Self-veriﬁcation 3608888888888888888888: Illuminating the Light
and Dark Sides
REBECCA J. NORTH
WILLIAM B. SWANN, JR.
University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA
Self-veriﬁcation theory assumes that people actively work to preserve their self-
views, even if these self-views are negative. This article considers the beneﬁts and
drawbacks of receiving self-veriﬁcation. Direct beneﬁts of self-veriﬁcation include
psychological coherence, reduced anxiety, and improved health. Indirect beneﬁts
include greater intimacy and trust in relationships and more harmonious social
interactions. Drawbacks of self-veriﬁcation strivings are limited to people with
negative self-views, who may ﬁnd that self-verifying evaluations help perpetuate low
self-esteem and depression and stabilize unhealthy relationships. Elucidating the
processes underlying self-veriﬁcation may bring more light to its dark side;
speciﬁcally, i t may reveal insights about raising self-esteem and building happiness.
Keywords: Self-veriﬁcation; Self-views; Self-esteem; Self-acceptance; Happiness.
Self-veriﬁcation theory asserts that people are motivated to seek conﬁrmation of
their negative as well as positive self-views (Swann, 1983). The light side of self-
veriﬁcation is represented by various beneﬁts, including both direct (aﬀecting the
individual, him- or herself) and indirect beneﬁts (aﬀecting the individual by
inﬂuencing his or her relationships or environment). Self-veriﬁcation, however, also
has a dark side for people whose self-views are negative. In this article, we will
discuss the light and dark sides of self-veriﬁcation. Ultimately, we suggest that a
thorough understanding of the self-veriﬁcation process can provide a basis
for knowing how to ben eﬁt from its positive consequences and avert its negative
What is Self-veriﬁcation?
Self-veriﬁcation theory starts with the assumption that once formed, self-views give
people a powerful sense of coherence and a related ability to predict and control their
worlds (e.g., Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934). Because self-views serve these vitally
important functions, people become invested in maintaining them. They may,
for example, choose to interact with others who see them as they see themselves
Correspondence should be addressed to: William B. Swann, Jr., Department of Psychology,
University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
Self and Identity, 8: 131–146, 2009
ISSN: 1529-8868 print/1529-8876 online
Ó 2009 Psychology Press, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an Informa business
(Swann, 1983). People presumably enact such self-veriﬁcation strivings regardless of
how negative the self-views may be. Speciﬁcally, just as individuals with positive self-
views prefer to interact with people who see them positively, individuals with
negative self-views prefer to interact with people who appraise them negatively (e.g.,
Hixon & Swann, 1993; Robinson & Smith-Lovin, 1992; Swann, Hixon,
Stein-Seroussi, & Gilbert, 1990; Swann, Pelham, & Krull, 1989).
There is more to self-veriﬁcation strivings, however, than a tendency to choose
self-verifying interaction partners. In fact, past research suggests that people use a
host of strategies to verify their self-views (see Swann, 1990, for a review). Not only
do people gravitate toward interaction partners who are apt to conﬁrm their self-
views, they elicit self-conﬁrmatory feedback (e.g., Coyne, 1976; Coyne, Kahn, &
Gotlib, 1987; Curtis & Miller, 1986; Pelham, 1991; Swann et al., 1989; Swann &
Read, 1981a, 1981b); they pay more attention to self-conﬁrmatory feedback
(Swann & Read, 1981a), and they recall it better (e.g., Crary, 1966; Silverman,
1964; Suinn, Osborne, & Page, 1962; Swann & Read, 1981a).
Self-veriﬁcation theory’s prediction that people who have positive self-views
prefer to be around others who see them in a positive light is not surprising, as it
squares well with self-enhancement theory’s assumption that people want positive,
self-enhancing evaluations (Jones, 1973). The symm etric proposition—that people
with negative self-views prefer partners who view them negatively—clashes sharply
with most psychological theorizing (e.g., Jones, 1973). Neverthele ss, as we shall
show, the notion that people with negative self-views prefer and seek negative
evaluations is easier to understand when one recognizes how such individuals
perceive the evaluations that they receive. Speciﬁcally, whereas negative evaluations
seem highly reassuring and credible, positive evaluations can be profoundly
disquieting and can provoke anxiety. Receiving self-veriﬁcation thus provides
psychological coherence, a feeling that one’s self and the world are as expected.
In addition to psychological coherence, receiving conﬁrmation of one’s self-view,
is associated with a host of direct and ind irect beneﬁts. For people with negative self-
views, however, self-veriﬁcation also carries with it painful consequences, including
the perpetuation of low self-esteem and depression. We will ﬁrst discuss the beneﬁts,
or light side, of self-veriﬁcation and then turn to its negative consequences, or
The Light Side: Direct and Indirect Beneﬁts of Self-veriﬁcation
Self-veriﬁcation can beneﬁt people directly, by aﬀecting individuals themselves.
