Self-Discrepancy in Sports Psychology

Self-discrepancy  is  incongruence  (i.e.,  mismatch, lack  of  agreement)  in  one’s  perception  of  his  or her  actual  attributes  and  one’s  internalized  standards  or  ideals.  In  sport  and  exercise  psychology  (SEP),  self-discrepancies  are  often  studied  in the  realm  of  body  image,  whereby  actual  weight is  compared  to  an  ideal  that  is  either  established from  societal  norms  or  desired  based  on  conceptions of what is healthy, attractive, and/or socially desirable.  Discrepancies  are  also  studied  within sport  as  incongruence  in  actual  athletic  abilities and desirable skills for a position or team, and as mismatches between what athletes need and want (ideal state) compared to what they perceive they get from their coaches (actual state).

Self-Discrepancy Theory

Based  on  the  self-discrepancy  theory,  proposed by  Edward  Tory  Higgins,  people  who  hold  conflicting  or  incompatible  beliefs  about  themselves will likely experience emotional discomfort. These conflicting or incompatible beliefs arise when people’s  beliefs  of  themselves  do  not  match  the  ideals  or  standards  they  have  set  for  themselves  or internalized  from  others  (called  self-guides).  The conflicting  or  incompatible  beliefs  of  the  self  can be experienced in any domain of the self, including  but  not  limited  to  social  relationships,  moral responsibilities,  financial  achievement,  and  physical self.

Domains of the Self

The   self   is   defined   as   consisting   of   three domains:  the  actual  self  (i.e.,  the  representation  of  the  attributes  one  is  believed  to  possess, either  by  oneself  or  others),  the  ideal  self  (i.e., the  representation  of  the  attributes  one  hopes, wishes,  or  aspires  to  posses),  and  the  ought  self (i.e.,  the  representation  of  the  attributes  one should, by virtue of one’s sense of duty, or responsibility, possess).

Standpoints of the Self

The  “self”  domains  are  also  distinguished  as two points of view from which one can be judged: one’s own personal standpoint and the standpoint of  some  significant  other  (e.g.,  a  parent,  sibling, partner,  friend).  Self-state  representations  can  be distinct  for  various  significant  others.  Although these  distinctions  of  self-state  representations  are unique to self-discrepancy theory, most researchers have focused on one’s own standpoint.

There  are  six  basic  types  of  self-state  representations:  actual–own,  actual–other,  ideal–own, ideal–other, ought–own, and ought–other. Actual– own  and  actual–other  are  generally  considered one’s  self-concept,  whereas  the  ideal  and  ought self-states  from  one’s  own  or  other  standpoint are  considered  self-guides  (i.e.,  internalized  standards). People differ on which self-guide they are motivated to meet, yet they are motivated to reach a condition in which their self-concept (actual self) matches their personally relevant self-guide (ideal and/or ought selves) from either their own standpoint  or  from  the  perceived  standpoint  of  some significant other.

Emotional Outcomes

Based  on  self-discrepancy  theory,  a  mismatch  in actual–ideal or actual–ought selves results in specific   emotional   and   motivational   difficulties. Discrepancies  between  one’s  actual  and  ideal self, from his or her own standpoint, result in the absence  of  a  positive  outcome  (failure  to  meet hopes  and  desires),  and  predicts  dejection-related emotions (e.g., dissatisfaction, sadness, disappointment,  depression).  If  the  actual–ideal  discrepancy is perceived from the standpoint of another, with inherent  failure  to  have  met  someone’s  expectations, shame and embarrassment may also be associated with dejection-related emotions.

Self-discrepancies  between  actual  and  ought self-domains  result  in  a  presence  of  negative outcomes,  and  in  agitation-related  emotions  of resentment,  fear,  and  frustration  when  the  ought self  is  from  an  other’s  standpoint  (i.e.,  a  person’s perceived actual attributes do not match the attributes  the  person  believes  some  significant  other considers  to  be  his  or  her  duty  and  obligation). Agitation  emotions  such  as  guilt,  self-contempt, and uneasiness are outcomes when the ought self is from one’s standpoint (since people believe they have  not  met  a  personally  accepted  moral  standard).  Furthermore,  researchers  suggest  that  the greater the discrepancy, the more pronounced the emotional  outcome.  While  the  self-discrepancy theory  is  a  template  to  help  understand  how  certain  discrepancies  relate  to  emotional  outcomes, the  actual–ideal  self-state,  from  one’s  own  standpoint, has been the predominant focus in research and practice.

Physical Self-Discrepancies

In  SEP,  a  large  proportion  of  the  self-discrepancy research  is  focused  on  the  physical  self.  Self-discrepancies related to actual and ideal (or ought) weight  status,  body  shape,  and  attractiveness  are foundational  to  a  number  of  body  image  frameworks  and  theories  of  motivation  and  emotion. For example, it has been argued that Westernized cultures  are  so  pervasively  driven  by  unrealistic ideals of thin and toned for females and muscular and  tall  for  males  that  there  is  a  normative  discontent  brought  about  by  comparisons  between one’s actual self and these often unattainable ideals. It is estimated that a majority of women hold thin  body  ideals  that  are  unrealistically  thinner than  their  actual  bodies,  resulting  in  a  mismatch between  their  actual–own  and  ideal–own  perceptions.  These  particular  body-related  discrepancies have  been  linked  to  body  dissatisfaction,  eating disorder  symptomatology,  shame  and  negative emotions,  depression,  and  maladaptive  exercise and  eating  patterns.  Compared  to  men,  women tend to report a greater number and magnitude of discrepancies  in  their  actual  and  ideal  self-states pertaining to the physical self. Research examining self-discrepancies in men is limited.

Measures and Analytical Considerations

There  is  no  single  measure  that  has  been  considered  the  gold  standard  in  measuring  self-discrepancies. Some of the more prominent scales include  the  Selves  Questionnaire  (participants identify  traits  and  attributes  for  different  self-states and standpoints, and discrepancies are calculated as the number of matches and mismatches between  self-state  attributes),  self-lines  questionnaire (a graphical representation of self-states and the  distance  between  the  identified  self-states  is used to calculate discrepancies), Likert-scale type tools  such  as  the  physical  self-discrepancy  scale (attributes  of  the  physical  self  are  identified  and participants  identify  to  what  extent  their  self-states  match  the  descriptors),  and  index  measures  such  as  the  Integrated  Self-Discrepancy Index  that  combine  idiographic  and  nomothetic methods.  Other  commonly  used  measures  for body-related   self-discrepancies   have   involved identifying  body  shapes  and  sizes  that  represent one’s  actual,  ideal,  and  ought  physiques  and  calculating  a  discrepancy  between  the  body  shapes and sizes.

Commonly,  discrepancy  scores  have  been  used in  analyses  predicting  emotional  and  behavioral outcomes.  However,  discrepancy  scores  present methodological  problems  such  as  reduced  reliability, ambiguity, confounded effects, and dimension reduction. Drawing from congruence work in business and commerce domains, it may be more useful and appropriate to use component measures in analyses (i.e., treat the actual, ideal, and ought self-states  as  independent  predictors).  The  use  of polynomial  regression  techniques,  combined  with response surface methodology, has been advocated to  best  understand  the  associations  among  self-discrepancies  and  affective,  cognitive,  and  behavioral outcomes.


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