views updated May 21 2018


The self is the central concept used to represent the individual in sociological social psychology. The importance of the self reflects the influence of symbolic interactionism in sociology. In the last twenty years social psychologists trained in psychology also have developed a strong interest in the self as their emphasis has shifted from behaviorism to cognitive theories (Baumeister, 1998).


The social psychological conception of the self is based on the idea that people are reflexive, responding to themselves just as they respond to other "objects." Since reflexive thinking requires language, it is assumed that infants and nonhuman animals lack a self-concept. However, there is some evidence that chimpanzees are aware of what they look like, since they notice markings on their faces (Gallup 1977). This self-recognition suggests that some animals and prelinguistic humans have a rudimentary sense of self but that it lacks meaning or content.

Some sociologists, particularly those with a philosophical and qualitative orientation, view the self as a process involving people's internal conversations. Those with a more positivistic and quantitative orientation emphasize more stable aspects of the self. From their point of view, the self-concept refers to all the ways in which people describe themselves. These linguistic descriptions refer to the way people think they are, no to their actual personal characteristics.

People describe themselves in many different ways. One way to find out about the content of the self-concept is to ask respondents to answer the question "Who am I?" Studies of responses to this question reveal that people often think of themselves in terms of their roles (or role identities). For example, people often describe themselves on the basis of their sex, age, race, and occupation. Stryker (1968) suggests that these and other roles are organized in a hierarchy according to their salience for a person. The salience of a role is based in part on the extent to which adequate performance of that role affects relationships with "significant others." Salience is also a function of how distinctive a role is (McGuire and Padawer-Singer 1976). For example, a female is more likely to mention her gender in describing herself if she is in a group of males.

People also describe themselves in terms of personal attributes, such as "lazy," "smart," and "attractive." In contrast to roles—which usually are described with nouns—these self-concepts are more likely to be defined by adjectives. They often reflect individuals' conceptions of their abilities or performance in different roles. For example, on a questionnaire children can be asked, "How smart in school do you think you are, among the smartest, above average, average, or below average?" Respondents sometimes try to be objective in answering this type of question and to place themselves according to the criteria they think the researcher is using. Sometimes they report more subjective feelings about where they stand in accordance with their own standards. For example, professional athletes may be dissatisfied with their level of play even if they think they are better than most people. Other personal attributes involve self-attributed traits such as "aggressive" or "nice." Also included here are the ways in which people characterize their beliefs and attitudes. For example, people may conceive of themselves as prejudiced or not independently of whether they are prejudiced by an objective standard.

While individuals think of themselves in terms of specific roles and specific evaluations of their personal attributes, they also have a more general opinion of themselves (Gecas and Burke, 1995). This global evaluation Brown, 1993 called self-esteem and is measured by statements such as "I feel I do not have much to be proud of" and "At times I think I am no good at all" (Rosenberg 1965). The global nature of self-esteem is indicated by the tendency of individuals to describe themselves as consistently positive or negative on different personal attributes. However, self-esteem also has different dimensions, such as self-efficacy and self-worth (Gecas 1982). Self-esteem, like depression and anxiety, usually is considered an aspect of mental health. Research using longitudinal data has shown that self-esteem affects and is affected by depression among adolescents (Rosenberg et al. 1989).

There is considerable evidence that people are motivated to enhance their self-esteem. For example, respondents tend to give inflated evaluations of themselves on anonymous questionnaires. In addition, subjects in experiments are more likely to explain their successes in terms of internal attributes, such as effort and ability, while attributing their failures to external factors, such as task difficulty (Bradley 1978).


Some self-statements are more temporary than those described above, involving the roles or personal attributes people use to describe themselves in particular situations. For example, a woman may think of herself as a "teacher" when she is talking to her students and as "foolish" when she has made a mistake. If repeated, these situational images may become stable as people come to believe them. Emotions also can be considered temporary self-concepts if one thinks of them as statements about how people say they feel rather than as a physiological process. Thinking about emotions in this way leads to the examination of how emotions are affected by social processes.

Some scholars focus on the presentation of situational self-images to others (Goffman 1959). Borrowing language from the theater, they view behavior as a performance displayed in front of an audience, a form of self-presentation or impression management. This approach presents a challenge to those who attempt to measure self-concepts, since it suggests that responses on questionnaires reflect self-presentation rather than privately held beliefs. Researchers try to minimize this problem by using carefully worded questions and guaranteeing anonymity.

Situational self-images often are studied in laboratory experiments. For example, subjects may be asked to respond after receiving false feedback about themselves. To determine whether a self-description involves impression management, the privacy of subjects' responses may be manipulated. When behavior in front of an audience is different from behavior performed in private, this suggests that the behavior reflects impression management rather than privately held beliefs. This type of research also can tell researchers something about how behavior is affected by subjects' awareness that they are being studied. Some behaviors in experimental settings have been shown to result from subjects doing what they think is expected of them (Orne 1962).