It can also beneﬁt people indirectly, by inﬂuencing people’s relationships. In
principle, all people should enjoy these beneﬁts, regardless of the positivity of their
Direct Beneﬁts of Self-veriﬁcation
Psychological coherence. Psychological coherence grows out of the perception
that things are as they are expected to be. Self-veriﬁcation strivings foster
psychological coherence because they facilitate the validation of self-views.
Comments of self-veriﬁers from a study by Swann, Stein-Seroussi, and Giesler
(1992a) provided evidence that psychological coherence is linked to the self-
veriﬁcation process and is desirable to people. When self-veriﬁers with negative self-
views were asked to discuss why they decided to inter act with a confederate who
132 R. J. North & W. B. Swann
evaluated them negatively, one participant said, ‘‘Yeah, I think that’s pretty close to
the way I am. [The negative evaluator] better reﬂects my own view of myself, from
experience.’’ The desire for psychological coherence is so strong that it can actually
trump people’s desire for positive appraisals from others. Witness one participant
with a negative self-view: ‘‘I like the [favorable] evaluation but I am not sure that it
is, ah, correct maybe. It sounds good, but [the negative evaluator] . . . seems to know
more about me. So, I’ll choose [the negative evaluator].’’ From this vantage point,
psychological coherence is appealing because it is an important source of emotional
comfort (Swann, Chang-Schneider, & Angulo, 2007a).
Reduced anxiety. Self-veriﬁcation not only provides feel ings of psychological
coherence, it also lowers anxiety. Support for this proposition comes from several
studies (see Swann et al., 2007a, for a review). Wood, Heimpel, Newby-Clark, and
Ross (2005) analyzed the reactions to success experiences of high vs. low self-esteem
participants. High self-esteem participants reacted favorably to success, but low self-
esteem participants became anxious, apparently because the feedback was not
consistent with their self-views (cf. Lundgren, & Schwab, 1977). Similarly, Ralph and
Mineka (1998) observed students’ reactions to receiving grades on a mid-term
examination. These investigators found that students with low self-esteem
experienced the greatest increa se in ove rall distress, including anxious and depressive
symptoms, after they received grades that were considered successful to them. At the
same time, low self-esteem participants displayed relatively little anxiety and
depression in response to grades that they considered failures.
The link between self-veriﬁcation and lower anxiety has also emerged when non-
conscious measures of anxiety have been used. Ayduk, Mendes, Akinola, and
Gyurak (2008) provided participants with self-verifying or non-verifying evaluations
and then observed their cardiovascular responses. When individuals with negative
self-views received positive feedback, they were physiologically ‘‘threatened’’
(avoidant and distressed). In contrast, when they received negative feedback, they
were physiologically ‘‘galvanized’’ or ‘‘challenged’’ (i.e., cardiovascularly aroused in
a manner associated with approach motivation). Individuals with positive self-views
displayed precisely the opposite pattern.
Related research suggests that self-verifying feedback will reduce anxiety only
when recipients have had an opportunity to think about it and compare it with
their self-views. Contrary to the ﬁndings reviewed above, Swann, Griﬃn,
Predmore, and Gaines (1987) found that when people with negative self-views
received negative feedback and then immediately completed a measure of anxiety,
they were more anxious than those who received positive feedback. Nevertheless,
the aﬀective beneﬁts of non-verifying (positive) feedback were signiﬁcantly weaker
if parti cipants were ﬁrst asked to indicate how accurate the feedback was.
Similarly, other research that has focused on choice of interaction partner has
shown that self-veriﬁcation strivings will manifest themselves only insofar as
recipients of evaluations have the time and mental resources to compare an
evaluation to a relevant self-view (e.g., Hixon & Swann, 1993; Swann et al., 1990).
Apparently, when people contemplate a negative evaluation, even people with
negative self-views display a ‘‘positive tropism’’ wherein they embrace and favor
positive evaluations over negative ones. Only after people with negative self-views
have had time to recognize the disjunction between positive evaluations and their
self-views do they eschew such evaluations (see Chang-Schneider & Swann, in
press, for a discussion).
Self-veriﬁcation 3608 133
Improved health. Insofar as positive but non-verifying events trigger anxiety and
stress for people with negative self-views, repeated exposure to such events should
eventually impair physical health. Initial support for this self-veriﬁcation hypothesis
came from a pair of prospective studies by Brown and McGill (1989). They assessed
the impact of positive life events on health outcomes for high and low self-esteem
people. For participants with high self-esteem, positive life events (e.g., getting very
good grades, improvement in living conditions) predicted increases in self-reported
health. For participants with low self-esteem, positive life events predicted decreases
Shimizu and Pelham (2004) replicated and extended these results by controlling
for the possibility that self-reported health might reﬂect negative aﬀectivity. They
found that positive life events predicted increased self-reported illness for low self-
esteem individuals even when controlling for negative aﬀectivity. This, together with
the fact that low-esteem participants only reported diminished health insofar as they
experienced positive life events, undermines the notion that negative aﬀect may have
inﬂuenced both self-reported self-esteem and reports of physical symptoms. Instead,
for individuals with negative self-views, the disjunction between their negative self-
views and positive life events appears to be so disquieting that it undercuts physical
health (cf. Iyer, Jetten, & Tsivrikos, 2008).
