Phenomenal Self

Phenomenal Self Definition

The phenomenal self reflects information about oneself that is in a person’s awareness at the present time. This salient self-knowledge influences people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The phenomenal self at any given moment is only a portion of all of the self-relevant information an individual has stored in memory. The reason for this is the amount of knowledge that people have about themselves is so vast that it is impossible and impractical for everything that one knows about himself or herself to be in awareness at one time.

Phenomenal Self Thus, the phenomenal self represents that subset of self-knowledge—including beliefs, values, attitudes, self-ascribed traits, feelings of self-worth, autobiographical memories, interpersonal relationship knowledge, and goals and plans—that is currently in consciousness. The concept also recognizes the possibility that on occasion the phenomenal self is not part of one’s immediate experience, that is to say, sometimes people are not self-aware. Related constructs in social psychology include terms such as working self-concept, spontaneous self-concept, relational self, and possible selves, which are similar to the phenomenal self in that they imply that the content of self-awareness is limited and changes across situation and time.

Phenomenal Self Background

The self is one of the central constructs in personality and social psychology and has generated a great amount of research. The widely accepted view of the self is that it is a set of linked memories that include people’s knowledge about who they are, their values, preferences, goals, past experiences, and self-ascribed dispositions and traits. When in awareness, these memories serve as guides for behavior. For example, a person who is made self-aware by being placed before a mirror is more likely to behave in ways that are consistent with his or her traits than if he or she were not self-aware.

A survey of the vast amount of research on the self provides two contradictory pictures. One view is that the self is stable and consistent across time and situations. This view is supported by research that demonstrates that the self is a complex but highly integrated mental representation or set of memories. Moreover, people are motivated to maintain stable, consistent knowledge of who they are through their interactions with others as well as their tendencies to filter and distort information that would challenge their self-conceptions. The second view is that the self is somewhat in flux and changes subtly across time and situations. This view is supported by research that finds even minor changes in context can have pronounced effects on how people think about themselves. For example, asking people to present themselves to another individual as competent or extraverted versus incompetent or introverted, leads to changes in how people think about themselves and behave toward others in terms of competence or introversion-extraversion. This finding has been termed the carryover effect in that it reflects the carryover or influence of public, social behavior on people’s private views of self.

The phenomenal self implies a view of self that allows the self to be stable in general while fluctuating in response to changes in social context, behavior, motivations, and moods. If available self-knowledge is too vast to fit into consciousness at one time, then the phenomenal self represents a summary statement of self-knowledge that is currently accessible from the potentially vast array of available self-knowledge stored in memory. Social context and current moods and motivations are like a spotlight on the self that illuminates certain pieces of information and makes them more accessible and in awareness than are other pieces of information. As contexts, moods, and motivations change, the spotlight shifts and different information is illuminated and attended to. In technical terms, context, mood, and motivation can lead the individual to a biased scanning of self-knowledge so that relevant information is in awareness while less pertinent information remains outside of awareness. Thus, contexts, moods, and motivations produce moment-to-moment shifts in the phenomenal self, but the underlying available self-knowledge is believed to be relatively stable.

Phenomenal Self Implications

The demonstration of contextual and motivational influences on shifts in the phenomenal self has relevance to issues such as self-concept change. On the surface, these momentary changes in the phenomenal self seem to be just that, momentary, with no long-term significance for the self. A shift in one direction—for example, spending the day alone at the beach and thinking of oneself as somewhat introverted—will be replaced by new self-views of extraversion after attending a party that evening. Exceptions may lead to more permanent changes in the self. For example, one study reported that actors’ self-concepts took the qualities of the characters they portrayed and that these changes persisted 1 month after the close of the play. This finding suggests that repeated exposure to a situation that focuses one on specific aspects of the self will cause those aspects of the self to be more chronically prominent or salient in the phenomenal self. Other findings indicate that momentary shifts in the phenomenal self can influence the impressions that others have of the individual and can lead them to interact with the person based on these impressions. Thus, if because of a momentary shift in the phenomenal self others come to view you as more extraverted than you normally view yourself, they will treat you as if you are an extraverted person and repeated interaction with these people can change the self. Finally, sometimes the context or social pressure induces people to behave in ways that are inconsistent with the self. If people believe that they freely choose to act in this self-contradictory way, they will be motivated to change their self-concept to reduce the inconsistency. In this way, new information about the self becomes available for inclusion in the phenomenal self.


•          Rhodewalt, F. (1998). Self-presentation and the phenomenal self: The “carryover effect” revisited. In J. M. Darley & J. Cooper (Eds.), Attribution and social interaction: The legacy of Edward E. Jones. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.