The self has a long history of study within the psychological tradition, dating back to early work by William James in his seminal book The Principles of Psychology (1890). Throughout the next century of study, self-concept was examined by numerous researchers who emphasized both internal characteristics and external influences on the selfconcept. Though some researchers have looked at self-concept as a global construct, many agree that the self-concept is composed of multiple components. Much of the research has focused on the cognitive structure of the self-concept as well as the related evaluative component of self-esteem. In general, the self-concept is an individual’s perceptions of the self arising from multiple components, including how one sees oneself in interaction with others as well as how one views oneself in isolation.
Susan Harter wrote extensively about self-concept development in her book The Construction of Self: A Developmental Perspective (1999). Her detailed account of the emergence of self-concept begins as the self-concept appears around the age of two, first manifesting as a recognition of the self as a distinct physical entity. The development of autobiographical memory is important in the emergence of self-concept in that before the age of two, children may have generic memories but do not yet have a memory of the self. Through discourse with parents in which past events involving the child are recounted, children begin to form autobiographical memories and an evolving autobiographical portrait of the self. Another important influence on the emerging self-concept of children is the attachment relationship with the caregiver. From the attachment relationship, children form internalized representations of others and how the self fits into the social world. This is important to the child’s asserting his or her unique influences on the world and to viewing the self as a unique entity interacting with the external world.
Increasing cognitive and social demands cause the development of the child’s self-concept to change from being based upon only a few components or poorly clarified to a more organized and clear formulation based on several clearly distinct domains. Different roles that are required of children as development progresses require the child to develop different sets of behaviors and personality characteristics according to the current role. Some of these roles and traits may clash, such as when a child sees him- or herself as warm and friendly with peers and moody and unresponsive with parents. As the child moves into adolescence, cognitive capabilities enable the child to integrate all of these roles and clashing components into a coherent sense of self.
Another important component of Harter’s account of the development of self-concept is the idea of self-worth. Self-worth is determined from the evaluation of the components of the self; Harter stresses that self-worth is formed primarily from areas that are important to the self. This echoes the ideas of William James and asserts that not only is the self formed of multiple components, but also that these components differ in their importance to the individual. Each component is evaluated separately, such that individuals may feel they are skilled in some domains and not as skilled in other areas. Harter contends that these areas of importance are developed through feelings of competence in different areas. In an individual with a positive sense of self, the areas in which he or she feels competent are more highly weighted than those areas in which he or she does not feel competent.
This close connection between self-concept and self-worth suggests that self-concept is closely related to its evaluative side, frequently termed self-esteem. Though often talked about as separate constructs, these two areas may be difficult to separate, as Harter points out that many of the components of the self are evaluative in nature. For example, when asked to define the self-concept, an individual might list adjectives such as “smart,” “funny,” or “good-looking.” However, these words are in themselves evaluative. Thus the self-concept and self-esteem are two constructs that are discussed as though they are separate, but in fact they are closely related.
Another area subject of study closely related to the self-concept is the cognitive structure of the self. Social cognition researchers view the self-concept as an organized set of knowledge about the self, and as such, how the different components are organized becomes important. Herbert Marsh and Richard Shavelson developed an influential theory of the self as organized in a hierarchical structure (1985): A stable sense of self is at the apex of the hierarchy, which then branches into academic and nonacademic components, and each of these further differentiates into more specific self areas.
Patricia Linville made important contributions to the literature on the self-concept structure with her self-complexity theory (1985), which asserts that the knowledge about the self is organized into multiple cognitive structures known as “self-aspects.” These self-aspects are organized in relation to each other, with related aspects being linked in a network structure. Different social contexts and cognitions activate different self-aspects, which in turn activate other linked aspects. The complexity of the self-concept is a result of both the number of self-aspects and the interrelatedness of those aspects. A complex self-concept is composed of a large number of independent aspects.
Linville further asserted that having a complex self-representation is positive for mental health. This is due to the network structure of the self. When a negative event occurs in an area related to one self-aspect, the individual is likely to experience negative affect in that area. A simple self structure may have two important consequences. First, if there are few self-aspects, the negatively affected area represents a large part of the self, and so a negative event leads to negative feelings about the self. Second, if the self-concept is composed of highly interrelated aspects, then this negative event is likely to trigger negative feelings in all other associated areas; Linville referred to this as affective spillover. In these two ways a simple self-concept is more affected by any one event, whereas a more complex self-concept has more stability. According to Linville, a complex self-concept leads to more stability in affect, which is associated with better mental health. Later studies have questioned these ideas and aimed to clarify the effects on self-complexity on mental health.
One example of this is Carolyn Showers’s 1992 investigation of how positive and negative self-aspects may be separated or related. Showers found that how they are related matters to levels of self-esteem and depression. When positive self-aspects are important to overall self-worth, compartmentalization of positive and negative aspects results in higher self-esteem and reduced levels of depression. In contrast, when negative self-aspects are important, compartmentalization is associated with negative effects, and furthermore, when negative self-aspects are important, a more complex self is better for positive psychological well-being. Therefore, one modification to Linville’s 1985 theory has been that the content of the structure matters to the buffering impact as well as to the structure. Other clarifications have also been made to more fully understand the impact of self structure.
Some theorists have argued that the content and structure of the self-concept are unrelated, whereas others, such as Showers, argue that they work in concert. Although there is a distinction between what can be defined as content and structure in the self-concept, several studies suggest that both of these areas are important.