Harmony of social interactions. Through self-veriﬁcation, the behaviors of both
self-veriﬁers and their interaction partners become more predictable, thereby
allowing social interactions to ﬂow more smoothly. That is, self-veriﬁers act in
predictable, consistent ways to communicate a stable self-view to others, causing
their partners to consistently conﬁrm the self-views under question. The result is
mutual predictability which simpliﬁes and facilitates social relations.
The beneﬁts of mutual predictability can be understood from several perspectives.
From an evolutionary perspective, mutual predictability among small hunter-
gatherer groups would have facilitated a more eﬀective division of labor and
promoted survival (Goﬀman, 1959; Swann et al., 2007a). In close relationships, a
lack of predictability from a signiﬁcant other could have thwarted coordination of
meeting goals connected to survival and reproduction. For example, if a mate
ventured out to hunt for meat and decided instead to take a nap, disappointment,
disharmony or worse could result. If repeated, such unpredictable beh avior could
undermine sustenance and survival (Buss, 2003). Additionally, in hunt er-gatherer
societies, people presumably formed cooperative coalitions, which were alliances of
two or more individuals formed for the purpose of achieving a speciﬁc goal, such as
large game hunting, building shelters, and defending against attacks. One of the two
biggest threats to the success of these c oalitions was defection (the other was free
riding), an extreme example of unpredictability (Buss, 2004). In short, in our
evolutionary past, predictability was presumably at a premium and contributed
enormously to successful group dynamics, whereas unpredictability wreaked havoc
on group dynamics and inhibited progress toward meeting crucial goals.
Predictability in a person’s behavior continues to be a highly-valued characteristic
in relationship partners even today (Athay & Darley, 1981; Rempel, Holmes, &
Zanna, 1985). Indeed, in an international study of mate selection criteria, ‘‘emotional
stability’’ and ‘‘dependable character’’ were the second and third most valued
qualities (love was the ﬁrst; Buss, 2003).
134 R. J. North & W. B. Swann
Relationship quality. Perhaps due to its tendency to foster predictability, self-
veriﬁcation may improve the quality of people’s relationships. Swann and Pelham
(2002), for example, found that college students with negative self-views who had
roommates who appraised them positively made plans to ﬁnd a new roommate. In a
similar way, married people with negative self-views became less intimate with
partners who saw them in a more positive way than they saw themselves (e.g.,
Burke & Stets, 1999; De La Ronde & Swann, 1998; Murray, Holmes, & Griﬃn,
2000; Ritts & Stein, 1995; Schafer, Wickrama, & Keith, 1996; Swann, De La
Ronde, & Hixon, 1994). In fact, in one study people sought divorce or separation
when their spouse perceived them in an overly positive, non-verifying manner (e.g.,
Cast & Burke, 2002).
In a related argument, Cassidy (2001) posited that intimacy: ‘‘ ...is making one’s
innermost known, sharing one ’s core, one’s truth, one’s heart, with another ...’’
(p. 122); this is central to self-veriﬁcation—seeking out relationship partners who see
you as you believe you truly are. Cassidy explains further that the ability to
experience intimacy is related to secure attachment in childhood, and secure
attachment: ‘‘ ...is thought to be associated with validating the truth of the child’s
experiences’’ (p. 143). This connection between intimacy and the validation of inner
experience is representative of the link between intimacy and the self-veriﬁcation
process, as the validation of inner experience is an integral part of the self-
Feeling understood, a key part of intimacy (Cassidy, 2001; Reiss & Shaver, 1988)
may be responsible for the link between self -veriﬁcation and intimacy. Comments
from self-veriﬁers oﬀer evidence that feeling understood drives self-veriﬁcation.
In a study by Swann et al. (1992a), self-veriﬁers with negative self-views
explained why they chose to interact with a confederate who evaluated them
negatively. One participant stated, ‘‘Well, I mean, after examining all of this I think
[the negative evaluator] prett y much has me pegged.’’ Another participant said,
‘‘Since [the negative evaluator] seems to know my position and how I feel sometimes,
maybe I’ll be able to get along with him.’’ Swann et al. (1994) found that married
people were more intimate with spouses insofar as their spouses’ appraisals ‘‘made
them feel that they really knew themselves.’’ The satisfaction of feeling understood, a
vital aspect of intimacy, attracts people to relationship partners who conﬁrm their
Relationship partners who oﬀer self-veriﬁcation may also be valued because they
are perceived as honest and honesty in relationships fosters intimacy (Lerner, 1993).