Self-presentation behavior is particularly likely to occur when people have done something that is apt to gain disapproval from an audience. When people find themselves in these "predicaments," they are embarrassed and engage in various forms of "facework" to avoid a negative image. Frequently, people give excuses and justifications in an attempt to explain their behavior and avoid condemnation from others. Research shows that subjects are more likely to use self-presentation tactics when they are dependent on the audience for rewards. An important role of self-presentation in conformity, altruism, aggression, and other behaviors has been demonstrated. For example, self-presentation processes are important in explaining the behavior of bullies and the tendency for people to retaliate when attacked (Tedeschi and Felson 1994).


Three processes have been used to explain why people have favorable or unfavorable opinions about themselves: (1) attribution, (2) comparison, and (3) reflected appraisal. The first two processes have been emphasized by psychological social psychologists, while the third has been the focus of sociological social psychologists, particularly those sympathetic toward symbolic interactionism.

According to attribution theory, people learn about themselves and others in similar ways. Individuals base judgments about themselves on observations of their own behavior just as they base judgments about others on their observations of those people's behavior (Bem 1972). These judgments are socially influenced, since beliefs about the association of behaviors and personal attributes are learned from others. In judging their abilities, for example, people rely in part on observations of their performances on tasks they believe reflect those abilities. Thus, children who get high grades tend to attribute more ability to themselves. Individuals are likely to attribute a high level of ability to themselves when there is a consistent pattern of success (Kelley 1967).

When people view their behavior as being caused by external forces, they treat it as uninformative about themselves. However, when they view their behavior as being internally caused, there is likely to be some change in their self-appraisals. For example, research shows that external rewards sometimes can reduce the motivation of children to do things they have enjoyed in the past, such as playing with magic markers (Deci and Ryan 1980). If they are rewarded for playing with magic markers, they tend to lose interest when they are no longer rewarded because they attribute their behavior to the reward rather than to their intrinsic motivation. The external reward can decrease their interest in the behavior because it affects their judgments about why they did it. More generally, there is evidence that people's behaviors can affect their attitudes, just as their attitudes can affect their behaviors (Liska et al. 1984). For example, a person may decide that she likes an activity because she observes herself voluntarily engaging in that activity.

Comparison processes are also important factors in the development of self-appraisals. They affect the standards people use in evaluating their behavior. For example, students may think a B is a good grade or a poor grade depending on the standard they use. Standards are a function of two types of comparisons. A temporal comparison is a comparison of present performance and past performance. People are likely to judge their recent performances more harshly if they have been successful in the past. A social comparison is a comparison of one's own behavior to the behavior of others. The more successful the others are, the higher the standard is and the more negative the self-appraisal is. Thus, subjects are more negative in describing themselves when there is another person with very positive qualities present than they are when that person has negative qualities (Morse and Gergen 1970). This implies that self-appraisals tend to be more favorable if one is a "big fish in a small pond." For example, research shows that high school students tend to have more negative self-appraisals of their academic ability if their schoolmates are bright (Felson and Reed 1986). However, sometimes the performance of others has a positive effect on self-appraisal. This occurs when people "borrow status" from successful others with whom they are associated and "bask in reflected glory" (Cialdini et al. 1976).

Festinger (1954) suggested that social comparison processes result from the desire to gain accurate appraisals of one's abilities and to find out whether one's opinions are correct. When objective information is not available, people compare themselves to others. Further, Festinger suggested that people usually choose similar others for comparison because the behavior of those persons provides the most information. Some research has examined the hypothesis that people evaluate their abilities by comparing themselves to others who are similar to themselves on attributes (other than ability) that are related to performance. For example, comparisons with people who have engaged in a similar effort will be the most informative. Similarly, if a boy believes that gender is related to athletic performance, he will compare himself to other boys in order to decide how much athletic ability he has.

According to the reflected appraisal process, people come to see themselves as others see them, or at least as they think others see them. This notion of the "looking-glass self" focuses on how individuals think they appear to others (Cooley 1902). According to Mead (1934), this helps explain the initial formation of self in young children. Mead suggested that when children roleplay, they respond to themselves when they play the role of others. This role-taking process leads them to see themselves as objects. Later, the appraisals of significant others shape the specific content of people's self-concepts. The appraisals of others are accurately perceived and then are incorporated into the self-concept. Significant others may have special expertise or may be parents or close friends, but those who influence one aspect of the self-concept do not necessarily influence other aspects.

