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Social utility versus social desirability of students’ attributional self-presentation strategies

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Research on impression management has shown that students can manage their social images by providing attributional self-presentation strategies (ASPSs). Based on the distinction between social desirability judgments and social utility judgments, two studies were conducted to examine the students’ understanding of the impact of ASPSs both on teachers’ and peers’ approval and on future success. In Study 1, ninety-one undergraduate students were presented with five bogus profiles of students who based their ASPS on (a) effort, (b) ability, or (c) external attributions, (d) modesty principle, or (e) self-serving bias. They were asked to rank the profiles according to their expectations of the future academic success of each profile, and of the perceived effectiveness of the profiles in order to obtain teachers’ and peers’ approval. Study 2 explored how 100 high-school students and their teachers judge the same five bogus profiles of students used in the previous study. The findings reveal that the strategy based on effort attributions—rooted in the social utility dimension—is the most valued ones to pursue one’s achievements goal. In conclusion, the study provides further evidence about the contribution of self-presentation concerns to individuals’ causal attribution patterns for success and failure, and contribute to the theoretical debate on the dimensions underlying the social judgments.

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I thank all the participants involved in this study. I also thank the Editor and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions to improve the quality of the paper. I am also grateful to Miriam Ancarani and Sonia Barogi who collected the data. This study was supported by a grant (RFO) from University of Bologna, Italy.

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Correspondence to Maria Cristina Matteucci.



Bogus profiles presenting attributional self-presentation strategies (study 1).


[name] is a student who generally explains the cause of the events that happen to him by making reference to himself; in particular, he attributes his success mainly to the effort he usually puts into his study and school activities, while he usually ascribes his failure to not having done his best or not having worked hard enough.


[name] is a student who explains the events that happen to him at school—both success and failure—usually by making reference to himself and especially to his personal characteristics and skills or, in case of failure, to his lack of abilities.


[name] is a student that generally explains his success at school as depending on him; when asked to explain his failure he makes reference to the situation, bad luck or external circumstances that do not depend directly on him.


[name] is a student who generally explains his success at school, claiming that it depends predominantly on favorable external circumstances or on good luck, while he claims to be almost always the cause of his failure at school, attributing this to his lack of both commitment and skills.


[name] is a student who normally claims that all the events that happen to him depend on external circumstances. Particularly, he attributes his success to luck, to the situation or to other people’s help,while he attributes his failure to bad luck, circumstances, or other people’s negative intervention.

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Matteucci, M.C. Social utility versus social desirability of students’ attributional self-presentation strategies. Soc Psychol Educ 17, 541–563 (2014).

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  • Causal attribution
  • Self-presentation
  • Effort
  • Students
  • Social norms
  • Teachers