30 Rock & Psychology

By Ted Cascio


The following dialogue takes place right after Liz barges in on a visibly disconcerted Jenna dramatically singing the chorus to Alphaville’s late-eighty’s hit “Forever Young” while applying tape to the sagging and wrinkled regions of her aged face:

Jenna: (singing) Forever young, I wanna be forever young.

Liz: Jenna, stop it. Look it, you claim that you want to be happy, but that’s never going to happen until you are honest about who you are.

Jenna: That’s easy for you to say. I’ve built my career on a certain image, and you have no idea what I go through to maintain it. The work-outs, the lotions, pretending I wasn’t fourth runner-up at the Miss Teen Bicentennial Pageant. And you don’t understand the fear I live with…the fear of people ever seeing the real me.

(Black Light Attack Season 4, Episode 10)

At first, this sounds like sound advice from Liz, and Jenna sounds like her usual absurd self. A typical case of the histrionic, delusional celebrity gone berserk. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and argue that Jenna’s problem is actually pretty common, even if we can’t understand her bizarre and peurile coping strategy. In Jenna’s defense, who would seriously claim that manipulating external perceptions is not a job requirement for celebrities, and indeed people from all walks of life? For many (maybe most) people the positivity of their public persona matters much more than its accuracy.

Moreover, on close inspection, the specific meaning of Liz’s advice appears vague. In particular, Liz fails to identify who the target of this honesty should be. Honest about who you are to whom? Others? Or yourself?

In recognition of the difficulties inherent in providing insight that is both entirely lucid and extemporaneous, we’ll give Liz (if not the show’s writers) a break here. Regardless of that, research indicates that this distinction she seems to ignore really matters, so we’ll go ahead and try correcting the situation if indeed it needs correcting. We can, with the aid of hindsight, improve on her ill-defined guidance and in the process test whether Jenna’s strategy has something to recommend it after all.

When it comes to “being honest about who you are” (or not) social scientists typically distinguish between self-deception and impression management. A great deal of research has shown that it is common for people to sincerely believe false things about themselves, and as you might expect these bogus beliefs almost always tend toward the enhancement side of the ledger. For example, most people believe that they are above average on a number of positive personal qualities such as intelligence, but of course, it’s impossible for most people to be above average. This is considered evidence for widespread self-deception, though this better-than-average-effect represents but one example of the many documented forms of deceptive self-enhancement, or what we’ll call self-deception for short. (If you’re inclined to doubt the ubiquity of self-deception, please read Taylor and Brown’s 1988 article entitled “Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health.”)

Impression management is a little bit different and perhaps less complicated. It is simply the tendency to describe oneself favorably to others, or to otherwise favorably bias people’s perceptions of oneself. Unlike self-deception, this sort of activity may not involve delusion of any kind. In its most innocent form, one simply attempts to put his or her “best foot forward.” The full spectrum of impression management includes emphasizing, exaggerating, or inventing positive qualities or actions, plus minimizing, concealing, or denying negative qualities or actions. But even at its most deceitful, we can do impression management while maintaining accurate beliefs about ourselves.

At the very least, Jenna was engaging in impression management, and possibly self-deception as well. Let’s now examine Liz’s guidance in light of these two possibilities.

As far as self-deception is concerned, the facts are to a certain extent hostile to Liz. Self-deceit is not only pervasive but, contrary to common sense, healthy. It appears that self-deception is positively associated with many good things, among them higher self-esteem, greater work engagement and productivity, positive mood, enhanced social relationships, and better and faster coping with adverse events. All of these outcomes are regarded as hallmarks of mental health and major contributors to life-long happiness. And, truth be told, there is clear evidence that depressed people, rather than holding overly negative self-views, in fact view themselves with a much higher degree of accuracy than those who are mentally healthy.

Yet, this topic continues to be vigorously debated in the psychological literature. Frankly, my opinion is that the side attempting to make the case against self-deception has set forth less rigorous and less abundant evidence in its favor. However, there is at least one important qualification on the self-deception as mentally healthy perspective that helps to vindicate Liz, if only in part. There are thankfully natural limits on how much self-deception you can practice before it begins to become disadvantageous; detrimental to all the positive outcomes it can, when practiced in moderation, sustain. A little bit of self-deception is good, but a lot is bad. This is what we in the scientific community refer to as theoptimal margin of illusion, an idiom introduced by the inimitable Baumeister (1989).

Clearly, Jenna is hardly if ever operating within this best possible margin. Granting that, Liz’s advice does indeed reclaim some validity. But she may have thought to include in her recommendation that in becoming more honest about whom she is, Jenna should not necessarily become completely honest. However implausible it seems, research clearly suggests that adopting totally unbiased self-perceptions is neither a good idea for Jenna, nor for people in the real world.

Alright, so what about impression management? If Liz was not referring to self-deception, but instead suggesting that Jenna should merely stop trying so hard to manage other people’s perceptions of her, that’s a horse of a different color. One important consideration here is that impression management requires effort to sustain, especially if you are attempting to forge an image that departs in great measure from your natural disposition. Effort spent in this pursuit is effort that could be used to pursue other, potentially more worthy goals. From this perspective, Liz’s advice should get your approving nod. Then again, the effort associated with impression management could be worth it after all, depending on how well (i.e., how seamlessly) it is practiced. Let’s face it, people who try to seem likeable often succeed in actually being more likeable. To the extent that impression management, practiced in moderation and in good faith, helps to improve one’s social relationships, it can be considered adaptive, even if its undertaking requires lots of effort.

All-in-all, the conclusion here is similar to the one we reached for self-deception. The advisability of impression management hinges on the degree of departure between our normal disposition and the persona we are attempting to convey outwardly. The greater the degree of departure, the more effort required to maintain the pretense, and the more likely our janissary maneuvers are to be detected. So, just as there appears to be an optimal margin of illusion, we can imagine that there is also an optimal margin of management. Do too much, and you’ll compromise worthy goals and/or potentially earn the unsavory label “phony.” Do it moderately and do it well, and you stand to reap maximum social rewards while expending minimal effort.

Once again, Jenna exceeds the optimal margin, so in that sense Liz’s advice could be the right advice so long as it doesn’t prompt Jenna to wander too far off the impression management reservation. Everything considered the ideal corrective measure for Jenna (or anyone else acting similarly) would be to temper, rather than completely eliminate her self-deceptive tendencies along with her impression-obsession.

Source Psychology Today

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Will Savage

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