Lerner argued that ‘‘closeness requires honesty’’ and that ‘‘truth-telling’’ is
‘‘the foundation of ...intimacy ...’’ (p. 15). Choosing to be around others who see
us as we feel we actually are can create deep intimacy and be rewarding and
validating at the deepest level.
Trust. The elevated level of predictability promoted by the self -veriﬁcation
process not only fosters harmonious social interactions and may en hance intimacy in
relationships but may also enhance trust. Rempel et al. (1985) included predictability
of a relationship partner’s behavior as one of the three components of their model of
trust, along with dependability and faith. Others have also noted that predictability
is a key component of trust (Tyler, 2001). The necessity of predictability in
establishing trust is especially apparent in the context of romantic relationships.
Imagine a husband who routinely asked his wife how her day was when she came
home from work. If on some days she responded by scolding him for being nosy and
Self-veriﬁcation 3608 135
on other days by heaping praise on him for being thoughtful, this unpredictability
would erode trust. The self-veriﬁcation process leads to greater predictability in
people’s behavior, decreasing the chances for this type of scenario, and, thereby ,
In sum, self-veriﬁcation is beneﬁcial to people in that it provides psychological
coherence, reduces anxiety, and is associated with better physical health. In addition,
it beneﬁts people’s relationships because it facilitates predictability and smooth
interactions, encourages individuals to prefer and seek relationship partners who
seem honest, and bolsters relationship quality. Nevertheless, although the self-
veriﬁcation process is adaptive for most people most of the time, like any process, it
may have a dark side.
The Dark Side: Direct and Indirect Drawbacks of Self-veriﬁcation
The tendency for self-veriﬁcation processes to stabilize self-views can be problematic
for people whose self-views are inappropriately negative. Such inappropriately
negative self-views are common among people who suﬀer from low self-esteem
(comprising approximately one third of the population; Diener & Diener, 1995) and
depression; for who ‘‘deserves’’ to believe that they are worthless? When people seek
veriﬁcation for such self-views, the negative consequences can be both direct and
Lower self-esteem. Through the self-veriﬁcation process, people with negative
self-views surround themselves with others who see them in a negative light; this
cycle perpetuates their negative self-views. Although some have challenged the
notion that higher self-es teem is better (Kernis, 2003) and asserted that higher self-
esteem is not always related to greater well-being (Ryan & Brown, 2003), there is
considerable evidence linking low self-esteem to depression (Murrell, Meeks, &
Walker, 1991; Orth, Robins, & Roberts, 2008; Reinherz, Giaconia, Pakiz, &
Silverman, 1993; Roberts, Gotlib, & Kassel, 1996; Robinson, Garber, & Hilsman,
1995; Swann, Wenzlaﬀ, Krull, & Pelham, 1992b; Trzesniewski et al., 2006) and high
self-esteem to happiness (Di ener & Diener, 1995; Furnham & Cheng, 2000;
Shackelford, 20 01). On the balance, it appears that there is good reason to see the
perpetuation of low self-esteem via self-veriﬁcation as potentially maladaptive (see
also Swann, Chang-Schneider, & McClarty, 2007b).
Depression. Just as the self-veriﬁcation process perpetuates low self-esteem, it
also perpetuates depression. One reason for this is that low self-esteem is a
common feature of depression, so the perpetuation of either low self-esteem or
depression may imply the perpetuation of the other. Past research shows that
depression and self-esteem are highly correlated, with the correlation between
measures of the two constructs sometimes approaching .80 in some samples
(Swann et al., 1992b). More broadly, depression can be maintained via the self-
veriﬁcation pr ocess because receiving unfavorable feedback makes people feel
badly. For example, Swann and his colleagues (Swann et al., 1987, 1992b) showed
that people with negative self-views who received unfavorable feedback reported
more negative aﬀect than those with negative self-views who received favorable
136 R. J. North & W. B. Swann
In addition to its tendency to stabilize low self-esteem, the self-veriﬁcation process
may also perpetuate depression in ways that are unrelated to self-esteem. Joiner
(1995) found that participants who were high in negative-feedback-seeking behavior
and had roommates who evaluated them negatively ex perienced signiﬁcant increases
in depressed symptoms over time; this relationship, however, was not accounted for
by the level of self-esteem of the participant. Interestingly, neither high negative
feedback seeking nor roommate rejection alone predicted increases in depressed
symptoms. Only in combination did these factors lead to future symptoms of
depression. In a similar way, Joiner and Metalsky (1995) found that greater negative-
feedback-seeking behavior was signiﬁcantly correlated (r ¼ .15) to depressed
symptoms (on the Beck Depression Inventory). Speciﬁcally, participants with
depressed symptoms reported greater negative-feedback-seeking behavior than non-
depressed participants. The unfavorable feedback that depressed people seek out
conﬁrms their negative self-views, thereby perpetuating current depressed symptoms.
