Self-enhancement is that form of self-presentation emphasizing the promotion of one’s positive qualities. The research in this area also assumes that this form of self-presentation holds up in private, anonymous conditions. In other words, it emphasizes self-deception rather than impression management.
Although the topic has been of central concern to psychologists for some time, the publication of Taylor and Brown (1988) raised its profile substantially. They claimed that self-enhancement is, not only common, but adaptive. For example, Brown (1986) showed that participants who rated themselves as above average on a variety of traits also reported high self-esteem. For the most part, they continue to maintain this position (Taylor et al., 2003).
A number of researchers have disputed these claims – especially the latter proposition. Colvin and Block (1994) questioned the evidential basis for their claims. John and Robins (1994) presented clear evidence that self-enhancers were actually narcissistic in character. Colvin, Block and Funder (1995) showed that self-enhancers were rated highly negatively by expert interviewers and peers. They also behaved aggressively under stress. Later Paulhus (1998) argued that self-enhancement can be a “mixed blessing”. In his longitudinal study, self-enhancers were rated positively after the initial meeting of five strangers but came to be rated negatively after 7 meetings. Robins and Beer (2001) also found mixed benefits of self-enhancement in academic performance.
One way of reconciling the two approaches to self-enhancement is to examine the way self-enhancement is operationalized. Much of the evidence supporting Taylor and Brown used the “above-average effect” to operationalize self-enhancement. In contrast, the evidence for the negative side of self-enhancement comes from researchers who operationalize self-enhancement as a positive discrepancy between self-report and objective measures of traits or qualities. For example, self-reports of personality can be compared to observer-ratings (Paulhus, 1998) or actual behavior (Gosling et al., 1998). Self-reports of intelligence can be compared to scores on cognitive ability tests (Paulhus & John, 1998). The most recent data confirm that a discrepancy operationalization yields maladaptive outcomes whereas an intrapsychic operationalization yields adaptive outcomes (Kurt & Paulhus, 2008).
Other work from our laboratory has addressed claims that self-esteem can be maladaptive. Our recent research has shown the importance of including both self-esteem and narcissism when examining outcome variables for either predictor (Nathanson, Kurt, & Paulhus, 2005; Paulhus, Robins, Treszniewski, & Tracy, 2004).
A third avenue of research concerns the dimensionality of self-enhancement. In how many ways do people promote themselves? One answer is that people use a wide variety abilities, traits, and behaviors on which they can self-promote. Our research has narrowed down the wide variety of possibilities into two: agentic and communal (Carey & Paulhus, 2011; Paulhus & John, 1998; Yik, Bond, & Paulhus, 1998).