Experimental research suggests that subjects' self-appraisals are affected by the false feedback they receive from others. Survey research—which examines correlations between self-appraisals, the appraisals of significant others, and a person's perception of those appraisals—suggests that the appraisals of significant others are not perceived very accurately (Schrauger and Schoeneman 1979). Apparently, rules of politeness limit the amount of open communication—particularly criticism—making it difficult for people to find out what others think of them (Felson 1980). When feedback is given, it tends to involve specific comments about behavior rather than global evaluations. When praise is given, it often is not believed. As a result, people usually have only vague, general impressions of what others think of them and self-appraisals tend to be idiosyncratic and idealized (Felson 1989). While others are in some agreement about a person, that person does not share in the consensus. In addition, ambiguous feedback allows people to think more favorably about themselves and thus protect their self-esteem.

This discussion also applies to global self-esteem. Educators and parents may overemphasize the importance of praise in the development of self-esteem in children. While there is evidence that parents' praise and other supportive behavior affects the self-esteem of children (Felson and Zielinski 1989), successful performance in activities that children value may be more important.

There are other processes that increase the correspondence between people's appraisals of themselves and the appraisals of others. First, in some instances, people have access to the same information others have. For example, children's self-appraisals of their ability and their friends' appraisals of them correspond, because both are affected by the children's grades. Second, some other people can influence self-concepts if they have control over formal evaluations. For example, evidence shows that teachers influence self-concepts because they assign grades, but that is usually the extent of their influence in this area.

The discussion above has focused on the inter-personal environment. Social-demographic characteristics also affect self-appraisal. Social class, for example, has been shown to affect the self-esteem of adults but not that of children (Rosenberg and Pearlin 1978). Blacks and whites, by contrast, have similar levels of self-esteem (Porter and Washington, 1993; Wylie, 1979). A key element here appears to be whether people associate with others who are like themselves. The self-esteem of minority group members is likely to be lower in more heterogeneous settings where invidious comparisons are made and where members of higher-status groups may act in prejudicial ways.


The way individuals think of themselves has an important impact on how they behave. Thus, people who think of themselves in terms of particular role identities tend to act in ways that are consistent with those identities. For example, a man who identifies himself as a father will engage in the behaviors he associates with being a father. These roles provide links between the individual and society. Individuals are plugged into the social structure through the roles that are mapped onto selves. In other words, role performance reflects the way people think about themselves. Of course, people vary in terms of the importance they attach to different roles. When people must decide between roles, they tend to choose the role more salient to them (Stryker 1968). For example, the choice between doing work and playing with children on a Sunday afternoon may reflect the relative salience of family and occupational roles.

Success and failure frequently are attributed to variations in self-confidence. Self-appraisals and performance are certainly correlated, but this does not necessarily mean that the former causes the latter. Longitudinal studies, which attempt to disentangle these causal relationships, suggest that students' global self-esteem does not affect their academic performance. However, there is evidence that specific self-appraisals of ability affect performance. Longitudinal analyses of high school students suggest that self-appraisals of academic ability have an effect on grades (Felson 1984). Self-appraisals of ability affect performance through two processes: effort and test anxiety. Those who are self-confident about their ability are likely to work harder because they think effort will bring success. In addition, they are less anxious when they are tested, and so nervousness does not interfere with their performance. However, the effect of self-appraisal on performance probably is not as strong as people think. The effect of grades on self-appraisal is much stronger, suggesting that success is more likely to lead to self-confidence than self-confidence is to lead to success.

Causal interpretation has been problematic in the study of the effects of self-concept on other behaviors as well. While self-esteem and various self-appraisals have been shown to correlate with behavior, it is difficult to show that the self-concepts cause the behaviors. Relatively few studies have attempted to sort out these relationships. Exceptions include longitudinal studies that suggest that low self-esteem increases delinquency among adolescents (e.g., Kaplan 1980; Rosenberg et al. 1989). In general, criminologists today are more likely to attribute criminal behavior to low self-control than to low self-esteem.

An interesting experimental method for examining the effects of self-concept on behavior has been suggested by Duval and Wicklund (1972). They suggest that since much human behavior is automatic or habitual, people do not always think about themselves before they engage in a behavior. These authors argue that self-concepts affect behavior when attention is directed toward the self rather than toward the environment, a condition they call "objective self-awareness." Objective self-awareness is likely to occur when people are in unfamiliar surroundings, when there are disruptions in social interaction, and when people find themselves in a minority. Mirrors are commonly used in experiments to create objective self-awareness. These studies show that subjects are more likely to engage in behavior that is consistent with their self-standards when they are facing a mirror (e.g., Beaman et al. 1979). In addition, there are individual differences: Some people are more chronically focused on themselves as objects. The behavior of such people is more likely to be consistent with their self-appraisals and internalized standards.

