Eller Study Shows Impression Management Can Reduce Trust, Especially in High-Ability People


A new study by Martin Reimann, associate professor of marketing and McClelland Faculty Fellow, and Oliver Schilke, associate professor of management and organizations and director of the Center for Trust Studies, in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona found that impression management can reduce trust in high-ability people. The study found that when someone can do a task, they are trusted. However, if they brag about how great they are, high-ability people are seen as less trustworthy.

In social psychology, impression management is the process by which people seek to control the impressions others form of them. It can be seen as a strategic effort to influence how others perceive one's actions, abilities and intentions.

The goal of impression management is to present oneself in the best possible light and to create a favorable impression. People engage in impression management in various settings, including the workplace, relationships and academic settings.

There are several ways in which people can try to manage impressions. One common tactic is self-promotion, or touting one's accomplishments and positive attributes. Another is ingratiation, or trying to make oneself likable and pleasant.

Impression management is a complex phenomenon with important implications for social interaction and behavior. It sheds light on why people act the way they do in various social contexts, in both private and professional life.

When someone has high ability and is willing to use tactics like self-promotion or intimidation, this can backfire. Reimann and Schilke found this when conducting experiments in online labs and with over 100,000 Facebook consumers. The large sample size and unique research platforms delivered some interesting results.

Capable people are held to higher standards in terms of honesty and kindness. This is why impression management is not only often ineffective but can actually decrease trustworthiness perceptions of these capable individuals.

"A person’s competence—combined with self-promotion—decreases that person’s perceived benevolence and integrity and, in turn, the level of trust placed in them," says Reimann.

It is commonly assumed that ability leads to trust—the more competent an actor, the more likely others will be to trust them. The research conducted contests the universality of this assumption.

"We found that the relationship between ability and trust is far more conditional than previously expected,” says Schilke. “Even in meritocratic societies, highly competent actors may experience greater trust from their fellow citizens if they are humble and refrain from efforts to manipulate others' impressions of themselves."

In a world where people constantly try to make positive impressions, does too much self-promotion have negative consequences? Although most people want to be seen as trustworthy, the overuse of self-promotion can make people appear less deserving of trust. As employees return to the office and are more likely again to engage in post-pandemic impression management behaviors, these findings have important implications for understanding trust, democracy and meritocracy in organizations.

This study is co-authored with Christoph Hüller from the University of Arizona and Karen S. Cook from Stanford University.