9.2 Self-Presentation and Interacting with Others - Social Interaction

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

9.2 Self-Presentation and Interacting with Others
Social Interaction


After Chapter 9.2, you will be able to:

· Classify forms of communication as verbal or nonverbal

· Distinguish between front-stage self and back-stage self

· Identify examples of body language, facial expression, visual display, scent, and vocalization in communication

To Erving Goffman, the sociologist who developed the dramaturgical perspective, every interaction we have with other people is a theatrical performance in which we consciously or unconsciously use the "scene," our "costume," and the role that we "perform" to influence the way others think or feel. Whenever we try to influence others' perception with respect to a person, object, or event, we are engaging in impression management. One form of impression management is self-presentation, the process of displaying ourselves to society both visually (through clothing, grooming, etc.) and through our actions, often to make sure others see us in the best possible light.


Expressed emotions include both verbal and nonverbal behaviors that communicate internal states. We can express emotions with or without conscious awareness.

The basic model of emotional expression was first established by Charles Darwin. Darwin stated that emotional expression involves a number of components: facial expressions, behaviors, postures, vocal changes, and physiological changes. Darwin claimed that expression is consistent with his theories on evolution and should be similar across cultures. Darwin also stated that primates and animals exhibit rudimentary muscle actions that are similar to those used by humans for facial expressions. Since Darwin, many researchers have found that a number of basic human emotions are universally experienced and that their corresponding facial expressions are universally recognized. The appraisal model is closely related, and accepts that there are biologically predetermined expressions once an emotion is experienced, but that there is a cognitive antecedent to emotional expression.


Paul Ekman’s work with universal emotions, as detailed in Chapter 5 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review, was a key development in the basic model of emotional expression. Individuals knowledgeable about Ekman’s work are capable of detecting very subtle and transient facial expressions that may indicate that an individual is trying to be deceptive about the emotions being conveyed.

Three of the primary models that describe individual emotion (James—Lange, Cannon—Bard, and Schachter—Singer) were discussed in Chapter 5 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review. In this chapter, we will look at how emotions are shaped by social context and culture.

The social construction model assumes that there is no biological basis for emotions. Instead, emotions are based on experiences and the situational context alone. It also suggests that certain emotions can only exist within social encounters and that emotions are expressed differently—and thus play different roles—across cultures. In this model, one must be familiar with social norms for a certain emotion to perform the corresponding emotional behaviors in a given social situation.

Culture provides the foundation to understand and interpret behaviors. Studies have suggested that cultural differences can lead to very different social consequences when emotions are expressed. Cultural expectations of emotions are often referred to as display rules. For example, in Utkuhikhalik Inuit society, anger is rarely expressed; individuals who demonstrate anger are considered social pariahs. Display rules govern which emotions can be expressed and to what degree. They may differ as a function of the culture, gender, or family background of an individual. Emotional expressions can be managed in several different ways: by simulating feelings one does not actually feel; by qualifying, amplifying, or deamplifying feelings; by masking an emotion with another emotion; or by neutralizing any emotional expression whatsoever.

A cultural syndrome is a shared set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors among members of the same culture that are organized around a central theme. Cultural syndromes influence the rules for expressing or suppressing emotions and can even influence the ways emotions are experienced. For example, happiness is generally considered a positive emotion across cultures. However, in countries with more individualistic cultural syndromes, like the United States, happiness is viewed as infinite, attainable, and internally experienced. In contrast, in countries with a more collectivist cultural syndrome, such as Japan, happiness is a very rational emotion and generally applied to collective experiences more than to individual successes or experiences. This difference is illustrated in the contrast between the phrases I am happy and I am sharing happiness with others.

Gender also plays an important role in emotional expression. Research on the expression of emotion in the United States has shown that women are expected to express anger in public less often than men, while men are expected to repress the expression of sadness. Research also supports the conclusion that women are better at detecting subtle differences in emotional expression than men.


