Ought Self

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Ought Self


The ought self is a particular type of self-guide. Broadly, self-guides are representations of the self. Proposed by E. Tory Higgins (1987), self-guides are involved in self-regulation such that they provide standards for the self. The ought self is a self-guide attached to ideas about who persons feel they should be or should become. These selves are typically concerned with safety and responsibility. In contrast to the ought self is the ideal self, which represents who individuals want to become and is generally concerned with hopes and wishes.

Particular self-guides are associated with different affective experiences. Individuals who perceive a large discrepancy between their actual selves and their ought selves are more likely to experience an agitation-related affect, such as anxiety and guilt, while individuals who perceive their actual selves to be more proximal to their ought selfguides experience a relief-related affect, such as calmness.

Individuals may also differentiate between various sources of their self-guides. They may construe that their self-guides represent their own ideas of who they should become or that they represent their ideas of whom others think they should become. Regardless of the source of the guide, discrepancies involving the ought self are associated with an agitation-related affect.

The experience of discrepancy from an ought self incites a negative affect. This negative affect is unpleasant, and individuals generally want to avoid it. Consequently they will self-regulate or attempt to bring their actual selves more in line with their self-guides. In this way they reduce the perceived discrepancy between their actual selves and their ought selves. When the discrepancy is reduced, a less negative affect is experienced. In their 1994 study E. Tory Higgins, Christopher R. J. Roney, Ellen Crowe, and Charles Hymes found that individuals concerned with ought selves tend to use avoidance strategies in the process of self-regulation.

Individuals may differ in the extent to which they tend to use ought selves as self-guides. In his 1997 article, Higgins considers those who are more likely to use the ought self to be prevention-focused. That is, they are more likely to pursue goals that are related to safety and responsibility. In contrast, individuals who are more likely to use ideal selves as a self-guides are referred to as being promotion oriented.

Developmentally, parental factors may be associated with using ought selves in self-regulation. In 1998 Nanmathi Manian, Timothy J. Strauman, and Nancy Denney investigated the relationship between recollections of parental styles, temperament, and tendencies to use ought versus ideal selves. They found that individuals who recall their parents behaving in ways they perceived as rejecting were more likely to possess discrepancies between their actual selves and their ought selves. The researchers attribute this finding to an increase in the salience and usage of negative outcomes for these individuals. Additionally they found that both negative and positive temperament characteristics predicted actual and ideal discrepancies, while only negative temperament characteristics predicted actual and ought discrepancies.

SEE ALSO Emotion and Affect; Parenting Styles; Personality; Self-Representation; Temperament


Higgins, E. Tory. 1987. Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect. Psychological Review 94: 319340.

Higgins, E. Tory. 1997. Beyond Pleasure and Pain. American Psychologist 52: 12801300.

Higgins, E. Tory, Christopher R. J. Roney, Ellen Crowe, and Charles Hymes. 1994. Ideal versus Ought Predilections for Approach and Avoidance: Distinct Self-Regulatory Systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 66: 276286.

Manian, Nanmathi, Timothy J. Strauman, and Nancy Denney. 1998. Temperament, Recalled Parenting Style, and Self-Regulation: Testing the Developmental Postulates of Self-Discrepancy Theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75: 13211332.

Michelle Sherrill