic bias—a self-deceptive tendency to exaggerate one's social and intellectual status. This tendency leads to unrealistically positive self-perceptions on such traits as dominance, fearlessness, emotional stability, intellect, and creativity. Self-perceptions of high Alpha scorers have a narcissistic, "superhero" quality; this is the type of bias my students and I have studied in our previous research and found to be maladjusted, particularly in terms of social and relational adjustment. Associated with the other constellation, Gamma, is a moralistic bias—a self-deceptive tendency to deny socially deviant impulses and to claim sanctimonious "saint-like" attributes. This tendency is played out in overly positive self-perceptions on such traits as agreeableness, dutifulness, and restraint. The Alpha-Gamma conception provides an integrative framework for a number of central issues in personality psychology.


Paulhus, D. L., & John, O. P. (1998). Egoistic and moralistic biases in self-perception: The interplay of self-deceptive styles with basic traits and motives. Journal of Personality, 66, 1025-1060.


(c) Re-conceptualizing Self-Enhancement


In my most recent work with Virginia Kwan, I have been developing a componential approach for defining and mathematically formalizing the key theoretical terms and components of self-perception. In our 2004 Psychological Review article, we reviewed the existing literature and the seemingly inconsistent findings about self-enhancement: some studies seem to show that individuals who self-enhance are psychology healthy whereas other studies seem to show that self-enhancement is psychologically unhealthy. We noted that self-enhancement bias has been studied from 2 distinct perspectives that trace back conceptually to Festinger's social comparison theory (self-enhancers perceive themselves more positively than they perceive others) and Allport's self-insight theory (self-enhancers perceive themselves more positively than they are perceived by others). We showed that these 2 perspectives are theoretically and empirically distinct and suggest that it is the failure to recognize their differences that has led to the ongoing debate about self-enhancement bias. In fact, we found that Taylor's "I am better than the average person" approach is based on Festinger's social comparison perspective; indeed, most studies adopting a social-comparison design find psychologically healthy correlates of self-enhancement. In contrast, studies adopting designs based on Allport self-insight perspective do not find psychologically healthy correlates.


In our own theoretical formulation, we developed a new interpersonal approach to self-enhancement—self-perception is a special case of social perception where perceiver and the target of perception are the same, and therefore self-perception cannot be analyzed separately from a broader account of social perception. Our approach decomposes self-perception into 3 components: perceiver effect, target effect, and unique self-perception. Our theoretical derivations and an initial study show that the resulting measure of self-enhancement is less confounded by unwanted components of interpersonal perception than the previous measures based on the social comparison and self-insight measures. Our findings further illustrate the distinct implications of all 3 self-perception components (e.g., a high target effect, such as performing well in a social group, is associated with positive psychological outcomes, such as self-esteem), and our conceptualization and proposed integrative paradigm should help organize future research on self-enhancement biases and their adaptive or maladaptive consequences.


Kwan, V. S., John, O. P., Kenny, D. A., Bond, M. H., & Robins, R. W. (2004). Reconceptualizing individual differences in self-enhancement bias: An interpersonal approach.  Psychological Review, 111, 94-110.

Kwan, V. S. Y., John, O. P., Robins, R. W. & Kuang, L. (2008). Conceptualizing and Assessing Self-Enhancement Bias: A Componential Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 1062-1077.