Impression management refers to our attempts to influence how others perceive us. This is done by regulating or controlling information we present about ourselves in social interactions. Impression management is often used synonymously with self-presentation. When describing impression management, theorists describe three “selves”: the authentic self, the ideal self, and the tactical self. The authentic self describes who the person actually is, including both positive and negative attributes. The ideal self, as described in Chapter 6 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review, refers to who we would like to be under optimal circumstances. The tactical self refers to who we market ourselves to be when we adhere to others’ expectations of us. This is similar to the ought self described in Chapter 6 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.

People use a number of impression management strategies when in the presence of others. Some common strategies are summarized in Table 9.1, with examples of each.





Giving information about oneself to establish an identity

Disclosing that you are a premedical student

Managing appearances

Using props, appearance, emotional expression, or associations with others to create a positive image

Wearing a white coat, keeping calm while dealing with a difficult patient, mentioning associations with important researchers during an interview


Using flattery or conforming to expectations to win someone over

Blindly agreeing to someone else’s opinion, complimenting a friend before asking for a favor

Aligning actions

Making questionable behavior acceptable through excuses

Justifications for missing deadlines, blaming a bad grade on too little sleep


Imposing an identity onto another person

Any example in this course that says As a good MCAT student, you should… in which Kaplan is assigning you the role of good MCAT student

Table 9.1. Impression Management Strategies

Erving Goffman described impression management through the dramaturgical approach, using the metaphor of a theatrical performance to describe how individuals create images of themselves in various situations. In this analogy, Goffman relates a person's attempts to manage the impressions of others to an actor's performance in a play. A person's front stage self is the persona they present to an audience. A person will adapt their front stage self depending on the social situation, similar to an actor on stage in front of an audience performing according to the setting, role, and script of the play. In contrast, when an actor is back stage, the actor is hidden from the audience and is free to act in ways that may not be congruent with the actor's character in the play. According to Goffman, the back stage self is the persona adopted when not in a social situation and there is no concern about upholding the performance of a desired public image.

Another theory comes from George Herbert Mead, who described the self in two parts called the Me and the I. The part of self that is developed through interaction with society is the Me. The development of the Me comes from considering the generalized other, which is based on a person's established perceptions of the expectations of society. Any time that a person tries to imagine what is expected of them in a social situation, they are taking on the perspective of the generalized other. And by considering the perspective of the generalized other and adapting one's behavior appropriately, the Me develops. By contrast, the I is the individual's own impulses. However, the I is not totally independent of the Me. Rather, a person's impulses are shaped by their interpretation of society's expectations. In short, the Me shapes the I.

MCAT Expertise

Many of the sociological theories tested on the MCAT are far more extensive than the knowledge base the AAMC expects of test takers. The dramaturgical approach, for example, describes over twenty sociological concepts in theatrical terms; however, the MCAT only expects you to know front stage vs. back stage self.


Mead's description of Me and I formed the foundation for the sociological theory of symbolic interactionism, which is described in Chapter 11 of MCAT Behavioral Science Review.

Behavioral Sciences Guided Example With Expert Thinking


Expert Thinking

Researchers conducted two experiments in an effort to investigate social behavior.

Experiment 1:

Five-year-old children participated in one of four conditions. In all four conditions, the children played a game in which they received a sheet of paper with five symbols drawn on it. The children were also given a sheet of stickers, some of which matched the symbols, and were given 90 seconds to find the appropriate stickers and affix them to the sheet of paper over their matching symbols. Also on the table was a second set of materials, which the children were told was for another child who would be playing the game later.

Exp. 1: Sticker matching game

In the stealing condition, the participant’s sticker sheet was missing one of the five symbols necessary to complete the game, while the sticker could be found on the second sheet. In the helping condition, the second sheet was conspicuously missing one of the stickers needed to complete the game, and the participant’s sheet included an extra of those stickers, which participants were told they could keep or give to the next child. In some trials, the experimenter left the child alone while the child completed the task (the unobserved case), and in others, another child who was participating in the study but not part of the same experimental group was seated near the child during the task (the observed case).

Two conditions: children need to steal to complete their task; children can give to another child who is missing stickers.