A number of researchers have examined the role of self-concepts in resisting change. For example, research suggests that people are motivated to reaffirm self-concepts when they are challenged (Swann 1984). Markus (1977) considers the generalizations people make about themselves as "selfschemas" that affect the way they process information. Self-schemas usually refer to personality traits (e.g., "independent" and "generous") that people attribute to themselves on the basis of past actions. Once formed, they affect the information people attend to and remember and how quickly they process it. For example, people are more likely to learn and recall information that is associated with their self-schemas. In other words, self-schemas act like filters, guiding the processing of incoming information. Thus, self-schemas have a conservative function because they lead people to focus on information that is consistent with their views of themselves.


The determinants and consequences of the self have become central concerns for both sociologically and psychologically trained social psychologists. Self-concepts depend on the way individuals think they are viewed by others, on individuals' observations of their behavior, and on the standards individuals use to judge that behavior. These judgments in turn depend on the performance (for comparison) and appraisals of others. Self-concepts have consequences in that they affect which roles are performed and how successfully they are performed. They also affect conformity and deviance and the management of impressions. Finally, they are important in their own right as indicators of mental health.


Baumeister, Roy 1998 "The Self." In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske & G. Lindzey, eds., Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Beaman, A. L., B. Klentz, E. Diener, and S. Svanum 1979 "Objective Self-Awareness and Transgression in Children: A Field Study." Journal of Personality and SocialPsychology 37:1835–1846.

Bem, Daryl 1972 "Self-Perception Theory." In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 6. New York: Academic Press.

Bradley, G. W. 1978 "Self-Serving Biases in the Attribution Process: A Reexamination of the Fact or Fiction Question." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36:56–71.

Brown, J. D. 1993 "Self-esteem and Self-evaluation: Feeling is Believing." In J. Suls, ed., PsychologicalPerspectives on the Self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cialdini, R. B., R. J. Borden, A. Thorne, M. R. Walker, S. Freeman, and L. R. Sloan 1976 "Basking in Reflected Glory: Three (Football) Field Studies." Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology 34:366–374.

Cooley, Charles H. 1902 Human Nature and the SocialOrder. New York: Scribner's.

Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan 1980 "The Empirical Exploration of Intrinsic Motivational Processes." In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social psychology, vol. 13. New York: Academic Press.

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Felson, Richard B. 1980 "Communication Barriers and the Reflected Appraisal Process." Social PsychologyQuarterly, 43:223–233.

Felson, Richard B. 1984 "The Effects of Self-appraisals of Ability on Academic Performance." Journal ofPeronality and Social Psychology 47:944–952.

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Festinger, Leon 1954 "A Theory of Social Comparison Processes." Human Relations 7:117–140.

Gallup, G. G., Jr. 1977 "Self-Recognition in Primates: A Comparative Approach to the Bidirectional Properties of Consciousness." American Psychologist 32:329–338.

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Richard B. Felson


views updated May 29 2018








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 individuals 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 childs 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 childs 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 Harters 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 Showerss 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 Linvilles 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 Childrens Self-Concept Scale (1969), Susan Harters 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: 14641480.

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: Dont Put All of Your Eggs in One Cognitive Basket. Social Cognition 3: 94120.

Marsh, Herbert W., and Richard Shavelson. 1985. Self-Concept: Its Multifaceted, Hierarchical Structure. Educational Psychologist 20: 107123.

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: 940956.

Piers, E. V. 1969. Manual for the Piers-Harris Childrens 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


views updated May 18 2018


The way in which one perceives oneself.

Self-conceptthe way in which one perceives oneselfcan 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 selfand one's awareness of itlie 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. Attributionhow we explain the causes of our own and other people's behavioris 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.

Further Reading

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.


views updated May 21 2018


The self-concept is the accumulation of knowledge about the self, such as beliefs regarding personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles. Beginning in infancy, children acquire and organize information about themselves as a way to enable them to understand the relation between the self and their social world. This developmental process is a direct consequence of children's emerging cognitive skills and their social relationships with both family and peers. During early childhood, children's self-concepts are less differentiated and are centered on concrete characteristics, such as physical attributes, possessions, and skills. During middle childhood, the self-concept becomes more integrated and differentiated as the child engages in social comparison and more clearly perceives the self as consisting of internal, psychological characteristics. Throughout later childhood and adolescence, the self-concept becomes more abstract, complex, and hierarchically organized into cognitive mental representations or self-schemas, which direct the processing of self-relevant information.



Damon, William, and Daniel Hart. Self-Understanding in Childhood and Adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Harter, Susan. "The Development of Self-Representations." In Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol. 3: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, 5th edition, edited by William Damon and Nancy Eisenberg. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998.

Lewis, Michael. "Social Knowledge and Social Development." Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 36 (1990):93-116.

Jeannette M.Alvarez