Your Public Persona: Self-Presentation in Everyday Life

Course No. 10010
Professor Mark Leary, Ph.D.
Duke University
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Course No. 10010
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Explore the role of self-presentation in every aspect of human social interaction
  • numbers Reflect on why people change their self-presentations based on other people's values and their social roles-who you talk to and the roles you play determine who you try to appear to be
  • numbers Consider the potential dangers of self-presentation-the dangerous and foolish things we do to be seen as attractive, exciting, free-spirited, or bold
  • numbers Understand how social anxiety and embarrassment help us avoid making undesired impressions and the tactics we use to repair bad impressions

Course Overview

Human beings are social animals, and the impressions we make on others can critically impact the quality of our lives. Consequently, we exert a good deal of time and effort, both consciously and unconsciously, to shape other people’s ideas about who we are.

People form impressions of us—who we are and what we’re like—very quickly and, right or wrong, those impressions can determine significant aspects of our goals, how we interact with other people, and our intimate relationships. In a few short minutes, people assess our personality, interests, attitudes, and mood, taking into account everything from the content of our words to the style of our clothing, and much more. Sometimes, their assessments are accurate, other times less so, but the impressions others form of us significantly impact how they treat us and, therefore, our outcomes in life.

In Your Public Persona: Self-Presentation in Everyday Life, a 12-lecture course by Professor Mark Leary, Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, you will explore the variety of ways we manage our impressions. In this compelling course, you will learn about the behaviors we employ to control the impressions other people form of us—at work, at home, and in the world at large. We learn early and often—from parents, friends, classmates, and strangers—that, as Professor Leary says, “…how we fare in life depends, at least to an extent, on how other people view us.”

As you will learn, we try to manage the impressions that others have of us in order to pursue and achieve a wide range of goals—from getting a job or that coveted leadership role, to having a second date with someone or strengthening an important friendship, to being successful at work. You will come to better understand how we use self-presentational tactics, and why we may even present ourselves negatively—as aggressive or incompetent or ill—if such impressions serve our larger objectives. And we don’t just self-present occasionally. As Professor Leary explains, all of us do it on an ongoing basis. It is little wonder that, with so much on the line, impression management is a critically important aspect of human behavior.

Public Personas and Private Identities

Some people believe that managing the way we appear to others is inherently duplicitous or dishonest, and instead we should just “be ourselves.” But, many times, we are trying only to make certain that those we interact with know about aspects of ourselves that might not be immediately apparent, yet are significant to understanding who we are. As Professor Leary explains, it is possible to be both tactical and honest in how we present ourselves. Making certain that your boss (or your spouse) knows that you are working hard doesn’t mean that you aren’t; it just means that you understand the importance of his or her impression of you.

As Professor Leary describes, how we manage impressions is largely determined by two sets of factors: external circumstance and internal psychology. Although we do not all engage in impression management in the same ways—either because circumstances are unique or because we are—everyone tends to use the same general approaches. Rather than being a sign of dishonesty or vanity, self-presentation is a normal, natural behavior that is essential to our well-being.

Disasters, Dilemmas, and the Dangers of Self-Presentation

We all engage in self-presentation, but what happens when our efforts fail? Have you ever tripped over your own feet, or blurted out something terribly inappropriate, or spilled your drink, or otherwise embarrassed yourself? Everyone has. Most of us have also experienced a secret being revealed, friends or partners behaving badly, and even intentional humiliation at the hands of a bully.

The embarrassment of self-presentation gone wrong is very real. Although most of the bad impressions we make are easily remedied, what can we do about undesired impressions at work, at home, or in the public eye that are more difficult to fix? Follow Professor Leary as he walks you through the ways in which our best efforts to make desired impressions can go awry in large and small ways, the emotional and practical impact of these events, and the methods we can employ to mitigate the damage and get back on track.

At times, self-presentation can have a dark side. As Professor Leary notes, accidents are the number one killer of Americans under age 45, and a compelling argument can be made for the critical role that impression management plays in dangerous behavior. Sometimes, the human desire to be seen—or not seen—in a certain way can be a powerful and risky motivator. Professor Leary reviews a number of studies that speak to these dangers. The sobering highlights include people who admit to:

  • Driving too fast or performing daredevil stunts to look daring or cool;
  • Fighting to appear brave or tough;
  • Declining safety equipment (such as helmets, goggles, and mouth guards) or sanitary precautions to avoid looking fearful or neurotic;
  • Resisting the use of canes or other assistive devices to avoid the impression of age or illness;
  • Risking skin cancer by tanning to appear healthy and leisured;
  • Failing to use birth control to avoid the appearance of promiscuity or preparation; and
  • Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or using other drugs to fit in or make an impression.

Although most of these types of behaviors are often more common in youth, many of us engage in risky behavior without necessarily realizing why we may be seeking attention or validation. In the end, no one is immune to the influence of social pressure. The desire to make an impression can lead people to behave in ways that are harmful, both to themselves and to others. Knowledge of self-presentation and impression management may be our best defense.

