Research Interests

Mark R. Leary

At the most general level, my interests are in social and personality psychology, centering around topics involving self and identity, interpersonal motivation and emotion, and interfaces of social and clinical psychology. I have been particularly interested in how people's behavior and emotion are affected by their concerns about others' impressions, evaluations, and acceptance of them. I'm also quite interested in the ways in which peoples' inner self-talk creates personal and social problems and in the role of egoic (and hypo-egoic) processes on emotion and behavior

Self and Identity

Human beings are unique among members of the animal kingdom in their ability to think consciously about themselves. Even our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos, have only a rudimentary capacity for self-relevant thought, and monkeys lack self-awareness altogether. Only because they have the capacity for self-reflection can people imagine themselves in the future, anticipate the consequences of their behavior, think about who they are and what they are doing, deliberately improve themselves, and perform many other behaviors that are uniquely characteristic of human beings. Thus, a full understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior requires consideration of the self.

Self-presentation. One feature of having a self involves the ability for people to infer what others are thinking about them. Because people's outcomes in life depend heavily on how others perceive and evaluate them, they are motivated to convey certain impressions of themselves to others and to refrain from conveying other, undesired impressions. Thus, no matter what else they may be doing, people typically monitor and control their public identites--a process known as self-presentation or impression management. A great deal of human behavior is, in part, determined or constrained by people's concerns with others' impressions and evaluations of them. I have been interested in many aspects of self-presentational processes.

For example, I have conducted research on:
  • factors that determine the nature of the impressions people desire to convey in particular situations,
  • the self-presentational tactics that people use to present images of themselves to others,
  • conditions under which people attempt to convey negative as opposed to positive impressions of themselves
  • the role of self-presentational processes in emotional and behavioral problems, and
  • the deleterious health consequesnces of being concerned with one's slef-presentations
Self-esteem. I have also been working for several years on a reconceptualization of self-esteem and self-esteem motivation. Sociometer theory suggests that the self-esteem system is an internal, psychological gauge that monitors the degree to which the individual is being included versus excluded by other people. Self- esteem, then, is not a person's own personal self-evaluation as much as it is an internal representation of social acceptance and rejection. The sociometer perspective provides a framework for understanding the extensive literature on self-esteem, as well as the link between self-esteem and emotional and behavioral problems.

Egoicism and hypo-egoicism. Most recently, I have become interested in the maladaptive effects of self-awareness and egoicism. The premise of my book, The Curse of the Self , is that the same mental apparatus that permits people to self-reflect is responsible for many of the personal and social difficulties that people face as individuals and as a species. My students and I are currently studying egoic states in which people are strongly controlled by their egos, as well as hypo-egoic states in which people's egos exert minimal influence on their thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Interfaces of Social, Clinical, and Health Psychology

Historically, researchers interested in interpersonal behavior (primarily social psychologists) and those interested in psychological difficulties (mainly clinical and counseling psychologists) have contributed little to one another's work. During the past 25 years, however, efforts have been made to develop a viable interface between social psychology on one hand and clinical-counseling psychology on the other. Much of my work lies at this interface, exploring ways in which social psychological processes contribute to adjustment, well-being, and dysfunction. For example, our research on self-conscious emotions, self-esteem, self-compassion, interpersonal rejection, and hypo-egoic states deals with phenomena that are directly or indirectly related to psychological and social well-being. Recently, we have examined these phenomena in the elderly and in people who have HIV. In addition to research that bridges topics of interest to social and clinical-counseling psychologists, I wrote a book (with Rowland Miller) on Social Psychology and Dysfunctional Behavior (1986), edited a volume (with Robin Kowalski) on The Social Psychology of Emotional and Behavioral Problems: Interfaces of Social and Clinical Psychology (1999), and developed a book of Key Readings at the Interface of Social and Clinical Psychology (2004).

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