Self-guides are constructs in social psychology that refer to representations of the self. Self-guides are desired self states that have motivational implications and are involved in the process of self-regulation.
The various types of self-guides, proposed by psychologist E. Tory Higgins (1987), are the actual self, the ideal self, and the ought self. The actual self refers to the way individuals view themselves currently. The ideal self refers to the person that individuals would like to be, and the ought self refers to the person that individuals feel they should be. Individuals’ ideal self-guides tend to be associated with hopes and wishes, while their ought self-guides tend to be concerned with safety and responsibility. These ought self-guides represent the internalization of expectations of others and society.
The source of self-guides can also be distinguished as being from the self or from an other. For instance, an individual might have a self-guide that represents who he would ideally like to be, as well as a self-guide that represents who his father thinks he ought to be.
Comparisons can occur between any of these self-guides. Individuals may compare their own ideal selves with others’ ideal selves for them. Or they may compare their own actual self with their own ought self-guide. It is through these comparisons that self-guides are associated with self-regulation. Individuals may experience a discrepancy between their actual self and either their ought or ideal self. Such discrepancies lead to the experience of negative affect. It is assumed that this experience of negative affect motivates individuals to change their behavior in the hopes of reducing the discrepancy between their actual self and a self-guide. A reduction in this discrepancy then leads to a reduction in the experience of negative affect. Successful self-regulation is equated with lacking a discrepancy and is associated with experiencing positive affect. Failure to self-regulate is equated with experiencing a discrepancy and is associated with negative affect.
Research has found that the positive and negative affect experienced can be differentiated by the type of self-guide used in comparison. Discrepancies between actual selves and ideal selves are associated with dejection-related affect, such as depression and sadness. Discrepancies between actual selves and ought selves are associated with agitation-related affect, such as anxiety and guilt.
Individuals may differ in regard to the type of self-guide that is chronically accessible for them. These differences carry implications for goal pursuit and information processing. Higgins (1997) expanded his theory to suggest that individuals with chronic ideal self-guides tend to pursue goals that are related to promotion or growth, whereas individuals with chronic ought self-guides tend to pursue goals that are related to prevention or safety. Lisa Evans and Richard Petty (2003) show that individuals pay more attention to and more thoroughly process information that is presented in a way consistent with their more prevalent self-guide.
SEE ALSO Self-Discrepancy Theory
Evans, Lisa M., and Richard E. Petty. 2003. Self-Guide Framing and Persuasion: Responsibly Increasing Message Processing to Ideal Levels. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29 (3): 313–324.
Higgins, E. Tory. 1987. Self-discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect. Psychological Review 94 (3): 319–340.
Higgins, E. Tory. 1997. Beyond Pleasure and Pain. American Psychologist 52 (12): 1280–1300.