Self-concept refers to people’s characteristic ideas about who they are and what they are like. Although psychologists often talk about the self-concept, a person’s self-concept typically consists of a loose collection of ideas rather than a single unified conception of the self. The self-concept is grounded in subjective experience. This means that a person’s self-concept may be different from what he or she is actually like.
History of Self-Concept
One of the first psychologists who wrote about the self-concept was William James, a psychologist in the late 19th century. James distinguished between the I and the ME. The I is the part of the self that is actively perceiving and thinking. The ME is the part of the self that becomes an object of the person’s thoughts and perceptions. The self-concept relates primarily to the ME.
Adaptive Functions of the Self-Concept
Having a self-concept is a uniquely human trait. The capacity to form a self-concept presumably evolved because it promoted survival and reproduction among early humans. Because people have a self-concept, they can consider themselves in alternative times and circumstances. Thus, one adaptive function of the self-concept lies in helping people plan for the future. Goals, particularly ideals and obligations, are indeed central to people’s self-concepts. When a person’s current self differs from his or her desired self, this motivates the person to take action to move closer to the desired self. Another adaptive function of the self-concept is to facilitate social behavior. When people view themselves similarly as their interaction partners, this helps people predict how others will behave toward them. A shared cultural background may lead people to construe their self-concepts in a similar manner. For instance, people living in Western cultures like the United States or France tend to regard themselves as more independent from others. By contrast, people living in Eastern cultures such as Japan or India tend to think of themselves as more mutually dependent. When people have similar self-concepts, they may understand each other better.
Structure of the Self-Concept
Self-concepts have a certain structure. One important aspect of the structure of the self-concept is self-complexity. Individuals with a complex self-concept distinguish between many distinct aspects or dimensions of themselves. Individuals with a simple self-concept view themselves in terms of only a few broad aspects or dimensions. Individuals with a simple self-concept are more vulnerable to stress than are individuals with a complex self-concept. This is because individuals with a complex self-concept can overcome negative feedback in one self-domain (e.g., getting fired from one’s job) by turning their attention to other self-domains (e.g., one’s family life, religion). Individuals with a simple self-concept cannot follow this strategy.
Another important aspect of the structure of the self-concept is whether self-views are implicit or explicit. Explicit self-views are ideas about the self of which people are consciously aware. Implicit self-views are ideas about the self that are unconsciously held. Self-views may become unconscious when people use them over and over again, so that these ideas become like automatic mental habits. Explicit self-views are easier to observe than implicit self-views are. This is mainly because people themselves do not know about their implicit self-views. Nevertheless, implicit self-views can be observed indirectly because they influence how people respond to self-relevant objects or situations. Implicit self-views are especially likely to guide people’s behavior when people rely on their immediate intuitions, for instance, when people are responding very quickly or when they are distracted.
When people learn about themselves, certain kinds of information are especially valuable to them. It seems intuitively plausible that people should be interested in obtaining accurate information about themselves. The desire for accurate information about the self has been called the self-assessment motive. As it turns out, self-assessment is not the only motive surrounding the self-concept. Three additional motives have been found to influence how people construct their self-concepts. First, people want to receive positive, self-enhancing feedback, which is known as the self-enhancement motive. Second, people want to confirm what they already believe about themselves, which has been called the self-verification motive. Third, people want to learn things that help them to improve themselves, which is known as the self-improvement motive.
Self-assessment, self-enhancement, self-verification, and self-improvement jointly determine which information people use to construct their self-concepts.
However, the motives sometimes conflict. For instance, self-enhancement leads people to prefer positive feedback, even when their self-concepts are negative. However, self-verification leads people with negative self-concepts to prefer negative feedback. The conflict between self-enhancement and self-verification motives has been extensively studied by psychologist Bill Swann and associates. These researchers found that self-enhancement drives people’s immediate emotional reactions to self-relevant information. However, self-verification may still prevail in people’s cognitive beliefs about themselves. People with a negative self-concept may thus internalize negative feedback, even when this feedback is emotionally painful to them. People with a positive self-concept don’t experience this conflict because for them, both self-enhancement and self-verification foster a preference for positive feedback.
The different self-concept motives become dominant under different circumstances. Self-enhancement is the most automatic motive, at least among people living in the West. Self-enhancement therefore becomes stronger when people are distracted or emotionally aroused. Self-assessment becomes stronger when people are deliberating about the pros and cons of a course of action. Self-verification becomes stronger when people possess great confidence in their beliefs about themselves. Finally, self-improvement becomes stronger when people believe that they can change their self-attributes. Moreover, self-improvement is particularly strong among people in Eastern cultures.
- Baumeister, R. F. (1998). The self. In D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 680-740). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Kihlstrom, J. F., & Klein, S. B. (1994). The self as a knowledge structure. In R. S. Wyer, Jr., & T. K. Srull (Eds.), Handbook of social cognition (Vol. 1, pp. 153-208). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Sedikides, C., & Skowronski, J. J. (1997). The symbolic self in evolutionary context. Personality and .Social Psychology Review, 1, 80-102.