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).
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.
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.
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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