Insight into Who We Really Are

A critical examination of the nature of self-presentation tells us more than just what we do and why; it offers fundamental insight into who we really are. Instead of maintaining that we possess an internally consistent, core “self,” the study of self-presentation reveals that human psychology is much more complex—so much so that the fact we convey a variety of images of ourselves to other people is not surprising. Whether you begin the course untroubled by the fact that people regularly impression-manage, or believe instead that everyone should simply “be themselves,” you will leave convinced that self-presentation is unavoidable and sometimes even desirable. As Professor Leary notes, “None of us could achieve our goals, or even get along with each other, if we didn’t care what other people thought of us.”

With wry humor and a talent for distilling difficult concepts into everyday language, Professor Leary brings you to the forefront of behavioral research on self-presentation. After more than 40 years of experience in psychology and neuroscience, he makes this fascinating topic accessible to audiences everywhere. Step up to a thought-provoking journey into the workings of the human social mind, filled with self-discovery and insights into the other people in your life.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 1
    Self-Presentation in Everyday Life
    Follow Professor Mark Leary of Duke University through the basics of self-presentation, his primary area of scholarship for more than 40 years in the field of social psychology. Discover both how we form impressions about other people in everyday life and how we attempt to manage their impressions of us. x
  • 2
    Tactics for Managing Impressions
    Professor Leary takes viewers into the compelling world of impression management—from physical appearance and body language to verbal cues and explicit statements about ourselves. Learn about the wide variety of tactics we use to get people to see us in particular ways in our efforts to reach the goals we would like to attain. x
  • 3
    Fitting In and Playing Roles
    The balance that all humans strike between conformity and individuality has critical bearing on the quality and happiness of our lives. Although we are often reminded of the importance of individuality, it is actually conformity that allows us to function as social animals. Explore the role that self-presentation plays in finding “optimal distinctiveness.” x
  • 4
    Playing to the Audience's Values
    Know your audience. Learn why their impressions matter and how we shift from one self-presentational performance to another, depending on the values of the people with whom we interact. In our efforts to be seen as likable, competent, and virtuous, we tailor our self-presentation to the preferences of those around us. x
  • 5
    When Undesirable Personas Are Deliberate
    Generally, we want to be perceived in positive ways. What happens when, in pursuit of a particular goal, we manage impressions to look aggressive, incompetent, or ill instead? Professor Leary unpacks our motivations for presenting socially undesirable impressions, and the antisocial behavior that such impression management can generate. x
  • 6
    Your Public Persona and Your Self-Image
    People differ in the kinds of impressions they try to create and the tactics they use to do so. From the publicly self-conscious, to those who rarely seem to care what others think, discover several psychological characteristics that influence self-presentation. x
  • 7
    Self-Presentation in Close Relationships
    Our friends, family, and romantic partners hold tremendous sway over the outcomes of our lives—a reality reflected in the ways we use self-presentation to manage these critical associations. From first impressions to final conflicts, see how we present ourselves to create, manage, improve, and even end our closest relationships. x
  • 8
    Managing Your Image at Work
    Most of us are deeply concerned with our image in the workplace, and with good reason. How people see us determines much in our professional lives. In this lecture, Professor Leary delves into the challenges of workplace self-presentation, and how we use impression management to get, keep, and even do our jobs. x
  • 9
    Social Anxiety and Self-Presentation
    Sometimes other people’s impressions of us are particularly important—for example, when we are on a first date, in a job interview, or giving a public speech. In these cases, we might feel the warning pangs of social anxiety because the fear of making an undesired impression is both real and justified. Although social anxiety is certainly uncomfortable, learn why it is essential to our social well-being. x
  • 10
    Self-Presentation Dilemmas and Disasters
    Everyone has said and done things that constitute what Professor Leary calls “self-presentational disasters.” Generally, the consequences are minor, if uncomfortable. Discover common mishaps, as well as more critical, life-changing mistakes, and the many strategies we employ to mitigate the damage to our image once it has been done. x
  • 11
    The Dangers of Self-Presentation
    Have you ever done something dangerous or stupid to impress the people around you? Self-presentation, often so beneficial, can also be hazardous to your health. Delve into the dark side of impression management as Professor Leary explains the risky, foolish, and damaging choices we make to appear attractive, adventurous, young, healthy, and even “cool.” x
  • 12
    Behind the Mask: Who Are You Really?
    In this final lecture, Professor Leary reviews the role of self-presentation in our social lives—and our frequent discomfort with it. How can we both manage impressions and be authentic individuals? Is impression management just another form of dishonesty, or an essential tool? The study of self-presentation can reveal to us not just how we want to be seen, but at a much deeper level, who we actually are. x

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  • Printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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Your professor

Mark Leary

About Your Professor

Mark Leary, Ph.D.
Duke University
Professor Mark Leary is Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, where he heads the program in Social Psychology and is faculty director of the Duke Interdisciplinary Initiative in Social Psychology. He earned his bachelor's degree in Psychology from West Virginia Wesleyan College and his master's and doctoral degrees in Social Psychology from the University of Florida. He has taught...
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