Self-Discrepancy Theory

Self-discrepancy theory was developed in an attempt to answer the following question: Why is it that when people are emotionally overwhelmed by tragedies or serious setbacks in their lives—such as the death of their child, the loss of their jobs, or the break-up of their marriages—some suffer from depression whereas others suffer from anxiety? Even when the tragic event is the same, people’s emotional reactions can be very different. The answer proposed by self-discrepancy theory is that even when people have the same specific goals, such as seniors in high school wanting to go to a good college or older adults wanting a good marriage, they often vary in how they represent these goals. Some individuals represent their goals (or standards), called self-guides in self-discrepancy theory, as hopes or aspirations: ideal self-guides. Other individuals represent their self-guides as duties or obligations: ought self-guides. According to self-discrepancy theory, this difference between ideals and oughts holds the answer to the mystery of people having different emotional reactions to the same negative life events.

Self-Guides in Self-Discrepancy Theory

Self-Discrepancy TheorySelf-discrepancy theory proposes that people represent a negative life event as saying something about their current state, their actual self now. This actual self is compared with their self-guides, the kind of person they want or desire to be (e.g., going to a good college, having a good marriage). When there is a discrepancy between individuals’ actual self and their self-guides, a self-discrepancy, people suffer emotionally. When the actual self is discrepant from an ideal, people feel sad, disappointed, discouraged— dejection-related emotions that relate to depression. When the actual self is discrepant from an ought, people feel nervous, tense, and worried—agitation-related emotions that relate to anxiety. Thus, self-discrepancy theory proposes that people’s emotional vulnerabilities depend on the type of self-guide that motivates their lives: dejection/depression when ideals dominate and agitation/anxiety when oughts dominate.

The rationale behind these predictions is that different emotions are associated with different psychological situations that people experience: Success or failure to meet your ideals produce different psychological situations than success or failure to meet your oughts. Specifically, with an ideal (i.e., one of your hopes and aspirations), you experience success as the presence of a positive outcome (a gain), which is a happy experience, and you experience failure as the absence of positive outcomes (a nongain), which is a sad experience. In contrast, with an ought (i.e., one of your duties and obligations), you experience success as the absence of a negative outcome (a nonloss), which is a relaxing experience, and you experience failure as the presence of a negative outcome (a loss), which is a worrying experience.

Self-discrepancy theory also makes predictions about the kind of parenting that is likely to result in children having strong ideal self-guides and the kind that is likely to result in children having strong ought self-guides. Again, these predictions are based on the underlying idea that self-regulation in relation to ideals involves experiencing successes in the world as the presence of positive outcomes (gains) and failures as the absence of positive outcomes (nongains), whereas self-regulation in relation to oughts involves experiencing successes as the absence of negative outcomes (nonlosses) and failures as the presence of negative outcomes (losses). When children interact with their parents (or other caretakers), the parents respond to the children in ways that make the children experience one of these different kinds of psychological situations. Over time, the children respond to themselves as their parents respond to them, producing the same specific kinds of psychological situations, and this develops into the kind of self-guide (ideal or ought) that is associated with those psychological situations. The pattern of parenting that is predicted to create strong ideals in children is when parents combine bolstering (when managing success) and love withdrawal (when disciplining failure). Bolstering occurs, for instance, when parents encourage the child to overcome difficulties, hug and kiss the child when he or she succeeds, or set up opportunities for the child to engage in success activities; it creates an experience of the presence of positive outcomes in the child. Love withdrawal occurs, for instance, when parents end a meal when the child throws some food, take away a toy when the child refuses to share it, or stop a story when the child is not paying attention; this creates an experience of the absence of positive outcomes in the child.

The pattern of parenting that is predicted to create strong oughts in children is when parents combine prudence (when managing success) and punitive/ critical (when disciplining failure). Prudence occurs, for instance, when parents childproof the house, train children to be alert to potential dangers, or teach children to mind their manners; this creates an experience of the absence of negative outcomes in the child. Punitive/critical occurs, for instance, when parents play roughly with children to get their attention, yell at children when they don’t listen, or criticize children when they make mistakes; this creates an experience of the presence of negative outcomes.

