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Abstract

Symbolic self-completion theory proposes that individuals use symbols of attainment to define themselves as accomplished in self-defining areas and to communicate their accomplishments to others. The goal of the present research was to examine whether individual professors and academic departments strive for symbolic self-completion when communicating through the Internet. We hypothesized that publications, citations, and departmental rankings by the National Research Council (NRC) represent important indicators of attainment for professors, whereas professional titles (i.e., “doctor,” “professor,” or “Ph.D.”) may serve as alternate symbols of attainment. We predicted that a lack of important indicators of attainment would motivate the display of professional titles in web pages and email signature files. In Study 1, academic departments with less prestigious NRC rankings listed more professional titles on their departmental web pages compared to departments with more prestigious rankings. In Studies 2 and 3, professors with lower annual rates of publications and citations displayed more professional titles in their email signatures compared to professors with higher publication and citation rates. These results suggest that self-completion motives help to shape naturalistic Internet communications. The results further suggest that analyses of Internet communications can provide externally valid tests of theories concerned with motivation and self-processes. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.