IVs: steal or help condition; observation

DV: behavior

In the stealing condition, 4% of subjects stole in the observed case and 24% stole in the unobserved case (p = .02). In the helping condition, 28% of subjects helped in the observed case and 11% helped in the unobserved case (p = .07). Results are summarized in Figure 1.

The percentages are stated here, but are summarized in the figure. Missing from the figure are the p-values. Looks like the stealing condition was significant and the helping condition wasn't, but we could call it a trend.

ImageFigure 1. Stealing and helping behavior for children in their respective conditions.

Children helped when people were watching and stole when no one was.

Experiment 2:

Two chimpanzees were placed in separate cages. One of the chimps had access to a rope attached to a tray that contained food. In the stealing condition, the food was placed such that the other chimp could reach it, but pulling the rope moved the tray out of reach of both chimps. In the helping condition, the food was placed out of reach of both chimps, but pulling the rope moved the tray within reach of the second chimp. The subject chimps were not able to see the recipient chimps during the experiment, but were taught what the rope mechanism did prior to testing. Just as in Experiment 1, each of these conditions was carried out in one of two cases: either the chimps were alone in the experimental room, or a third dominant male chimp was present, observing the interaction. It is known that chimpanzees, fitness improves with relationships to dominant group members. Results are summarized in Figure 2.

Similar conditions here. IVs: help or hurt, observation; DV: behavior.


Figure 2. Stealing and helping behavior for chimps in their respective conditions.

This is different from the children. Observation didn't seem to matter.

Adapted from: Engelmann JM, Herrmann E, Tomasello M (2012) Five-Year Olds, but Not Chimpanzees, Attempt to Manage Their Reputations. PLoS ONE 7(10): e48433. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0048433

What conclusion can be drawn based on these studies about the differences between human children and chimpanzees in social settings?

The question asks for a conclusion, so our plan should be to summarize the results of the studies and relate them to outside knowledge. Fortunately, once we understand the design of the two studies, the results aren’t difficult to interpret. In Experiment 1, it looks like the children were more likely to steal when they were alone and more likely to help when they were being observed. From the p-values, it looks like that first result is statistically significant and the second result would count as merely a trend. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, showed no such concern for the presence of others. If this were a multiple-choice question, we would look for an answer that explained both results.

Knowing exactly what bit of content to tie these results to might be tricky without answer choices, but the passage does provide a clue. In Experiment 2, we’re told that it is adaptive for chimpanzees to gain the favor of dominant group members, so these researchers are likely interested in the way individuals may change their behavior in order to gain the favor of others. This could be called self-presentation, reputation management, or impression management.

Applying this concept to the results of the study, we can conclude that children have at least some capacity for acting in a prosocial manner to manage impressions, but chimpanzees in the given situation are incapable of or unconcerned with doing the same.


Communication is the ability to convey information by speech, writing, signals, or behavior. It is the foundation of social interaction and is often used to elicit changes, generate action, create understanding, share a point of view, or inform. Effective communication occurs when the desired message is received by the recipient.


Strong communication skills are tested everywhere on the MCAT, but are particularly important in the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section. See Chapter 2 of MCAT Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills Review for a discussion of analyzing rhetoric.

Verbal communication is the transmission of information via the use of words, whether spoken, written, or signed. It is tied to nonverbal communication and is often dependent on nonverbal cues for the receiver to understand the sender’s full meaning. While face-to-face conversations are rich with nonverbal communication, even phone conversations include nonverbal means of communication, such as pauses and changes in tone.

Nonverbal communication refers to how people communicate, intentionally or unintentionally, without words. Some examples of nonverbal communication are facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures, body position and movement, touches, and eye positioning. Nonverbal cues serve a number of functions in communication, including expression of emotions, as shown in Figure 9.2, conveyance of attitudes and personality traits, and facilitation of verbal communication. Nonverbal communication is often dictated by culture. For example, in US culture, people can be suspicious of someone who does not make eye contact, as this is widely considered to be a sign of lying. However, in many Asian cultures, direct eye contact is used far less often than in the United States. For example, children in Thailand are taught not to make eye contact with teachers and adults in order to show respect. Some types of verbal and nonverbal communication are listed in Table 9.2.

