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  • ATTITUDES AND SOCIAL COGNITION

    The Dramaturgical Perspective in Relation to Self and Culture

    Daniel SullivanUniversity of Arizona

    Mark J. LandauUniversity of Kansas

    Isaac F. YoungClaremont Graduate University

    Sheridan A. StewartNew York University

    Social scientists have studied human behavior from the dramaturgical perspective (DP), through whichsociety is viewed as an elaborate play or game in which individuals enact different roles. The DP is morethan a theoretical construct; members of individualist, secular societies occasionally adopt the DP withrelation to their own lives. The current research examined the consequences of adopting the DP forevaluations of the self and conceptions of reality at large. Study 1 examined the attitudinal correlates ofDP endorsement to test our claim that the DP is situated in an ideological context of individualism andsecular modernism. Supporting our claim that the DP invalidates external information about the selfsvalue, in Studies 2A and 2B individuals endorsed the DP to a greater extent after a self-esteem threat, andStudies 2C and 3 showed that exposure to the DP (but not a direct system threat) buffered self-esteemthreats. Examining moderators of the DPs influence on self-esteem, Study 4 showed that taking the DPwith regard to the ultimate value (vs. concrete experience) of a social role decreased self-esteem andinvestment in that role. Studies 5A and 5B examined the DPs consequences for perceived moralobjectivism. Adopting the DP decreased moral objectivism and moralization of various behaviors but notwhen the intrinsic self was dispositionally or situationally salient. The latter finding suggests thatalthough contemporary individuals can and occasionally do adopt a reflective stance toward their placewithin social reality, they nevertheless continue to believe in a true, core self that transcends thatprecarious drama.

    Keywords: dramaturgical perspective, self-esteem, moral objectivism, culture, system threat

    Supplemental materials: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037904.supp

    Under some circumstances in everyday life the actor becomes, is, oris made aware of an actual or potential discrepancy between his realand his projected selves, between his self and his character. Hemay greet this sensed discrepancy with joy or anxiety; presumably heusually finds himself somewhere between these affective poles.(Messinger, Sampson, & Towne, 1962, p. 99)

    Since the 1950s, many scholars have analyzed social inter-action from a theoretical perspective that compares social real-ity to a stage play being performed by actors. This frameworkis most commonly associated with the work of Erving Goffman(1959), and it is often called the dramaturgical perspective (DP;Sandstrom, Martin, & Fine, 2009). Many of the theoreticalassumptions of the DP are shared by mainstream social psy-chology, albeit couched in the terms of an extended theatricalanalogy. For example, people are actors who adopt shiftingroles when sharing different stages with rotating sets of othercharacters (i.e., people have contextualized self-concepts); peo-ple enact these performances in the hope of gaining approvaland applause (i.e., people seek to maintain face and self-esteem); there is sometimes a mismatch between the perfor-mance a person puts on frontstage and the actor who emergesfrom costume backstage (i.e., people can deceive others andeven themselves due to defensive or strategic motives, and thereare differences between the extrinsic self presented to othersand the intrinsic self who a person really is); and so on.Recognizing these parallels, social psychologists have used theDP as a framework for empirically studying self-presentation

    This article was published Online First September 22, 2014.Daniel Sullivan, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona;

    Mark J. Landau, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas; Isaac F.Young, Division of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences, ClaremontGraduate University; Sheridan A. Stewart, Department of Sociology, NewYork University.

    Sheridan A. Stewart is now at the Department of Psychology, Universityof Arizona.

    We thank Ina Aguirre, Joshua Brinkley, Alexandra Chase, Joseph Die-fendorf, Lucas A. Keefer, Danielle McGarrh, Alexandra Taylor, and Me-gan Waggy for their assistance with data collection and materials prepa-ration.

    Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to DanielSullivan, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, 1503 EastUniversity Boulevard, P.O. Box 210068, Tucson, AZ 85721. E-mail:swolf22@email.arizona.edu

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    Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 107, No. 5, 767790 2014 American Psychological Association 0022-3514/14/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037904

    767

    http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037904.suppmailto:swolf22@email.arizona.eduhttp://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0037904

  • (Schlenker, 2012). They have demonstrated that people engagein various strategies to maintain their public identities in ev-eryday interactions and that people vary in the extent to whichthey tactically control their self-presentations (Jones & Pittman,1982; Snyder & Gangestead, 1986).

    It is important to note that prior theory and research use theDP to describe the routine functioning of actors inhabiting rolesbut do not addresses whether the actors themselves have psy-chological access to the DP. Yet analyses of contemporaryculture (e.g., Cohen & Taylor, 1978; Giddens, 1991; Harvey,1990; Miller, 2003; Trilling, 1972) stress that socioculturalvariables including individualism, secularism, and materialismhave increased the extent to which people adopt a DP on theirlives. To our knowledge, prior research has not examined thecauses and consequences of adopting a global, role-general DPon the selfs relationship with the social world. The currentresearch aims to fill this gap.

    Beyond examining the validity and attitudinal correlates ofthe DP as a worldview to which contemporary individuals haveaccess, we sought to determine the situations in which peoplemay be motivated to (at least temporarily) embrace this world-view. This question is interesting because, as the epigraphsuggests, individuals may experience a sense of either liberationor unease when viewing reality in this way. Under normalcircumstances, it would seem that the DP would not be aparticularly appealing or sustainable approach to social life.Because it is a somewhat abstract worldview with undertones ofrelativism and deception, individuals may normally prefer to goabout their lives assuming that the social world and the rolesthey enact in it correspond with objective reality and are notmere playacting (adopting an attitude of naive realism; Ross &Ward, 1996).

    However, we propose that when information from the socialworld reflects negatively on the individualthat is, when she(or he) feels that she is somehow failing in her performancetaking the DP may be desirable because it allows the individualto discount the threatening information as nonobjective. Thecurrent studies investigate this novel possibility as well as otherconsequences and moderators of the DP.

    The DP: A Reflective Worldview inCultural Modernity

    As mentioned above, theorists initially developed the DP asa conceptual tool for understanding how individuals go abouttheir daily social routines. Studies drawing on this perspectivewere carried out under the assumption that, at least for mostpeople in most situations, the DP was not the way in whichactors understood or experienced their daily lives (Messinger etal., 1962).

    Yet in recent years scholars have claimed that, as a result ofmodernizing processes of secularization and individualization,people in contemporary societies are increasingly more likely toadopt the DP themselves as a temporary mode of understandingsocial reality and their place within it. Although the exactcontent of the DP differs in various cultural instantiations, thepremise is always roughly the same: that reality is not what webelieve it to be but rather an elaborate farce maintained througha common suspension of disbelief. Kvecses (2005) proposed

    that the metaphor life is a show is perhaps the dominant met-aphor of contemporary U.S. culture, as instantiated in the recentphenomenon of reality television. Many recent popular filmsincluding The Matrix (Silver, Wachowski, & Wachowski,1999)and The Truman Show (Feldman, Rudin, Niccol, Schroeder, &Weir, 2003) have questioned the genuineness of reality andcompared it to a simulation or performance. Even the term metahas begun to be used by todays generation to describe acommon experience of self-conscious, ironic detachment fromreality (Raz, 2012).

    Scholars (Berger, 1963) have connected the rise of the DP ineveryday life to the historical transition to cultural modernity.Cultural modernity involves increased individualism and secu-larism, as well as decreased psychological investment in thesocial system, resulting largely from the spread of globalizedcapitalism (Giddens, 1991; Harvey, 1990). Contemporary socialpsychological research sheds light on why these socioculturalfactors would coevolve with the DP. Individualism emphasizesforming a unique perspective on reality, engaging in Socraticquestioning of social norms, and developing

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