Poetic Exploration of the Heart

“Social Chameleon” May Pay Emotional Price

"Social Chameleon" May Pay Emotional Price

Published: March 12, 1985 in The New York Times

EVERYONE wants to make a good impression, but for some people it is almost a way of life. Such social chameleons, who in every situation strive to make the best impression they can, do so at a psychological cost, new research suggests.

Those who always try ”to be the right person in the right place at the right time,” according to Mark Snyder, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota, become extraordinarily attuned to the ways others react to them. They continually monitor their social performance, skillfully adjusting it when they detect that they are not having the desired effect.

He cites as the psychological credo of such people a remark by W. H. Auden, who said that his private image of himself ”is very different from the image which I try to create in the minds of others in order that they may love me.”

The degree to which a person subscribes to this credo, research suggests, seems to have a profound influence not only on his social successes and skills, but also on the quality of his intimate relationships. For example, those who are most adept at making a good impression, paradoxically, tend to have less stable and satisfying intimate relationships, suffering in both the quality of their friendships and the stability of their romantic ties.

On the other hand, those who tend toward the other extreme, those who do not bend at all to fit in, have problems of their own, the research suggests. While their sense of self is far stronger than the person skilled at making impressions, they can suffer from the social costs of their rigidity.

Social Chameleon


”Many people have different orientations in various parts of their lives,” Dr. Snyder said in an interview. ”For example, at work someone may go all out to impress people, while at home or with friends he is more himself.” About 60 percent of people tend to be less devoted to impression management, as measured by a scale Dr. Snyder has developed, while the other 40 percent are more concerned about making an impression. Most people, he says, tend toward the middle range, their style depending on the social context of a particular situation. People on the extremes, he said, are those who adopt one or another orientation in all situations.

The social chameleons ”thrive on inconsistency,” according to William Graziano, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. ”They don’t mind in the least saying one thing and doing another. But those at the other pole can’t stand such a discrepancy.”

Dr. Snyder, who has done the major research on the issue, said: ”One of the great themes of literature is the relationship between how people present themselves on the surface and what lurks beneath. As a psychologist, I became interested in the question of where personality resides: Is it in the persona – the public face – or the private reality? As I started to do research on the question, I came to see that for some people, the public and private person meshes well, while for others there seem to be only a kaleidoscope of changing appearances.”


Social chameleons, for whom Dr. Snyder uses the rather infelicitous term, ”high self-monitors,” display these key traits:
– They pay careful attention to social cues, scrutinizing others with keenness so as to know what is expected of them before making a response.
– In order to get along and to be liked, they try to be as others expect them to be. For example, they try to make people they dislike think they are friendly with them.
– They use their social abilities to mold their appearance as disparate situations demand, so that, as some put it, ”With different people I act like a very different person.”

Those low on the self-monitor scale, would be unlikely to espouse ideas they do not believe, while those high in self-monitoring would do so if it were expedient.

Certain professions, by their very nature, seem to draw people who are adept at impression management. ”Professional actors, as well as many of the more mercurial trial lawyers, are among the best at it,” Dr. Snyder said. ”So too are many successful salespeople, diplomats and politicians.”

Such people can swing with ease from bubbly sociability to reserved withdrawal, or even from conformity to noncomformity, as the situtaion demands, Dr. Snyder said. And while these same abilities make them skilled at lying, they are just as likely to apply them in smoothing social interactions.

By contrast, those low in self-monitoring subscribe to the credo, ”To thine own self be true.” They feel it is more important to act in accord with one’s values, no matter the social consequences.

Although one might expect social chameleons to get along well with just about anyone, they seem to have trouble when they are in the company of those who are at the opposite extreme. In one study, William Ickes, a psychologist at the University of Texas, paired people who scored very high and very low on the scale that measures self-monitoring. When two people who both scored high or both scored low were paired, they got along quite well. But not mixed pairs.


”The conversations just petered out,” Dr. Ickes said. ”The lows are like John Wayne, fairly taciturn and just the same no matter where they are. The highs are like Woody Allen’s Zelig, madly trying to fit in with whomever they are with. But the lows don’t give the highs enough cues to know how they should try to be.”