Additionally, surrounding themselves with people who supply them with unfavor-
able feedback may ensu re that people’s negative self-views remain negative (e.g.,
Swann & Predmore, 1985).
If self-veriﬁcation strivings contribute to the maintenance of depression, a natural
question to ask is: why do depressed people seek out negative feedback and surround
themselves with people who see them in a negative light? One answer is that
depressed people are caught in a ‘‘cognitive-aﬀective crossﬁre’’ (Swann et al., 1987),
in which there exists a tension between what people want at a cognitive level (i.e.,
psychological coherence) versus an aﬀective level (i.e., the feelings of elation that
accompany positive feedback). For people with negative self-views, negative
feedback oﬀers feelings of psychological coherence, a feeling that things are the
way one thinks they are, even though it does not feel good in the short run. Swann
et al. (1987) found that when participants with negative self-views received negative
feedback from an evaluator, they viewed it as particular ly accurate and viewed the
evaluator as relatively competent, even though they felt badly immediately after
receiving it. Thus, negative feedback provided coherence and comfort on a cognitive
level, even though it caused pain on an aﬀective level. Ultimately, the desire for
psychological coherence is so powerful that it often trumps the desire for self-
enhancing feedback, such that people with negative self-views seek negative feedback
and surround themselves with people who view them negatively. As a result, their
depression endures. People with pos itive views are not caught in this crossﬁre.
Swann et al. (1987), for example, found that such individuals not only felt better
when they received positive feedback, but they also regarded positive feedback as
more accurate and rated the evaluator as more competent when he or she gave
We should emphasize here that in decrying the tendency for people with negative
self-views to seek veriﬁcation of their negative self-views, we are referring only to
inappropriately negative self-views. Clearly, all people possess ﬂaws and limitations
that are diﬃcult, if not impossible, to change. For example, some people are less
artistic, physically strong, or musical than others. Overly positive, inaccurate
assessments of their capacities would be a liability for such individuals, as they might
inhibit personal growth and ﬂourishing. Nevertheless, possessing shortcomings does
not justify the feelings of worthlessness that are the hallmark of low self-esteem and
depression. Furthermore, low self-esteem and depressed persons typically exaggerate
their negative qualities or the negative implication of those qualities. Coupled with
self-veriﬁcation striving s, such individuals may surround themselves with partners
Self-veriﬁcation 3608 137
who have similar, inappropriately negative assessments of them. In this way, people
with negative self-views may perpetuate their negative, false self-views of themselves
and this may, in turn, prevent them from realizing their true capabilities and
attaining happiness. Such activities go far beyond having a healthy understanding of
Self-veriﬁcation strivings not only have direct repercussions for individuals with
negative self-views, but they may also have indirect consequences. In particular, self-
veriﬁcation strivings may aﬀect people’s relationships and the environments they
choose for themselves.
Relationships. Self-veriﬁcation strivings may lead to painful relationships for
people with negative self-vi ews. That is, such individuals may choose to be around
others who see them in a negative light and seek out negative feedback, even though
receiving unfavorable feedback from others is painful (Swann et al., 1992b).
Speciﬁcally, Swann et al. (1992b) found that depressives were more inclined to show
a preference for friends and dating partners who reported negative appraisals of
them than their non-depressed counterparts. In additio n, depressed persons
preferentially solicited unfavorable feedback, even though receiving unfavorable
feedback made them unhappy immediately after receiving the feedback. In a similar
way, Swann et al. found that participants with symptoms of depression wanted a
good friend to see them less positively in a global way than did non-depressed
The more people seek negative feedback, the more likely they are to suﬀer
rejection in their relationships. In a study of undergraduate roommates, Swann et al.
(1992b) found that the more a participant sought unfavorable feedback during the
middle of the semester, the more likely his or her roommate was to desire to
terminate the relationship, r(21) ¼ .38, p ¼ .030, and to plan to get a new roommate,
r(21) ¼ .39, p ¼ .032. Furthermore, Joiner and Metalsky (1995) found that males high
in negative feedback seeking, reassurance seeking, and depression at one time point
were more likely to experience greater rejection (deﬁned by dislike and intent to
avoid) from roommates subsequently. Furthermore, as mentioned above, people
tend to withdraw from relationships in which the relationship partner fails to provide
self-veriﬁcation. For example, Swann and Pelham (2002) found that college students
with ﬁrmly held negative self-views who had roommates who appraised them
positively made plans to ﬁnd a new roommate. Therefore, self-veriﬁcation strivings
may not only lead people with negative self-views to provoke rejection, it may also
cause them to ﬂee from people who fail to reject them. As a result, people with
negative self-views may ﬁnd that their relationship partners frequent ly make them
feel badly or rejec t them outright.
