Impression management

In this series of posts, I will discuss social psychological concepts that operate in everyday life, as well as within the context of my work as a litigation/trial consultant. Some of the concepts I will cover have become well known among laypersons, that is, people who do not have an advanced degree in psychology, while others are known primarily among my colleagues. The first topic I will review is impression management. Impression management was defined in the early 1970s to explain the ways in which most people are motivated to appear consistent, reliable, and trustworthy to others. People are socialized, early in their development, to appear consistent. We are rewarded for being consistent and there are negative environmental and social consequences for appearing inconsistent. As a result of most people’s desire to receive positive reinforcement, all the while avoiding negative reinforcement and punishment, we learn to manage the impressions we give to others so that we appear as consistent as possible. It is important to note that most people do not have an internal motivation to be consistent; rather, they manage others’ perceptions of them with outward appearances of consistency. As a result of most people’s tendency to manage others’ impressions of them, they often change their attitudes in ways consistent with the attitudes other people believe they hold. Whether or not attitudes have actually changed, on a permanent basis, is the subject of considerable scholarly debate. If one believes people are motivated to reduce tension that results from cognitive dissonance, then changing one’s attitudes in the direction of the impression others have of us would be a necessary aspect of impression management. If, on the other hand, merely endorsing an attitude that is a socially desirable manifestation of the impression one is trying to manage, then it follows that attitude change would exist only temporarily. Applied to the study of group dynamics, particularly, jury decision making, I have observed, countless times, that most of the mock jurors and other research participants who make decisions on the important cases with which they are tasked do so in consistent ways that do not vary from the initial attitudes they have expressed about key concepts that are part of the case. For example, if a mock juror expresses the belief that “there are too many frivolous lawsuits,” he/she typically will endorse this belief as it applies to the case under consideration. For this type of juror, managing the impression that “there are too many frivolous lawsuits” becomes an integral part of the deliberations process and is evidenced by remarks such as, “I think the plaintiff should be glad she wasn’t hurt worse” and usually results in an unwillingness to award substantial damages. Impression management is an important part of who we are as people; most of us manage others’ impressions without giving any consideration to the role this plays in our lives as social beings.

This series of posts capture many of the scientific concepts at play in persuasion and human decision making. As our world largely revolves around civil litigation, issues like impression management are factors in all of our work with the fact finders – juries, mediators, arbitrators, or judges as well as with the persuaders – the lawyers who are our clients. It is interesting to see (mock) jurors cling to positions they have put themselves into with their comments and positions only to have to “cave” when other mock jurors point out the flaws in their reasoning. It is clearly painful for them to have to back pedal and change their positions – which Melissa would say is due to their discomfort for their inconsistentcy. The reality for our clients is that when preparing a case, and especially during the one time they can converse with potential trial jurors, that is, during the jury selection process, part of what the lawyer must evaluate is the degree to which a potential juror appears sincere or perhaps seems to be attempting to present a image of himself/herself that requires the person to take certain positions from which retreat will be difficult. Further, the attorney must judge, almost intuitively, how far to “back someone into a corner,” there by creating a more difficult scenario should the facts play out differently. And, of course, whether the attorney is on “team Plaintiff or team Defendant” may make a difference in how far to go as he or she tries to utilize a challenge for cause. An awareness of the science and theory of impression management should also better prepare the attorney to know how to ask questions leading on the path to the challenge for cause by building the case that this person is “locked” into the pre-existing position. Of course, impression management is also at play on the part of the attorneys in that, to appear honest and sincere, their actions and words need to be consistent in every way. A “war story” that Melissa has told involves a Miami “city slicker” plaintiff’s trial lawyer with his slick suit, expensive briefcase, entourage (and undoubtably nice car) attempting to be what he was not, a country boy, by wearing what were obviously new, not scuffed, cowboy boots to a trial in rural Florida (in an area where real cowboys abound). He failed to realize that the impression he created was inconsistent (might have been the cufflinks), but it was obvious to others, including the venire members. So, impression management is multidimensional and as the first in this series, serves as a good example of what an educated trial consultant brings to the trial team. Some of these concepts may seem obvious with the popularization of psychology, but even when I read them in a psych text, or Melissa’s description above, I’m reminded that the pop psychology merely scratches the surface of the social science behind these concepts.

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