The differences between the types are perhaps most striking in their personal relationships. The social chameleons, for example, are much less willing to commit themselves to a romantic relationship, are more willing to end one romance to start another and are slow to become emotional intimates of those they date. On the other hand, those low in the trait are more loyal lovers, being far more willing to become committed, slower to shift to a new partner and ready to share the growth of intimacy with their partner.

The fantasy life of each type reflects the same tendencies. Social chameleons, compared with their opposites, more frequently fantasize about having sexual relations with someone other than their steady partner, even having those fantasies while engaging in sex with their partner.

In sum, Dr. Snyder writes, ”Thus, we might expect low self-monitoring individuals to display greater commitment to, and stronger attachment to, their marital partners.”

Likewise, the two types differ greatly in the nature of their friendships. The low self-monitoring type, as might be expected, tends to be extremely invested, both in time and emotion, in a few close friends. Social chameleons, on the other hand, prefer to have a wide range of friends and to have different friends for different activities. Moreover, they ”set up barriers, so it’s hard for their friends to get to know them well,” Dr. Snyder said.

The social chameleons, according to Dr. Graziano, have a heterogeneous social world. ”They play tennis with one person and go antiquing with another,” he said. ”They also tend to pick friends who are highly skilled in that area: their tennis partner will be first-rate, their antiquing partner an expert. But those low in self-monitoring play tennis with the same person with whom they go antiquing.”

Perhaps understandably, social chameleons have been found by Dr. Snyder to be more responsive to advertising that appeals to one’s image, while those low in the trait respond more readily to claims of a product’s quality.


The tendency for people to be one or the other type has been found in children as young as 7 years old.

One of the key signs of self-monitoring is the tendency to try to find out what others think about something before making one’s own response. In a study done by Christopher Leone at the University of Minnesota, third- graders were asked their opinions on a wide range of topics, such as whether ”E. T.” or ”Star Wars” was the better movie.

Before answering they were given the chance to see how other children had responded to the same questions. Some children, presumably those who will grow up to be social chameleons, pored over the data before they would give their own answers.

As far back as 1934 Helene Deutsch, a psychoanalyst, described what she called the ”as-if” personality, a person who shifted roles in life like an actor. The ”as-if” type, she wrote, had a ”highly plastic readiness to pick up signals from the outer world” and mold himself accordingly. Dr. Deutsch saw such people as suffering from a fragile sense of themselves, constantly seeking to shore themselves up by winning the approval of others at all costs.

”The more current view is less pejorative,” according to Frank Lachmann, a psychoanalyst at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health. ”The as-if personality is the extreme of a necessary human quality, the ability to have empathy, to put oneself in another’s shoes.”

While Dr. Snyder’s research does not focus on people who are at either extreme of the pattern he describes, he does acknowledge that both tendencies, when exaggerated, can indicate psychopathology. The consensus among those who have done research on the topic seems to be that people are better off not being extreme in either direction.

”Those who are at the extreme in self-monitoring are sociopaths, con artists who will say and do whatever gets them what they want at the moment,” Dr. Snyder said. ”On the other hand those who are extremely low in self-monitoring are, like obsessives, utterly stubborn in their adherence to the sense of being right no matter what. If a situation doesn’t mesh with that sense, they are totally unwilling to change to fit in. They act as they feel they should, no matter what others make of it.”

Dr. Snyder does not believe that being a social chameleon or one of their opposites need make one more susceptible to psychological problems. Nevertheless he believes it can lead to specific types of vulnerability. When those high in self-monitoring get depressed, he has found, it is more likely to have been triggered by failing at a social performance, such as trying out for a team or play and not making it. Those low in the trait, however, become depressed when they feel they have violated their deepest values, such as being found a hypocrite.

Still, in Dr. Graziano’s view, most social chameleons are not pathological. Recent research, he said, has shown that, by and large, they are not Machiavellian manipulators, nor are they desparately insecure, seeking the approval of others at all costs. On the contrary, ”It seems to be a social skill,” Dr. Graziano said.

What can perhaps be most useful for everyone about the new research is the simple awareness that the two types exist. A person can realize that he is overly concerned about the impression he makes to the extent that he may virtually cease to exist as a person of substance. Or, conversely, he can find himself so ungiving as to fail to connect with the outside world. Most people can benefit, some researchers believe, by being aware of their tendencies to follow one of these two patterns and in avoiding the extremes.

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