ImageFigure 9.2. Human Body LanguageSadness is associated with drooping upper eyelids, staring into the distance, frowning, and slumping of shoulders, the last of which is seen here.



Spoken language

Facial expressions

Written language (print and electronic)

Body language (posture)

Sign languages (American Sign Language)


Tactile languages (Braille alphabet)

Tone of voice (prosody)

Eye contact

Amount of personal space

Table 9.2. Verbal and Nonverbal Communication


We not only communicate with other people, but also with other living creatures. Animal communication is defined as any behavior of one animal that affects the behavior of another.

Nonhuman animals communicate with one another in order to convey information such as emotions, intent, status, health, and the location of resources. They communicate with one another through a variety of nonverbal means, including body language, rudimentary facial expressions, visual displays, scents, and vocalizations.

The use of body language is common across a number of species. Body language can indicate that an animal is frightened, as shown in Figure 9.3, aggressive, relaxed, or even embarrassed; dogs often tuck their tails between their legs when scolded or fearful. Body language can also have significance for reproduction, as many animals will get into certain positions to signify readiness to mate.

ImageFigure 9.3. Animal Body LanguageWhen surprised or scared, cats will recoil, crouch, and remain relatively motionless.

While humans possess far finer motor control of the muscles of facial expression, many animals (especially mammals) use facial expressions to indicate similar emotions to body language. It is noteworthy, however, that facial expressions appear to be more highly conserved between species than body language. For example, baring teeth and lunging forward, as shown in Figure 9.4, are perceived almost universally as signs of aggression or readiness to attack.

ImageFigure 9.4. Animal Facial ExpressionsBaring teeth and lunging forward are recognized by many animals as signs that an attack is imminent.

Animals may also use visual displays for communication. This is common for sex discrimination in birds; females are often less colorful than males because it permits them a greater degree of camouflage and protection when caring for their young. However, this also serves as communication between birds, as sex is readily apparent from the bird’s appearance. Other visual displays include bioluminescence (the production of light), colorful plumage (as in peacocks), and dancing. Bees are well-known for communicating through dancing, as shown in Figure 9.5.

ImageFigure 9.5. Bee Communication through MovementThe “waggle dance,” illustrated here, indicates the location of food relative to the hive.

Many animals use scents to communicate both intraspecifically (between members of the same specifies) and interspecifically (between members of different species). Pheromones are a common example and are given off by members of a species to attract a mate. Scents can be used to mark an animal’s territory or as a method of defense, such as in skunks.


It is debatable if pheromones actually have an effect on humans because we lack many of the genes necessary for function of the vomeronasal organ, an accessory olfactory organ seen in other animals. Olfaction and scent detection is discussed in Chapter 2 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.

Finally, animals also communicate through vocalizations with various levels of sophistication. For example, research has shown that prairie dogs have different “words” for specific predators, and can even create new words for novel objects. Bird calls are species specific and are used to attract a mate or warn of a threat.

In addition to interacting in the wild, humans use both verbal and nonverbal communication when interacting with domesticated animals, as is often seen between owners and their pets. Dog owners may use vocal commands to tell their pets to come, stay, or sit. Additionally, just as tone of voice can express joy or anger to a person, it can communicate the same information to a pet. Pets can be scolded with a look or a gesture. Communication works in the opposite direction as well, as a pet’s body language and expressions convey information to its owner.

Communication between humans and animals is not confined strictly to pets. One of the most famous examples of animal communication is Koko, a gorilla who was able to communicate with humans through the use of American Sign Language. Koko’s vocabulary included more than one thousand words.

MCAT Concept Check 9.2:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. Classify the following forms of communication as verbal or nonverbal:

o American Sign Language



o Turning your body away from another person



o Text messages



o Giving a “high five”



o Frowning



2. What is the front stage self? The back stage self?

o Front stage self:

o Back stage self:

3. For each of the methods of animal communication below, provide one example:

Method of Communication


Body language

Facial expressions

Visual displays