Self Definition

In psychology, the notion of the self refers to a person’s experience as a single, unitary, autonomous being that is separate from others, experienced with continuity through time and place. The experience of the self includes consciousness of one’s physicality as well as one’s inner character and emotional life.

SelfPeople experience their selves in two senses. The first is as an active agent who acts on the world as well as being influenced by that world. This type of self is usually referred to as the I, and focuses on how people experience themselves as doers. The second is as an object of reflection and evaluation. In this type of self, people turn their attention to their physical and psychological attributes to contemplate the constellation of skills, traits, attitudes, opinions, and feelings that they may have. This type of self is referred to as the me, and focuses on how people observe themselves from the outside looking in, much like people monitor and contemplate the competence and character of other people.

History and Development of the Self

Everyone has an experience of self. That self, however, can be quite different from the one experienced by another person. For example, historians suggest that people in medieval times experienced themselves quite differently from the way people do today. Literature from that time suggests that people did not possess the rich interior lives that people experience today but, rather, equated a person’s self with his or her public actions. Not until the 16th century, according to the literature of the time, did people conceive of an inner self whose thoughts and feelings might differ from the way he or she acted. Over time, that inner self would become to be considered as the individual’s real self, which reflected who the person really is. Today, people feel their selves are more accurately revealed by their interior thoughts and feelings rather than by the actions they take (although people often reverse this stance in their opinions of others, thinking others are revealed more by their actions than by their feelings and beliefs they express about those actions).

People also differ in their experience of self as they age and develop. Indeed, evidence indicates that people are not born with a sense of self, but that the notion that one is a separate and autonomous being is one that the child must develop. For example, suppose you placed a large orange mark on the forehead of a toddler, and then put the toddler in front of a mirror, a procedure known as a mark test. Children don’t begin to show any recognition that it is their self that they are seeing in the mirror, reaching for their own foreheads to touch the mark, until they are between 18 and 24 months old.

The senses of self that children develop may also differ from the mature one they will attain when they are older. In 1967, Morris Rosenberg asked 10-year-olds to describe themselves in 10 sentences. The children tended to describe themselves in physical terms. Not until a few years later did children, at the edge of adolescence, began to describe themselves in terms of their personality and character. However, some psychologists believe that a psychological rather than a physical sense of self develops much earlier than 10 years old. For example, ask young children if someone would be a different person if that person’s body were replaced by someone else’s, and children generally say no. However, if that person’s personality were replaced by another individual’s personality, children argue that that person’s self has now been changed.

People in different cultures may also differ in the elements that make up their sense of self. North Americans and Western Europeans tend to view themselves as independent beings. Ask them to describe themselves, and they tend to dwell on their individual skills and personality traits (e.g., as an intelligent, moral, and hardworking individual). Individuals from the Far East (e.g., Japan), however, tend to ascribe to a more interdependent view of self, defining who they are in terms of their social relations and place in the world. Ask them to describe themselves, and they tend to focus more than do Americans on social roles that they fill in their everyday life (e.g., as mother, or daughter, or as a manager in a local firm).

Some mental illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s or bipolar affective disorder, alter or disrupt people’s experience of the self. For example, people suffering from autism appear to possess rather concrete, physical experiences of self. They do not experience the self at a more abstract level. If they answer a questionnaire about their personality traits, they later do not remember the traits that they said they possessed. This is in sharp contrast to people not suffering from autism, who show a strong memory bias toward recalling the traits they said were self-descriptive. This difference can be explained if one assumes that nonsufferers have a self-schema about themselves, that is, a cognitive representation of their inner personality that aids their later memory. Those with autism, it appears, do not have a self-schema that is as richly developed.

In addition, schizophrenia can damage a person’s experience of self. The disordered thought associated with schizophrenia can lead people to lose the experience of themselves as an individual with an unbroken history from the past to the present. Schizophrenia can also lead a person to confuse where his or her self ends and the outside world begins. This can be an important aspect of hallucinations and delusions. People suffering from schizophrenia may lose track of how much they themselves author their hallucinations, instead thinking that the hallucinations come from the outside world.

Implications of the Self

The self that people possess has profound implications for their thoughts, emotional reactions, and behavior. For example, the thoughts people have often are crafted to maintain the sense of self that they possess. This is especially true for thoughts about other people. The impressions that people tend to have about themselves (their “me’s”), at least in North America and Western Europe, tend to be rather positive ones with many strengths and proficiencies. People tend to see other people who share some similarity as also imbued with these same strengths and weaknesses, whereas people who are different are more likely to be seen as having shortcomings and weaknesses. In this way, people can bolster their self-impressions as lovable and capable people.

A sense of self also influences the emotions people feel. People do not feel merely bad or good, but experience an entire panoply of emotions. Some emotions arise because people view that they authored the actions that produced them. When students study hard and do well on tests, they feel happy and proud. If they wrong a friend, they do not feel unhappy; they feel guilty. If they are worried about how their action looks to others, they feel shame, or perhaps embarrassment. Many emotions involve self-consciousness, and the experience of all these emotions requires a sense of self.

Finally, people’s views of themselves can significantly affect their behavior. People often act in ways to maintain the view of self they possess. For example, if you ask people whether they would give to charity, they will likely say yes. If someone else approaches them a few days later and asks them to donate, people are then more likely to donate (relative to a group not asked), even though they do not connect the second request to the original question. In a similar way, if you ask a person whether people should save water during a drought, he or she typically responds that they should and do. If you then point out what a long shower the person just had (such as is done in studies of hypocrisy), the person is much more likely to take shorter showers in the future. In short, the actions people take are constrained by the views they have of themselves, especially if those views are made salient to them.


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