How socially adaptable and flexible are you? Can you "read" social cues?

How attuned to your behavior are you? Answer the following simple statements with a "true" or "false."

  1. I find it difficult to imitate the behavior of other people.
  2. At parties and social gatherings, I do not attempt to do or say things that other will particularly like or agree with.
  3. I can only really argue for ideas which I already seriously believe in.
  4. I can make reasonably good impromptu speeches even on topics about which I know almost nothing at all.
  5. I can and do frequently put on a good show to impress or entertain others.
  6. I would probably make a pretty good actor.
  7. In a group of people I am rarely the center of attention.
  8. In different situations and with different people, I often act like very different people.

If you answered "false" to statements 1, 2, 3, and 7, and "true" to statements 4, 5, 6, and 8, you are what psychologists call a high self monitor.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.,Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.,was educated at the London School of Economics where he obtained a distinction in an MSc Econ., and at Oxford University where he completed a doctorate (D.Phil) in 1981. He has subsequently earned a D.Sc (1991) and D.Litt (1995) degree. Previously a lecturer in Psychology at Pembroke College, Oxford, he has been a professor of psychology at University College London since 1992. He has lectured widely abroad and held scholarships and visiting professorships at, amongst others, the University of New South Wales, the University of the West Indies, the University of Hong Kong and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has also been a visiting professor of management at Henley Management College. He has recently been made an adjunct professor of management at the Norwegian School of Management (2009). He has written over 1000 scientific papers and 70 books.

Editor: Muhammad Talha

More than 25 years ago, Mark Snyder came up with the concept of self-monitoring. The concept is like a personality trait that has to do with awareness and flexibility. Self-monitoring is the tendency to notice visual, vocal, and verbal cues for socially appropriate behavior and to modify one’s behavior accordingly. Individuals can be classified into two groups with regards to their level of self-monitoring.

Those who score high on the trait of self-monitoring are characterized by sensitivity to social clues indicating socially appropriate behavior, and they use those cues to modify self-presentation. Low self-monitors are thought to be relatively insensitive to social cues, and tend to maintain a consistent self-presentation across different situations.

  • High self-monitors emphasize the public self and, like actors, seem to be asking, ‘What role should I be playing in this situation?’
  • Low self-monitors are more interested in their personal value systems and private realities. The central question asked by the low self-monitors is, "How can I look like the person I truly am?"

We know that high self-monitors prefer (and choose) careers in theater, public relations, law, politics, and diplomacy; they are happier in, more confident about and more successful at selling; they respond to “task-oriented” rather than “relationship-oriented” leadership; and in job selection, they are influenced by candidate appearances, demeanor, and mannerism.

And we know that low self-monitors consider themselves sincere and compassionate, so they choose careers in social services or the “helping” professions; they work best when in groups of people like themselves; they respond to “relationship-oriented” rather than “task-oriented” leadership; and in job selection, they are most interested in jobs linked to inner dispositions.

Snyder (1987) distinguished between the hard and soft sell in advertising—the former being about quality (e.g. intrinsic merit, functional value) and the latter about image. He argued and demonstrated that high self-monitors rated image-oriented advertisements and products as more appealing and effective, and would be willing to pay more for the product.

By contrast, low self-monitors reacted more favorably to product-quality oriented advertisements. He also showed that the same principle applied when encouraging a person not to consume a product. Thus high self-monitors may be put off smoking because of the consequences of bad breath and smelly clothes, while low self-monitors may be more concerned with the health consequences.

Clearly high self-monitors are better at reading nonverbal cues and adjusting their behavior accordingly. They are highly socially flexible and adaptable. Some would say that they are social chameleons, inauthentic and all-things-to-all-people. Low self-monitors are honest with themselves and their beliefs, but can be seen as stubborn and socially unskilled.

The two types respond to people and products rather differently. High self-monitoring consumers are those who purchase a sleek, flashy, sporty-looking car despite its possibly poor performance and handling characteristics. They use the toothpaste that make their teeth look whitest (even if it threatens their enamel), and the ones who pour the "super premium" imported beer that says something about its drinker’s status (even if it tastes no different than less expensive domestic brands). These image-conscious high self-monitors clearly choose form over function.

By contrast, low self-monitoring consumers purchase the nutritious breakfast cereal even if it isn’t the one endorsed by the Olympic gold medal winner. They are the ones who use the mouthwash that is purported to kill the most bacteria even if it does leave their breath with a faint medicinal aroma, and they are the ones who choose the energy-efficient refrigerator even though it’s not available in the most designer-styled finish. They choose function at the expense of form.

Don’t expect these two types to get along: Even the high self-monitor cannot keep up the pretense for too long. But both have a role in different parts of an organization.