Symbolic Self-Completion Theory Is Just A Fancy Way To Say Know-It-Alls Are Insecure

Brilliance | Dec. 13, 2017

We all know that guy: he won't stop talking about his wicked guitar chops, the last gig he played, and how much his music is influenced by Hendrix. Except you know for a fact that the gig he's been raving about happened over a year ago, and his playing sounds more like it was influenced by your three-year-old nephew. Why does he talk himself up so much? According to psychology, it's a form of symbolic self-completion. That is, when you feel that some part of your identity is lacking, you'll make up for it in symbolic ways.

What Bragging And Self-Deprecation Say About You

In the early 1980s, psychology researchers Robert A. Wicklund and Peter M. Gollwitzer at the University of Austin led a series of experiments about self-completion theory. In a 1981 paper, they sought to find out whether how secure someone felt in their identity affected how much they felt the need to influence others in that area. In one experiment, they asked subjects to name an activity or topic in which they had "special competence" (such as music, football, or an academic subject), write down how many years of training they had in it, and how recently they had performed it. Next, the subjects were asked to write an essay about the activity, which they were told would be shown to various groups of students. When asked how many students should read their essays, the subjects with the least experience wanted the most students to read their essay. The people with the least "complete" identities had the biggest desire to influence others.

Another experiment in the same study showed that those with more experience were also more willing to be self-deprecating—that is, they felt comfortable saying negative things about themselves as a musician or athlete. A paper the following year supported that: when people were interrupted while writing positive descriptions of their self-definitions (and therefore unable to let people know how awesome they were), then asked to write about mistakes they had made in their area of expertise, they listed fewer mistakes than those who hadn't been interrupted. That suggests that because they didn't feel "complete" in their identity, they weren't comfortable admitting anything negative about that identity.

What This Means

Nowadays, everyone's lives are out in public for us to see. Social media makes it easy to know that your high school rival got a fabulous new job, your brother-in-law is running a marathon, and your ex-girlfriend seems to be supremely happy in her new relationship. Symbolic self-completion theory says that sometimes, regular announcements about the awesome nature of an area of someone's life belies a deeper insecurity. So don't sweat it—but try to keep your own bragging in check, too. Psychologists can see right through it.

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