These results are particularly signiﬁcant because they suggest self-veriﬁcation
strivings are expressed outside the conﬁnes of laboratory settings. That is, people
with negative self-views not only choose interaction partners who view them
negatively in a laboratory, but they also choose others who view them negatively as
the central ﬁgures in their lives—their dating partners, their good friends, and their
roommates. Corroborating this point, research has shown that self-veriﬁcation
strivings are even more pron ounced in relatively enduring relationships as compared
to ﬂeeting ones (Campbell, Lackenbauer, & Muise, 2006; Swann et al., 1994).
138 R. J. North & W. B. Swann
Work environment. The tendency for people with negative self-views to seek self-
veriﬁcation is not lim ited to personal relationships but extends even to their
relationships in the workplace. In a series of studies of the reactions of employ ees in
various working environments in the USA and elsewhere, Wiesenfeld, Swann,
Brockner, and Bartel (2007) discovered that self-esteem moderates pe ople’s reactions
to ‘‘procedural justice’’ (whether the organizations’ procedures for dealing with
employees are fair). For people with high self-esteem, being treated fairly by their
work organization increased commitment to the organization, but people with low
self-esteem failed to display this preference for fair treatment. Furthermore, in one
study Wiesenfeld et al. (2007) reported that low-esteem persons were particularly
oblivious to maltreatment when the work relationship was thought to be enduring as
compared to ﬂeeting. That is, people with low self-esteem felt more commitment to
organizations that treated them fairly when they had been at an organization for a
short time but displayed no such preference toward organizations they had been
associated with for a long while. This ﬁnding reinforces the notion that self-
veriﬁcation strivings are more salient in relatively enduring relationships. This
phenomenon could be pernicious in that it appears that people with low self-esteem
are most willing to tolerate unfair treatment when they are choosing situations that
matter the most—long-term work environments and people who are likely to be
central ﬁgures in their lives.
The relative insensitivity of people with low self-esteem to unfair treatment is
potentially deleterious because it suggests that such persons may be unaware of
injustice and remain in jobs in which they are being exploited. Indeed, in the ﬁnal
study in the Wiesenfeld et al. (2007) paper, students with low self-esteem indicated
that they felt most self-veriﬁed (i.e., known and understood) when their university
treated them unfair ly, and perceptions of self-veriﬁcation mediated the relationship
between self-esteem and commitment to the university.
From this vantage point, the self-veriﬁcation strivings of people with low self-
esteem may create an insidious cycle in which they remain in settings that may place
them at risk for psychological harm. This state of aﬀairs also creates a challenging
predicament for employers interested in trying to foster employee commitment to
their organization. That is, if treating employees with low self-esteem more fairly will
not enhance their commi tment (as it does for high self-esteem employees), employers
must identify another way of en hancing commitment. They may, for instance, verify
speciﬁc attributes that are independent of their global perceptions of self-worth.
It appears, then, that self-veriﬁcation can be maladaptive for people with negative
self-views because it facilitates the perpetuation of low self-esteem and depression,
and this may, in turn, contribute to emotionally painful relationships and work
environments. If so, it is important to develop ways of improving such negative self-
views. We address this and related issues in the next section.
Using Self-veriﬁcation to Illuminate the Dark Side
Because self-veriﬁcation processes tend to stabilize self-esteem, any eﬀort to raise
self-esteem must be informed by a thorough understanding of these processes. We
propose here that, paradoxically, providing people with self-veriﬁcat ion may actually
facilitate the process of raising self-esteem by reassuring the pe rson, thereby reducing
anxiety and emboldening the person to contemplate change. From this vantage
point, the process of self-veriﬁcation can be seen as a necessary (but not suﬃcient)
step for raising self-esteem. Furthermo re, because feelings of self-veriﬁcation are
Self-veriﬁcation 3608 139
associated with acceptance of oneself, self-veriﬁcation processes may also be essential
to happiness. We explore both of these possibilities in what follows.
Self-veriﬁcation and Raising Self-esteem
Attempting to raise others’ self-esteem by simply telling individuals with negative
self-views that they are wrong about themselves is unlikely to bear fruit. That is,
when people encounter challenges to their self-views, research on self-veriﬁcation
processes indicates that they actively resist such challenges both behaviorally (e.g.,
by attempting to correct the ‘‘mistake’’ or withdrawing from the relationship) and
cognitively (e.g., by ‘‘seeing’’ the feedback as more consistent with their self-views
than it actual ly is). Presumably, such resistance reﬂects the fact that people’s self-
views are a deeply-rooted source of psychological coherence. For this reason, people
need to feel veriﬁed be fore they are able to change. This validation of the person’s
self-view fosters coherence and a sense of feeling accepted and understood, thereby
providing fertile soil for change.
