Confidence And Appearance Stereotypes

Confidence is a close family relation of self-esteem, although perhaps it is a bit more temporary and hence an even more likely candidate for self-perception processes. One lever into the self-perception of confidence is through stereotypes. Self-perception theory asserts that we know our own attributes in the same way that we know about the attributes of others. If that is the case, then stereotypes about appearance that affect our judgments of others should affect our judgments of ourselves as well. Certainly stereotypes are powerful determinants of our judgments of others. For example, more attractive people are routinely judged to be smarter and more humorous and to have performed better at a variety of tasks (Dion, Berscheid, & Walster, 1972). Tall people are more likely to be seen as leaders; conversely, people who have achieved leadership positions are judged to be taller than they actually are (Jackson & Ervin, 1992; Montepare, 1995; Wilson, 1968). Unfortunately for experimental design purposes, most stereotypical aspects of appearance, such as attractiveness or height, are not easily manipulated. Fortunately, one is. This is the stereotype that people who wear glasses are more intelligent. To demonstrate this stereotype, a number of studies have employed the same basic methodology: Photographs are taken of the same person with and without glasses, and then judges rate the person's intelligence. Routinely, the person is judged to be more intelligent when wearing glasses (Harris, 1991).

Joan Kellerman (Kellerman & Laird, 1982) asked whether this stereotype would apply in self-perception as well. The experiment was a self-perception equivalent of the photograph study described in the previous paragraph. Subjects were recruited for a study of the effects of a new lens material developed by a well-known optical company in a neighboring town. The subjects were told that there was some concern that the new plastic might interfere with perceptual performance. The subjects were asked to solve embedded figures problems and respond to half of the Binet vocabulary test, with half of subjects wearing nonprescription glasses and the other half not wearing glasses. (No subjects ordinarily used eyeglasses. If we had removed the glasses of someone who needed them, we would not have been surprised if they felt they were less successful at a perceptual task.) A mirror was present in the room, although while the subjects worked on the tests, they were not looking into the mirror. After each part of the testing, the subjects rated how well they thought they had done.

Wearing glasses did not affect the subjects' actual performances on either vocabulary or embedded figures. However, consistent with the stereotypes, when subjects were wearing the glasses, they judged their performance to have been significantly better and felt much more confident. People were "stereotyping" themselves on the basis of their own appearance.

One's appearance is only arguably an action. On one side, we do not really do anything to be attractive, or to wear glasses, and certainly we do not do anything to be tall (except perhaps to eat our vegetables when we are young). In another sense, however, we do have to work a bit at being attractive, or as attractive as most of us can manage, we do put on our glasses, and so forth.

But whether or not appearance is properly called an action, it is definitely an example of a personal cue as defined here. That is, appearance is like a smile or a slouched posture in being something that we would know about another person only if we observed him. We could not know how a person looked without observing him, just as we could not know what he was doing.

If appearance is a source of personal cues, then we would expect that only subjects who were responsive to personal cues would be affected by their appearance. That was exactly what happened in this study. Response to personal cues was determined in a separate procedure in which subjects' expressions were manipulated and their emotional feelings assessed. Wearing glasses increased feelings of confidence and judgments of better performance only among those subjects who were more responsive to personal cues.

All subjects were told initially that the glasses might interfere with their performance. Thus, the subjects who were more responsive to personal cues, and who felt they were performing better with the glasses on, were responding in a way opposite to their expectations. These expectations constitute a clear example of a situational cue about how people would be expected to feel about their performance. Consistent with this analysis, the subjects who were identified as less responsive to personal cues, and hence presumably more easily influenced by situational cues, did in fact rate themselves as significantly less effective with the glasses on. Those who did not respond to personal cues did respond to the situa-tional cues.

In sum, our appearance affects how we feel about ourselves, in the same way that how we act affects our feelings. In both cases, we know ourselves in the same way that others would know us.

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