Self-Presentation at Different Ages: What Is the Price?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Self-presentation is not specific to any age or gender, but it is surely affected by them. People exhibit different images of themselves in different situations. Also, they sometimes lie and exaggerate. Little lies to spare other people’s feelings are often acceptable, even though they are still lies. However, big lies to deceive others are signs of a psychological problem. Read on to find out to what extent exaggeration and lying are normal.

Three smiling friends putting on makeup together in the bathroom.
Self-presentation is not specific to an age or a situation, but its techniques and purposes differ according to environmental factors. (Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

People care about what others think of them and are concerned about the social impressions that they make. It is normal and even necessary, as most interactions are founded upon impressions. However, some people create a big web of lies so as to create a particular impression on others. What may seem as perfectly fine may turn into a kind of disorder.


People who score high on Machiavellianism are those who mispresent themselves so often to get what they want. Machiavellianism is a personality characteristic where people would do whatever it takes to get other people to do what they want, even if it means being deceptive and dishonest, and presenting inaccurate images of oneself. The name is derived from the Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. In his book The Prince, he advised political rulers to do whatever it takes to control their people, even if it is deceitful and immoral in nature.

Selfie of young smiling teenagers, having fun together.
Trying to be perceived positively is natural, but trying to deceive others to get what one wants at any cost is a Machiavellian tendency. (Image: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock)

Psychologists designed a questionnaire that shows people’s scores on Machiavellianism. Those who score higher are very good at managing social impressions, even if it requires significant lies. Machiavellians do not necessarily present a positive false image. They present whatever image helps them get what they want in a situation and make people do what they want. Unfortunately, they are very persuasive.

Learn more about can subliminal messages affect behavior?

Intentional Negative Impressions

Normally, people try to create positive social impressions but not Machiavellians. For example, people sometimes play dumb when they think that appearing less knowledgeable or less competent is more beneficial. Studies show that despite common belief, men play dumb more than women do, especially in interactions with their bosses.

Teenagers might mess up household chores intentionally to make sure that the next time, their parents will not ask them to do the same thing. Some people tend to present themselves as intolerant, impatient, and hostile if that makes others do what they want. Many bosses try to use self-presentation techniques that create a critical and demanding image so that employees try their best to deliver tasks accurately.

One study showed that hospitalized mental patients showed significantly fewer symptoms of schizophrenia when it was beneficial to appear mentally healthy. On the other hand, when being seen as mentally ill had benefits, they appeared much more psychologically troubled.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Self-Presentation in Different Situations

A person might hide their stress and negative feelings in front of others. Many people do that. At the same time, the same people might not only express their stress but exaggerate it in a different situation. The decision of whether to exaggerate or downplay emotions is determined by the situation and how one would get the desired behavior from other people.

Group of seniors takes a selfie on a summer trip in nature.
Older people also try to present themselves in certain ways, and self-presentation efforts do not stop after a certain age. (Image: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

Almost everybody controls impressions to some extent. Despite what many might believe, achieving a certain age or certain stability does not stop self-presentation efforts. For example, a person keeps trying to get the best behavior from their spouse after marriage, even though they are not trying to impress them as they did before marriage.

Old people do not stop caring about what others think, either. They do tend to care less about many things, but the amount of anti-aging creams and treatments shows that old people care about not being seen as old and inefficient. Thus, self-presentation efforts are normal until they cause high social anxiety.

Learn more about why do hurt feelings hurt?

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is a common experience. People feel nervous on job interviews or on dates, when meeting new people, or while just being at a social gathering where they do not know anybody. The most common experience and cause of social anxiety is speaking in front of groups. It is normal to feel anxious in such situations, and the highest level emerges when one is highly motivated to make the desired impression but is fairly certain that they will not be able to make it.

The positive side is that social anxiety creates the level of alertness that one needs to have in more critical situations. The negative side, on the other hand, is how it makes some people totally avoid social situations or have trouble interacting successfully.

Self-presentation might get significantly disturbed by anxiety when it passes a normal level. However, self-presentational techniques can be used to somehow control the anxiety when it is in a normal range.

Common Questions about Self-Presentation at Different Ages

Q: What is self-presentation?

Self-presentation is a person’s effort to present himself or herself in the right way and make the desired impressions on other people. It is natural to try to make a positive impression unless lies and exaggeration are hugely involved.

Q: What are self-presentation strategies?

Lying and exaggeration are two of the most common self-presentation strategies in many situations.

Q: Why do people engage in self-presentation?

It is not genuinely negative to make self-presentation efforts since people need to convey certain messages to make the right social impressions. However, some people’s efforts get deceptive, which is no longer normal or natural.

Q: Is self-presentation specific to a certain age?

No. self-presentation is present in all social situations and at all ages. Getting married or getting old does not stop the efforts, but decreases and changes them.

Keep Reading
Catharsis, Overreacting, and Psychological Health
Is Our Willpower Unlimited?
Temporal Discounting and Self-Control: How Waiting Kills Value