Another topic in the self-concept literature is the debate about whether the self-concept is dynamic or stable. Some scholars argue that the self-concept is stable once formed; others maintain that it is a more malleable construct. Some social cognition researchers view the self-concept as both stable and changing: There are components to the self that are stable across situations, but there are also components that may change in their expression depending on the context. For example, when asked about his self-concept, a young man in school might mention intelligence as an important part of himself, but in a social setting he might stress social skill as more important. Context as well as self-presentation issues may come into play as important in terms of viewing the self as stable or malleable.
With such a broad field of study, there are many ways to measure self-concept. Explicit measures of self-concept are often used to assess different areas that an individual might find important to the self. Examples of commonly used explicit measures include the Piers-Harris “Children’s Self-Concept Scale” (1969), Susan Harter’s “Self-Perception Profile” (1985), and Marsh and colleagues’ “Self-Description Questionnaire” (1984). Implicit measures of self-concept and self-esteem are also used; one example is the “Implicit Association Test.” This measure examines response times between sets of stimuli and is based on the idea that items that are cognitively related should have a faster association than items that are unrelated (Greenwald, McGhee, and Schwartz 1998).
SEE ALSO Child Development; Identity; James, William; Self-Esteem; Self-Schemata; Social Cognition; Social Cognitive Map
Greenwald, Anthony G., Debbie E. McGhee, and Jordan L. K. Schwartz. 1998. Measuring Individual Differences in Implicit Cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 1464–1480.
Harter, Susan. 1985. Self-Perception Profile for Children: Manual. Denver, CO: University of Denver Press.
Harter, Susan. 1999. The Construction of the Self: A Developmental Perspective. New York: Guilford Press.
Linville, Patricia W. 1985. Self-Complexity and Affective Extremity: Don’t Put All of Your Eggs in One Cognitive Basket. Social Cognition 3: 94–120.
Marsh, Herbert W., and Richard Shavelson. 1985. Self-Concept: Its Multifaceted, Hierarchical Structure. Educational Psychologist 20: 107–123.
Marsh, Herbert W., Jennifer Barnes, Len Cairns, and Marjorie Tidman. 1984. Self-Description Questionnaire: Age and Sex Effects in the Structure and Level of Self-Concept for Preadolescent Children. Journal of Educational Psychology 76: 940–956.
Piers, E. V. 1969. Manual for the Piers-Harris Children’s Self Concept Scale. Nashville, TN: Counselor Recordings and Tests.
Wylie, Ruth C. 1974. The Self-Concept. Rev. ed., vol. 1. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Melanie B. Hoy
"Self-Concept." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/self-concept
"Self-Concept." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/self-concept
The way in which one perceives oneself.
Self-concept—the way in which one perceives oneself—can be divided into categories, such as personal self-concept (facts or one's own opinions about oneself, such as "I have brown eyes" or "I am attractive"); social self-concept (one's perceptions about how one is regarded by others: "people think I have a great sense of humor"); and self-ideals (what or how one would like to be: "I want to be a lawyer" or "I wish I were thinner").
While a number of philosophers and psychologists have addressed the idea that behavior is influenced by the way people see themselves, investigation into the importance of self-concept is most closely associated with the writings and therapeutic practices of Carl Rogers . The self—and one's awareness of it—lie at the heart of Rogers'client-centered therapy and the philosophy behind it. According to Rogers, one's self-concept influences how one regards both oneself and one's environment . The self-concept of a mentally healthy person is consistent with his or her thoughts, experiences, and behavior. However, people may maintain a self-concept that is at odds with their true feelings to win the approval of others and "fit in," either socially or professionally. This involves repressing their true feelings and impulses, which eventually causes them to become alienated from themselves, distorting their own experience of the world and limiting their potential for self-actualization , or fulfillment. The gulf between a person's self-concept and his or her actual experiences (which Rogers called incongruence) is a chronic source of anxiety and can even result in mental disorders. According to Rogers, a strong self-concept is flexible and allows a person to confront new experiences and ideas without feeling threatened.
Social psychologists have pointed out that self-concept also plays an important role in social perception— the process by which we form impressions of others. Attribution—how we explain the causes of our own and other people's behavior—is particularly influenced by our own self-concept. Social learning theory is also concerned with the ways in which we view ourselves, especially in terms of our perceived impact on our environment. In the first major theory of social learning, Julian B. Rotter claimed that the expected outcome of an action and the value we place on that outcome determine much of our behavior. For example, people whose positive self-concept leads them to believe they will succeed at a task are likely to behave in ways that ultimately lead to success, while those who expect failure are much more likely to bring it about through their own actions. In a general theory of personality he developed subsequently with two colleagues, Rotter designated variables based on the ways that individuals habitually think about their experiences. One of the most important was I-E, which distinguished "internals," who think of themselves as controlling events, from "externals," who view events as largely outside their control. Internal-external orientation has been found to affect a variety of behaviors and attitudes.
Rogers, Carl. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.
Rogers, Carl, and B. Stevens. Person to Person: The Problem of Being Human. New York: Pocket Books, 1967.
Rotter, Julian B., June Chance, and Jerry Phares. Applications of a Social Learning Theory of Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.
"Self-Concept." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/self-concept
"Self-Concept." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/self-concept