We are not the ﬁrst to suggest that feelings associated with self-veriﬁcation can
foster receptiveness to change. Deci and Ryan (1995), for example, have argued that
fostering self-esteem in another e ntails ‘‘ . . . valuing the other for who he or she is and
taking that other’s frame of reference ...it means beginning by accepting and
relating to the self of the other. It is precisely the acceptance of self—ﬁrst by others
and then by oneself—that supports the development and maintenance of true self-
esteem’’ (p. 46). This type of acceptance is similar to Carl Rogers’ (1961) notion of
‘‘unconditional positive regard,’’ the concept that therapists could facilitate growth
and successful change in clients by providing an atmosphere of unconditional
acceptance. Rogers elaborated on this concept in his book, On Becoming a Person;he
wrote: ‘‘So I ﬁnd that when I can accept another person, which means speciﬁcally
accepting the feeling and attitudes and beliefs that he has as a real and vital part of
him, then I am assisting him to become a person ...’’ (p. 21). He underscored the
importance of the somewhat counter-intuitive relationship between acceptance and
change when he wrote, ‘‘ . . . the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am,
then I change’’ (Rogers, 1961). Accepting what another person is actually feeling, as
opposed to what one thinks the individual should feel or could feel, is a necessary
ﬁrst step to change. This is even more important for family members, friends, and co-
workers closest to an individual with low self-esteem since past research has shown
that self-veriﬁcation strivings are particularly salient when a relationship is relatively
enduring (Campbell et al., 2006; Swann et al., 1994). Acceptance from such persons
will go further to pave the way to change, and non-verifying feedback from this
group will create larger obstacles on the road to change. The self-veriﬁcation process
constitutes a necessary ﬁrst step in the process of raising self-esteem by fostering
acceptance in one’s social support network, but it is not suﬃcient.
Positive feedback, challenging negative self-views, must follow veriﬁcation but
must be given in manageable doses. A study by Finn and Tonsager (1992)
demonstrated that integrating veriﬁcation and positivity does, in fact, raise self-
esteem. College students who received subjectively accurate feedback about a
problem-focused personality test in a supportive environment enjoyed higher self-
esteem, even though the accurate feedback was often negative. Finn and Tonsager
posited that the results were due to the combination of ‘‘creating a positive
emotional tone, while verbally oﬀering self-conﬁrmatory (and often negative)
feedback’’ (p. 285). In essence, they found that accepting another’s shortcomings and
140 R. J. North & W. B. Swann
encouraging them to do the same makes such individuals more open to positive
evaluations that will raise self-esteem.
In a similar way, combining self-acceptance with positive c hange is evident in
various types of therapies. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, clients are
taught not to try to control thoughts or feelings but rather to observe them non-
judgmentally and to accept them, while changing behaviors in pos itive ways to better
their lives (Hayes, 1994). In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, the dialectic between
acceptance and change is also central (Baer, 2003). Clients are taught to accept
themselves completely, while working to change their behaviors and environments to
improve their lives (Baer, 2003). In the area of couples therapy, Jacobson,
Christensen, Prince, Cordova, and Eldridge (2000) found that Integrative Behavioral
Couple Therapy (IBCT), which focuses on accepting challenging aspects of one’s
partner with some emphasis on change, showed better results for distressed couples
than Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy (TBCT), which focuses solely on
change. Speciﬁcally, both the husbands and wives participating in IBCT showed
greater increases in marital satisfaction than couples participating in TBCT, and in
IBCT, a larger percentage of couples either improved or recovered than in TBCT.
Jacobson et al. underscored the importance of this dialectic between acc eptance and
change in discussing their study: ‘‘Paradoxically, acceptance interventions are also
predicted to produce change in addition to acceptance, often more eﬃciently than
the direct change inducing strategies that constitute TBCT, because at times the
pressure to change may be the very factor that prevents it from occurring.’’ The
theme running throughout these therapies is that the provision of verifying
evaluations fosters self-acceptance, and self-acceptance lays the psychological
groundwork for receptiveness to positive change.
Self-veriﬁcation and Happiness?
Just as understanding the self-veriﬁcation process may oﬀer insight into how to raise
self-esteem, it may also provide hints about how to increase happiness, a correlate of
self-esteem. We contend that encouraging people to accept themselves, in eﬀect
oﬀering themselves self-veriﬁcation, is a key component of happiness.
Our argument is based on the assumption that accepting oneself, including
vulnerabilities, imperfections, and the full range of one’s emotions, is empowering
and is essential to happiness. This viewpoint diﬀers from most contemporary
conceptualizations of happiness, which deﬁne happiness as the frequency of positive
emotions and infrequency of negative emotions (see Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener,
2005, for a review). In contrast, we suggest that happiness is better described as a
compassionate embracing or acceptance of a fuller range of emotions, rather than
one’s overall amount of positive emotions or net value of positive minus negative
Our contention that a wider range of feelings and emotions should be included in
conceptualizations of happiness has been presaged by Matthieu Ricard (2003) in his
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. He writes that
although ‘‘ ...we so often confuse genuine happiness with merely seeking enjoyable
emotions,’’ happiness is about learning how to ‘‘ . . . reduce the gap between
appearances and reality’’ (pp. 26 and 23). That is to say, it is about acceptance. He
added: ‘‘There exists a way of being that underlies and suﬀuses all emotional states,
that embraces all joys and sorrows that come to us .... The Sanskrit word for this
state of being is sukha’’ (p. 25). Here again, he underscores the signiﬁcance of
Self-veriﬁcation 3608 141
acceptance, speciﬁcally accepting all emotions—in essence, accepting ourselves. He
elaborates on this concept of sukha when he writes: ‘‘Sukha is the state of lasting
well-being that manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and
aﬄictive emotions. It is also the wisdom that allows us to see the world as it is,
without veils or distortions. It is, ﬁnally, the joy of moving toward inner freedom and
the loving-kindness that radiates toward others’’ (p. 25). Again, Ricard echoes the
notion that happiness is associated with the warm welcoming of ‘‘the world as it is,’’
rather than ‘‘merely seeking enjoyable emotions’’ or attempting to re-frame all
emotions as positive.
