Self Discrepancy Theory

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Self Discrepancy Theory


Self discrepancy theory was introduced by psychologist E. Tory Higgins (1987) with the purpose of explaining the relationship between aspects of the self and affect. In this theory, Higgins posits that individuals possess different types of self-guides, or standards, against which they compare their current self. These comparisons yield information that individuals are either near their self-guides or are distant from them. In the case of proximity to self-guides, individuals experience positive affect. In the case of discrepancy from self-guides, individuals experience negative affect. This affect is differentiated by the type of self-guide being used in comparison. Individuals may compare themselves to an ideal self-guide, which represents their hopes or wishes. Or they may compare themselves to an ought self-guide, which represents their obligations or responsibilities. Comparisons made to ideal self-guides result in affect along an elation-dejection spectrum: Proximity to ideal standards yields affect such as happiness and joy, while discrepancy from ideal standards yields affect such as depression and sadness. Comparisons made to ought self-guides result in affect along a relief-agitation spectrum: Proximity to ought self-guides yields affect such as calmness and contentment, while discrepancy from ought self-guides yields affect such as nervousness and guilt. The magnitude of discrepancy is related to the experience of negative affect such that the greater the discrepancy, the greater the negative affect.

Timothy Strauman (1992) applied self discrepancy theory to psychological disorders of emotion. He found that individuals reporting symptoms of depression had larger discrepancies from their ideal selves, while individuals reporting symptoms of anxiety had larger discrepancies from their ought selves.

Self discrepancy assumes that self-regulation occurs in response to the negative affect experienced as the result of a discrepancy. This self-regulation occurs through a discrepancy-reducing feedback process in which individuals exert changes on their behavior in response to a noticed discrepancy. Feedback about individuals progress toward self-guides is transmitted back to the individual, and behavioral change is either continued or terminated.

An expansion of this theory by Higgins (1997) suggests that individual differences in self-guides are chronic and related to personality. He labeled individuals who tend to have accessible ideal self-guides as promotion-oriented and individuals who tend to have accessible ought self-guides as prevention-oriented. These different types of goal orientations are expected to influence the types of goals individuals pursue, as well as the contexts under which they will experience the most successful goal pursuit.

Measurement of discrepancies often occurs through the Selves Questionnaire. On this questionnaire, individuals list attributes associated with each of the different self-states (own-actual, own-ideal, own-ought, other-actual, other-ideal, other-ought). Correlations and partial correlations among the self-states are computed to determine magnitude of discrepancy. Some researchers may opt to use only the self-states from the individuals own perspective.

SEE ALSO Self-Guides


Higgins, E. Tory. 1987. Self-discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect. Psychological Review 94 (3): 319340.

Higgins, E. Tory. 1997. Beyond Pleasure and Pain. American Psychologist 52 (12): 12801300.

Strauman, Timothy J. 1992. Self-guides, Autobiographical Memory, and Anxiety and Dysphoria: Toward a Cognitive Model of Vulnerability to Emotional Distress. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 101: 8795.

Michelle Sherrill