Social Image and Its Importance in Society

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Everybody wants to stop caring about what others think or say about them. This means that people often do care about what others think and try to build an acceptable and interesting social image for themselves. What if it is not thoroughly wrong to care about what other people think?

Several people sitting next to each other on a bench, all using laptops, tablets, or phones.
Not caring about what other people think is becoming more and more trendy, but there is nothing wrong with worrying about the impressions that we make in social interactions. (Image: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock)

Everybody with an average level of mental health cares about what others think of them. Recently, it is becoming a trend to live without caring about one’s social image and trying to impress other people. But why do we care so much about other people’s opinions, in the first place?

Social Impressions

Most people keep an eye on the impressions that they make on other people as they try to present themselves as they are. Knowing that other people perceive one in undesired ways usually triggers efforts to make the perception right. Sometimes, they control the impressions and try to behave in a way that leads to their desired impression in a given situation.

Today, most people try not to care about these impressions and what people perceive. However, it is not possible or necessary to do that.

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A Natural Human Motive

Young couple looking at each other.
The base of all our interactions with others is the impressions they get from us, and we try to create the right impressions. (Image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock)

Despite recent trends and how superficial or inauthentic it is to care about other people’s opinions, trying to maintain a positive social image is a natural, normal, and adaptive human motive. Humans need to be accepted in their society to survive.

Some people claim not to care what other people think, but the concern reflects in everyday life. People are happy when they are perceived as competent, moral, and desirable unless they have psychological problems. Sociopaths, for example, are relatively unconcerned with what other people think of them. What would happen if nobody cared?

A World Without Social Image Concerns

If suddenly everyone stopped caring about what others think, the world would face some dramatic changes. The first thing would be that people stop grooming and staying clean because they no longer care about the image they would convey with these things.

Next, they would not be as nice and polite to others. Relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family members would all change. True, sometimes people worry too much about their image and even do things that they should not. Nevertheless, this does not mean it is by nature wrong to care about social image.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Benefits and Costs of Impression Management

People interact with each other’s impressions. A person’s behavior toward another person is shaped by what they perceive. An impression of being friendly, trustworthy, and interesting brings along different behaviors from being perceived as unfriendly, untrustworthy, and boring.

Five men pictured from the waist down. Four are wearing black suits and one is wearing a white T-shirt, pink short pants, and red sport shoes.
Impressions in any particular situation determine how a person is treated and what results they get from that situation. (Image: VVO/Shutterstock)

Thus, people try to convey impressions that they want, as most desirable outcomes in life depend on being perceived in particular ways. Starting a relationship, maintaining, and promoting it requires certain characteristics depending on the nature of the relationship. To be invited to social gatherings, to be chosen for teams and committees, to have much of a social life at all, people must be viewed in certain ways.

Even though impressions are the base of almost all relationships and social life, they do not form without an effort.

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Efforts for Social Impressions

Even when a goal has nothing to do with other people and their impressions, when people are not actively engaged in creating an image, the impressions can still matter. For example, when somebody is giving a lecture, their purpose is to convey some scientific messages that are delivered with or without good social impressions. However, people normally prefer to be viewed positively as a lecturer.

Over 50 years of research shows that people usually do not try to convey fake images. Normally, they try to select from all of the different true things that they could convey about themselves, those images that will make the impressions they want to make in a particular situation.

There is no room and no necessity to reveal everything about oneself in an interaction. Hence, people try to reveal those that make the desired impression in a situation. Exaggeration and self-presentational lies also occur from time to time, but not all the time.

It is neither negative nor inauthentic to worry about the impressions we make on other people unless it turns into an obsession that triggers numerous lies and exaggerations.

Common Questions about Social Image and Its Importance in Society

Q: What is social image?

A person’s social image is how they are perceived by others in a society. Normally, people try to build more acceptance for themselves by caring about what others think about them.

Q: Is it good to care about social image?

Some people care so much about their social image that they have constant anxiety, which is neither healthy nor logical. However, a certain level of caring about other people’s opinions is natural and necessary for achieving the desired social status.

Q: Do people lie to create the social image that they prefer?

Yes. It is common to lie for creating a better social image. It can range from the tiny, unimportant lies like “I’m fine,” when that is not true, to big lies about skills, wealth, etc.

Q: Why do people care about social image?

It is the social image that determines the level of acceptance in a society. If a person is viewed negatively and nobody accepts them as a member of the group, their chances of survival drop. Thus, people care about what others say or think about them.

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