Independent Self-Construals

Independent Self-Construals Definition

Independent Self-ConstrualsSelf-construal refers to the way in which a person thinks about and defines the self. Importantly, self-construal is not only a way of viewing oneself but also a way of understanding one’s relationship to the larger social world. When people are construing or thinking about themselves in an independent way, they are likely to think first and foremost about the personality traits (e.g., “I am outgoing”), abilities (e.g., “I am a great cook”), and preferences (e.g., “I love the purple jellybeans but hate the green ones”) that, in combination, create a profile of the self that is uniquely their own. An independent self-construal, because of its emphasis on internal and distinctive personal characteristics, is thus one in which the self is seen as a unique individual, fundamentally separate from others. Interestingly, thinking of the self in this independent way has been shown to have a profound influence on both cognition and behavior.

Independent Self-Construals Background

Given that viewing the self relative to one’s unique personality and distinct abilities and attitudes is what has traditionally been thought of as self-definition, one could argue that much of the existing research on the self has explored independent self-construals. Indeed, the recognition that an independent construal of the self might be just one of several types of self-views wasn’t widely accepted until the early 1990s, after cross-cultural research by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama revealed that describing the self in terms of unique attributes was a typical North American and European construal of the self but did not adequately portray the self-views of members of East Asian and Latin American cultures, because they typically describe the self in a more social fashion through referring to important relationships and groups. The recognition that thinking about the self as unique was a distinct type of self-construal opened the door to research that would better reveal its cognitive and behavioral consequences.

Subsequent research also paved the way by revealing that independent self-construals could be activated in everyone, regardless of culture. Independent self-construal can be understood as thinking of the self as only a “me” rather than as part of a larger “we.” Researchers discovered that an independent self-construal could be encouraged by either directly asking participants to describe themselves in ways that made them different from others, or by indirectly priming them to think of the self this way by reading independently focused stories or even having them circle the words I, me, and mine. This methodological discovery allowed research to be conducted that could specifically assess what effects holding an independent construal had, regardless of cultural context.

Cognitive Effects

One of the most interesting discoveries about independent self-construal concerned its impact on overall perception and cognition. Researchers have found that defining the self in an independent way encourages one to perceive the world in a more independent or context-free way. In an ingenious set of studies, Uli Kuhnen and Daphna Oyserman showed that when one is thinking of the self as a unique individual regardless of social relations, one also attends and processes the physical world in terms of unique objects rather than their relations. In other words, people with an independent self-construal truly do ignore the forest by paying too much attention to the trees! This finding has implications for social perception—and may explain why North Americans so easily fall prey to the fundamental attribution error, or failing to think about the pressures of the social situation when explaining another person’s behavior (e.g., assuming someone who is late to a meeting is irresponsible, rather than considering that he may have been caught in traffic). Interestingly, this focus on other people’s dispositions rather than the situation as the cause of their behavior could be simply a social side effect of the more general cognitive processing style of paying attention to individual actors and objects rather then considering their broader context.

Values and Social Behavior

When people construe the self as independent, it increases the importance of maintaining autonomy from others. Values like freedom, choosing one’s own goals, and leading a pleasurable life take precedence, and independent people are uncomfortable with punishing people who engage in negative interpersonal behavior and break social norms to the extent that it could interfere with the individual right to “do your own thing.” In addition, the construal of the self as separate from others means that personal pleasures and accomplishments are the primary basis for life satisfaction and well-being. Researchers who study the influence of self-construal on well-being have consistently found that for people with an independent self-construal, personal self-esteem has much more of an impact on their reported life satisfaction than does the quality of their social relationships. Moreover, when individuals are thinking of the self in an independent fashion, they pay more attention to, and more actively pursue, tasks that seem to offer a high likelihood of personal success.

As for social behavior, the data concerning independent self-construal are mixed. On the one hand, several researchers have shown that thinking of the self in an independent fashion appears to have detrimental consequences for social interaction and behavior. Many studies have shown that independent construals result in people’s behaving more competitively with one another, working less hard on group tasks, becoming less helpful to others, and performing poorly at group problems and social dilemmas. However, a recent line of research by Sonja Utz has revealed that the relationship between independent self-construal and social behavior may be more complex than it originally appeared. Her work points out that an independent self-construal fundamentally focuses the person inward, activating the self-concept, and motivates the person to behave in a way that is consistent with his or her unique personality. Thus, to the extent that someone holds a strong and central value for cooperation, making the person think of the self as independent may actually result in cooperative rather than competitive behavior because of the coherence of the behavior with the person’s own self-concept. In other words, it seems than an independent self-construal may encourage a person’s core personality characteristics, whether prosocial or selfish, to drive behavior.


  1. Gardner, W. L., Gabriel, S., & Lee, A. Y. (1999). “I” value freedom but “we” value relationships: Self-construal priming mirrors cultural differences in judgment. Psychological Science, 10, 321-326.
  2. Kuhnen, U., & Oyserman, D. (2002). Thinking about the self influences thinking in general: Cognitive consequences of salient self-concept. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 492-499.
  3. Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.
  4. Utz, S. (2004). Self-activation is a two-edged sword: The effects of I primes on cooperation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 769-776.