No less important than self-acceptance is acceptance by others. For example,
research on the eﬀects of social support in the face of traumatic events has shown that
signiﬁcant others often respond to a loved one who is a victim of trauma by forcing
cheerfulness and displaying an optimistic facade (Wortman & Dunkel-Schetter, 1979,
1987). Forced cheerfulness actually minimizes the victim’s situation, which may make
the victim feel abandoned or rejected (Dakof & Taylor, 1990). Similarly, Dakof and
Taylor (1990) found that mini mization of trauma by social support providers (i.e.,
family, physicians, and nurses) was one of the most frequent complaints of cancer
victims. Furthermore, Ingram, Betz, Mindes, Schmitt, and Smith (2001) found that
forcing optimism or downplaying the individual’s concerns (e.g., saying the victim
‘‘should look on the bright side’’), is such a prevalent and unsupportive response that
it was one of the four main factors upon which these authors loaded all negative,
unsupportive responses to diﬃcult life events. This type of response was not only
characterized by victims as being unsupportive, it was also related to depressive
symptoms and predicted incremental variance in depression, overall psychological
distress, and physical symptoms of depression.
Ironically, the implicit belief that happiness can be achieved by shoehorning all
experiences into positive ones may lead to behaviors that have precisely the opposite
of the eﬀect intended. To the contrary, when a person does not feel that their
negative feelings are validated or accepted by others in the social support network,
their physical and mental health suﬀers. In short, acceptance at both an intrapsychic
and interpersonal level is integral to enduring happiness, but it is often overlooked in
both the deﬁnition and measurement of happiness. Our theoretical perspective
suggests that a more expansive deﬁnition of happiness, as well as appropriate
measures, is needed to achieve a richer understanding of the nature and origins of
Self-veriﬁcation theory assumes that people work to preserve their ne gative as well as
positive self-views by seeking conﬁrmation for these self-views. This process has a
light side in that it is a fundamentally adaptive process. Some direct positive
consequences of self-veriﬁcation are feelings of psychological coherence, reduced
anxiety, and improved physical health. Some indirect positive consequences grow
out of the impact of these processes on people’s relationships, including the role self-
veriﬁcation plays in detecting relationship partners perceived to be honest, fostering
intimacy and trust in relationships, and ensuring predictability in one’s behavior,
which enables harmonious social interactions and further promotes trust.
Although fundamentally adaptive, self-veriﬁcation strivings also have a dark
side. Some direct negative consequences are a tendency to perpetuate inaccurate
self-views, low self-esteem, and depression. Indirectly, self-veriﬁcation processes can
142 R. J. North & W. B. Swann
degrade the quality of people’s relationships and environments. These consequences
are signiﬁcant and can cause tremendous anguish in people’s lives. Nevertheless, in
such instances, it is the overly negative self-view, rather than the process of self-
veriﬁcation, that is the root of the problem.
Understanding the critical importance of self-veriﬁcation processes oﬀers insight
into how to bring more light to the dark side of self-veriﬁcation. Speciﬁcally, it
teaches us about how to raise self-esteem. We suggest that to help raise the self-
esteem of another individual with a negative self-view, one should ﬁrst convey
acceptance of what the other individual is actually feeling and only then provide
positive feedback that challenges the negative self-views. This ordered combination
of acceptance plus positivity will theoretically foster positive self-views. Once such
positive self-views are established, the process of self-veriﬁcation can resume anew,
but this time it will be in the service of promoting personal and social realities that
are both truthful and relatively adaptive. As a result, people will think about
themselves in a new, more meaningful, more complete, and more sustaining way.
Not only does understanding self-veriﬁcation oﬀer insight into how to minimiz e
negative phenomena, such as the perpetuation of low self-esteem, but it also provides
guidance about enhancing positive phenomena, such as building happiness. Self-
veriﬁcation highlights the importance of acceptance, both intrapsychic and
interpersonal, to happiness. It calls us to acknowledge and to incorporate in a
personal way the powerful, life-giving force of acceptance.
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