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Psychologists have spent a great amount of time and energy studying the self-concept, or how individuals construe themselves. In research on the self-concept, the construct of self-schemata was introduced by psychologist Hazel Markus (1977). Self-schemata are cognitive representations of the self that have implications for information processing and self-regulation.

Schema are blocks of knowledge that help individuals categorize, organize, and process information. Markus built on this idea by suggesting that individuals possess schemas about themselves. These blocks of self-knowledge were coined self-schemata, or self-schema. Self-schemata correspond to characteristics or traits that individuals might use to describe themselves. They may also correspond to the social roles individuals would describe themselves as possessing. Taken together, self-schemata describe an individuals self-concept.

Markus and Paula Nurius (1986) expanded on the idea of self-schemata from the present to the future. These possible selves, or representations of who individuals might become in the future, are considered to be an extension of the self-concept. Future self-schemata may be positive (hoped-for selves) or negative (feared selves). Possible selves provide an evaluative context for current behavior. Additionally, they provide motivational directions for behaviors in the future by clarifying specific desired or undesired end states.

A frequent method of measuring self-schemata is to record the response speed of individuals as they respond to characteristics presented on a computer screen. Individuals are asked to hit buttons that correspond to the phrases me or not me. The more quickly an individual is able to respond to an idea, whether the response is positive or negative, the more schematic that individual is in that domain. An alternative way of measuring schematicity is to have individuals list characteristics they view as relevant to their self-concept. The former methodology has the advantage of reducing the influence of social desirability.

John Kihlstrom and colleagues (1988) show that individuals who are schematic are more likely to notice information relevant to that schema and more likely to perceive their own and others behavior as relating to that schema. Further research by Ann Ruvolo and Markus (1992) shows that both self-schemata and possible selves are associated with increased memory. This research is consistent with the self-referent effect, the tendency of individuals to more easily remember information that is relevant to themselves. The explanation for these effects is that schema relating to the self are highly accessible.

Research on possible selves suggests that future-oriented self-schemata are related to self-regulation. When possible-self standards are salient for individuals, they are more likely to behave in ways that help them approach hoped-for selves and avoid feared selves. Markus and Daphna Oyserman (1990) extended possible-selves theory by showing that self-regulation is most successful for individuals who possess both a salient hoped-for and salient feared self in the same domain.

SEE ALSO Schemas; Self-Concept; Self-Discrepancy Theory; Self-Monitoring


Kihlstrom, John. F., et al. 1988. Information Processing and the Study of the Self. In Social Psychological Studies of the Self: Perspectives and Programs. Vol. 21 of Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. Leonard A. Berkowitz, 145178. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1988.

Markus, Hazel. 1977. Self-schemata and Processing Information about the Self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35: 6378.

Markus, Hazel, and Paula Nurius. 1986. Possible Selves. American Psychologist 41: 954969.

Oyserman, Daphna, and Hazel Markus. 1990. Possible Selves in Balance: Implications for Delinquency. Journal of Social Issues 46: 141157.

Ruvolo, Ann P., and Hazel Markus. 1992. Possible Selves and Performance: The Power of Self-relevant Imagery. Social Cognition 10: 95124.

Michelle Sherrill