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Image or impression management


One of the newer phrases we’re seeing in parole denials is allegations of ‘image (sometimes called impression) management,’ implying the changes portrayed by the subject of the parole hearing are more cosmetic (surface) that actual or are being highlighted for purposes of manipulation. In using this term, the parole panels are somewhat conflating two different, though interrelated psychological theories, Image Management and Impression Management.


Image Management is defined as efforts to create first impressions and having those first impressions convey an impactful presence. This is done by evaluating how others perceive and respond to us and enhancing our image through improvement of appearance, body language and etiquette, all based on an understanding of our authentic selves, roles and goals. Image management could more simply be phrased as ‘putting your best foot forward,’ or ‘making a good first impression.’


Image Management involves 3 elements: 1. Dressing 2. Grooming 3. Body Language. These form an image, a visual representation of self. To a certain extent, the visual image of someone affects the way they view themselves as well as how others view and react to them.


In the outside world, this would mean showing up well-groomed, being interactive and polite, and conveying honesty. In the world of parole hearings, it’s the same. Come as though you were going to a job interview; after all, you’re interviewing for a position in your new life of freedom. Image management is an effort to show your real traits and goals in a credible manner.


Impression Management is a little more manipulative. It’s an attempt to influence how others perceive us by regulating and controlling information available to others via providing extensive ‘explanations’ for negative events or outcomes that allow evasion of responsibility for those events or outcomes and can include efforts to “speak or behave in ways consistent with the target,” this according to Erving Goffman, the author of the theory of Impression Management.


Impression Management is considered an attempt to influence the perceptions of others, regardless of reality, and can be used to both good and bad intent. The ethics of impression management are widely debated as to whether it is an effective method of self-revelation/transparency or a cynical means of manipulation.

People most often use impression management in situations where it’s important to be perceived favorably by a group or individual(s) they are interacting with. Say, at a parole hearing. Because methods of Impression Management (Self-Promotion, Ingratiation, Exemplification, Redirection) can be seen as inauthentic, this is a less desirable practice than Image Management, because in a parole situation, it means someone has not actually changed so much as s/he has learned to portray change.


However, the board appears to be using the terms interchangeably, which begs the question if the panel members know/recognize the difference. And indeed, the differences are very nuanced, and perhaps it’s more than should be expected of either parole panels or those before them to understand. It’s a bit like frosting a cake—the frosting is the attractive and tempting public face of the cake, but if there isn’t any substance, any ‘cake’ beneath the frosting, it will not hold up.


Those who are less invested in personal change and growth than they are concerned about the perception of that change and growth may present with rehabilitation efforts that are broad and wide (lots of courses and groups) but shallow (they can’t really explain or tie any of those courses/groups to their situation) and have learned just enough to provide a superficial discussion that sounds good, uses standard or ‘buzz’ words and phrases, but have not learned enough depth to apply those principles to their own situations.


It's a very serious use of the old “OOO, Shiny!” distraction. Sort of like saying, ‘Look over here board members! Look at all the stuff I’ve done/certificates I have! Look at how smart and rehabilitated I am! No! Don’t look back there, at that stuff I haven’t dealt with yet (you know, stuff like entitlement, criminal thinking, substance abuse issues). That’s not what’s interesting! It’s this shiny stuff I’m throwing out you need to look at.’


And while you can ‘image manage’ prior to your board hearing (come well groomed, open and ready to participate and communicate, polite and civil, ready to interact), impression management (ingratiating, self-serving comments, rearrangement or omission of facts, self-aggrandization) is a much trickier practice and seldom successful.


According to renowned psychologists Oglivie, Schlenker and Leary, people tend to manage their impressions so that their images coincide with their desired selves and stay away from images that coincide with their undesired selves, publicly claiming attributes consistent with their desired identity and openly rejecting identities that they do not want to be associated with. In lifer world, that often manifests as touting one’s avid participation in (but not always accomplishment of) rehabilitative programs, while dismissing lingering, less positive issues, such as criminal thinking, minimization or blame-shifting.


It’s a normal part of human nature and culture that people are inclined to conform their self-presentations to comport with what they believe individuals whose opinion is important to them value, say parole commissioners. This can lead to them sometimes fashioning their identity into something the subject believes those ‘important people’ will value, if not through outright fabrication, then via selectively highlighting actual aspects of themselves they think will be valued by those they are seeking to impress, while withholding or minimizing information they believe will be seen negatively.


