There are those people — you know who you are — who always know just what to say, and how to behave, and what to wear, no matter where they are or whom they’re with. You could invite them to a black-tie wedding or trivia night at a dive bar, and either way, they’ll figure out how to fit right in.
And then there are those — you know who you are, too — who are always, utterly themselves, no matter the context. After all, they reason, why would anyone want to go around faking their personality?
Mark Snyder, a psychology researcher at the University of Minnesota, has been dividing the world in two this way for as long as he can remember. Eventually, this instinct led to the Self-Monitoring Scale, which has been used for more than four decades to research these two ways of being. “Self-monitoring gets at a fundamental difference between people, on whether your view of how to handle social situations is to fit yourself to the context and to play a role versus, whether you view it as finding a way to do what you want, express who you are, show other people your true inner self,” Snyder told Science of Us.
High self-monitors, then, are all about image. They’re those who keep careful watch on the picture of themselves they’re projecting, and make alterations when the situation calls for it. Low self-monitors, on the other hand, are most concerned about being genuine, even if it sometimes sets them apart from the crowd. “It’s the difference between living a life that’s built on projecting images that are designed to further particular ends,” Snyder continued, “or whether it’s a matter of you living a life that’s about being true to your own sense of self.”
Before we go any farther, however, perhaps you’d like to know which one you are. Here’s Snyder’s original Self-Monitoring Scale, which he has very kindly provided to Science of Us.
Mark Snyder, via the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
One quick caveat: If your result wasn’t what you were expecting, you may be interested to know that it is possible to be a high self-monitor in some situations — say, at work — and a low self-monitor in others, like when you’re with your friends. (Then again, if you’re altering your behavior to better fit into a given context, wouldn’t that make you a high self-monitor?) This is the most basic version of the scale, one that roughly divides people into these two categories.
But over the years, Snyder and others have identified some distinct differences in the way that high and low self-monitors handle particular social situations.
On choosing friends:
A hypothetical situation to ponder: It’s a sunny Saturday, and you happen to be a tennis player. Who among your friends would you most like to play tennis with? “Let’s say you have one friend who is a really good tennis player, but is actually not your favorite person —not the most likable person you know,” Snyder said. “And you have another person who is really likable — you share a lot in common with them — but they’re not really a great tennis player.” The likable doofus who is a lovely person but a tiny bit embarrassing to be seen playing tennis with versus the serious athlete who is kind of a jerk, but will likely help improve your own game. Whom do you text?
Snyder would argue that your answer depends on whether you are a high or a low self-monitor. “The high self-monitor plays tennis with the person who’s great at tennis, even if they’re not the most likable,” he explains. “The low self-monitor plays tennis with the person who they just enjoy their company, even if they’re not the best at that activity.”
Again: For a high self-monitor, it’s about context. “They’ll play tennis with the person who is good at tennis, but they’ll go shopping for antiques with the person who knows a lot about antiques, they’ll talk politics with the person who knows a lot about politics,” Snyder added. “So they have a wider repertoire of friends, but each friend has a specific purpose.”
A low self-monitor, in contrast, tends to have fewer friends — but these are the friends they do everything with. “It will be more about enjoying the pleasure of their company than whether they’re skilled at particular activities,” Snyder explained. “The low self-monitors will tend to get closer to their friends, because they’re the same person across activities. For high self-monitors, it’s not so much about closeness, it’s about the activities themselves.”
High self-monitors tend to stick to a type: the right look, the right job, and so on. In contrast, Snyder said, “low self-monitors are much more oriented toward, Is this a compatible person? Do we share attitudes, values, interests?”
In some studies, Snyder and his colleagues have followed the dating lives of college students for years, and they find that high self-monitors tend to date more people than low self-monitors, who date a smaller number of people, but for longer periods of time. As such, low self-monitors also tend to get more attached to the people they’re dating. “High self-monitors don’t seem terribly upset when they break up with someone,” Snyder observes. “Low self-monitors do get more upset, because there are more feelings that are there.”
On finding a career:
Low self-monitors want a job that feels naturally compatible with their personalities, whereas high self-monitors are more concerned about the role they’re playing in a given job. Snyder explains what he means by that:
So, for example, you take people who are by nature more extroverted versus people who are more introverted. And you give them a choice: Do you want to work as a real estate salesperson, or a librarian? Salesperson is the more extroverted job, librarian is a little more introverted.
For low self monitors, how they make that choice is based on their own personality. An extrovert goes toward the sales job, and an introvert goes toward the librarian job. But for high self monitors it doesn’t matter at all – they choose the job where they have a greater sense that they can get ahead in the job. Because they figure it doesn’t matter — they don’t have to by nature really be an extrovert to do the sales job, because they can treat it as playing a role. But what they want to know is: If they play the role well will they succeed at the job?
Again, for high self-monitors, it’s about playing a role in which they can demonstrate their capabilities and skills. For low self-monitors, it always comes back to being true to themselves.
I asked Snyder if it’s possible to go from one to the other: If you’re naturally a high self-monitor, but wish you could drop the act sometimes, is it possible to train yourself to become a low self-monitor? To Snyder, this question is almost irrelevant. Most people don’t want to change. Most people think their way of being is the best way. High self-monitors, for example, describe this approach to life with words and phrases like “flexible” or “sensitive to social cues.” Low self-monitors tend to have poorer opinions of their peers, using words like “hypocritical” or “fake.” Likewise, high self-monitors often express impatience with low self-monitors, describing them as “having no filter” or accusing them of being self-centered. But a low self-monitor doesn’t see it that way. They’d call themselves “an open book” who is “true to their own sense of self.”
Nobody is wrong. Nobody is right. Both personalities tend to fare just as well in friendships, romantic relationships, and careers, provided they find the right friends or partner or job that fits their type. (That means it’s worthwhile to know which way you lean, so you can figure out how to find those things.) It’s refreshing to spend some time wading around in this area of research, a gentle reminder of the obvious but easy-to-forget fact that different people relate to the world in different ways.