Self-discrepancy theory makes another distinction: between when individuals’ self-guides are from their own independent viewpoint or standpoint (“What are my own goals and standards for myself?”) and when individuals’ self-guides are from the standpoint of a significant person in their lives, such as their father or mother (“What are my mother’s goals and standards for me?”). The theory proposes that there are individual differences in whether it is discrepancies from independent self-guides or discrepancies from significant other self-guides that most determine individuals’ emotional vulnerabilities.

Research on Self-Discrepancy Theory

Research testing these predictions of self-discrepancy theory has been conducted with both clinical and non-clinical populations. A questionnaire has been developed that measures individuals’ actual self-discrepancies from their ideals and from their oughts (for both their own independent self-guides and their significant others’ guides for them). Research with clinically depressed and clinically anxious patients has found that discrepancies between patients’ actual selves and their ideal self-guides predict their suffering from depression more than such discrepancies predict their suffering from anxiety disorders, whereas discrepancies between patients’ actual selves and their ought self-guides predict their suffering from anxiety disorders more than such discrepancies predict their suffering from depression. Because some individuals have actual-self discrepancies from both their ideal and their ought self-guides, one or the other kind of discrepancy can be made temporarily more active by exposing them either to words related to an ideal they possess or to an ought they possess. When such priming of either an ideal or an ought occurs in an experiment, participants whose actual-ideal discrepancy is activated suddenly feel sad and disappointed and fall into a depression-like state of low activity (e.g., talk slower). In contrast, participants whose actual-ought discrepancy is activated suddenly feel nervous and worried and fall into an anxiety-like state of high activity (e.g., talk quicker).

The results of many such studies support the predictions of self-discrepancy theory regarding the distinct emotional vulnerabilities from actual-self discrepancies to ideals versus oughts. Moreover, consistent with the underlying logic of the theory, several studies have found that individuals with strong ideals are especially sensitive to events reflecting the absence or the presence of positive outcomes (gains and non-gains), whereas individuals with strong oughts are especially sensitive to events reflecting the presence or absence of negative outcomes (nonlosses and losses). Evidence also supports the predicted parenting relations between bolstering plus love withdrawal parenting and developing strong ideals, and between prudence plus critical/punitive parenting and developing strong oughts. Finally, as predicted, individual differences have been found in whether discrepancies from independent self-guides or discrepancies from significant other self-guides that most determine emotional vulnerabilities. In particular, in North America at least, discrepancies from independent self-guides are a more important determinant of emotional vulnerabilities for males than for females, whereas discrepancies from significant other self-guides are more important for females than for males.

Impact of Self-Discrepancy Theory

Self-discrepancy theory has had both a practical and a theoretical impact. Practically, a new method of clinical treatment for depression and for anxiety, called self-system therapy is based on the conceptual and empirical contributions of self-discrepancy theory. This new therapy has been shown to help some patients more than does standard drug treatment or cognitive-behavioral therapy. Studies have also found that actual-self discrepancies from ideals is a vulnerability factor for bulimic eating disorders, whereas discrepancies from oughts is a vulnerability factor for anorexic eating disorders. Theoretically, the psychological mechanisms identified by self-discrepancy theory were the foundation for another psychological theory, regulatory focus theory, which itself has increased understanding of the motivational underpinnings of decision making and performance. What self-discrepancy theory highlights is that it is not the specific goals of people that are critical. Rather, the more general concerns, the viewpoints on how the world works—a world of gain and nongains or a world of nonlosses and losses—determine the quality of people’s emotional and motivational lives.

References:

  1. Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319-340.
  2. Higgins, E. T., & Tykocinski, O. (1992). Self-discrepancies and biographical memory: Personality and cognition at the level of psychological situation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 527-535.
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