Research studies show that people are often likely to be more pro-social in their actions when that pro-social activity is publicized or recognized in some manner, and frequently will engage in more prosocial actions, such as being overly helpful, agreeable or in-sync with societal norms when attempting to repair a damaged social image. Such as someone attempting to atone for an anti-social/criminal act.


Those who attempt to impression manage usually manifest some degree of narcissism, certainly elements of denial, and criminal thinking. And those who put their efforts into impression management rather than real efforts toward rehabilitation, trying to ‘fake it till you make it,’ usually find their efforts at ‘faking it’ are recognized for exactly what they are; fake.

How to distinguish between the two, to recognize when you’ve crossed the line from putting your best foot forward (image management) to over-blowing your accomplishments (impression management)? First, is what you’re expounding the real, actual truth, or more heavily weighted to what you’d like the situation to be, what you think your audience (the parole panel) wants to hear? Secondly, are you providing minute details about your ‘accomplishments and ‘change’ (hint: if an answer to one question takes more than 2 minutes of solo explanation, you’re over-compensating).


Are the phrases coming out of your mouth full of multi-syllable words that sound really good, and you’ve heard other people use, but you really don’t know what they mean? Yeah, you’re probably in Impression Management territory. Are you just too darn good to be true, with everything you’ve done and why the heck are you still in prison? Ditto.


Know this about the parole panels: their “BS” meters are very well attuned; they know your history and accomplishments; if they have doubts about your credibility, they have ways of checking a myriad of things, including visiting and phone logs, and won’t hesitate to do so; they have heard and seen it all.


They ask questions. Your job is to ask for clarification if you don’t understand the question, give a thoughtful, honest and humble answer in a succinct and concise manner. If the panel members want more detail, they’ll ask for it.


Go to your hearing with a positive attitude, willing to discuss your struggles and mistakes in a realistic, non-confrontational manner. State your accomplishments fairly, own up to the negative source and impact of your past actions, be open about your struggles and what you’ve done to address those issues. This will portray an honest, open image and create a lasting impression of a person who could be considered for parole.


Minimizing, self-aggrandization, playing the victim and/or the hero will be seen for what it is—impression management. What that all boils down to is manipulation, a prime component of criminal thinking. And certainly not something you want to parole panel to consider one of your most obvious traits.


For examples of image vs. impression management, read on.


Impression Management Styles & Examples:


Impression management by Self-Promotion (Bragging)

· Talk proudly about your experience, education and job skills out of context (Advancing your education is always a plus, but that doesn’t compensate for lack of self-help & understanding--still getting 115s for substance use, but have an AA in Psychology)


· Make sure people are aware of your talents & abilities, even if not germane to the point of the discussion (Rock-star level musician? Nice, but how does that make you suitable?)


Impression management by Ingratiation (Flattery)

o Thank the board for holding your hearing today. Assure them you know they’ve got a hard job. (It isn’t a favor; it’s done to comport with the law and all parties know that)


o Display your extensive vocabulary, so the panel will know you recognize them as intelligent, even as intelligent as you, so you’ve got something in common. (This only shows your ego).


Impression management by Exemplification or Supplication (Conformity)

§ Make people aware of your accomplishments. (Donate to charity fund drives? Good for you. But pro-social people do good because they want to, not so they can talk about it)


§ Your family support letters appeal to emotion: “Please let Johnny come home before grandma dies at 101 without seeing him.” (Sad, but you and your family are not the victims of the crime and sadly, Grandma’s age has no impact on your suitability.)


Impression management by Redirection (Smoke and Mirrors)

Ø Readily ‘take responsibility’ for your actions in perfunctory manner but follow with extensive explanations of the smallest details and how those numerous technicalities somehow mitigated your actions. (The ‘Ooohh Shiny!’ concept—look over here, not over there).


Ø Provide long and convoluted responses to simple questions, a technique used to distract from negative information by overloading the questioner with confusing and needless detail. (Beware that introducing a new rabbit hole for the panel to examine, so they don’t look at the familiar one, doesn’t introduce new avenues of questions).


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