People differ substantially in how extremely they react to good and bad events in their lives. Some people experience dramatic swings in mood and self-appraisal in response to the ups and downs of life, whereas others do not. Some experience adverse mental and physical health consequences of stressful events, but others do not. The self-complexity concept helps us understand these differences.
According to Patricia Linville’s original formulation of the self-complexity model, people differ in the degree to which they maintain a complex, differentiated view of the self. This model assumes that the representation of the self in memory consists of multiple self-aspects, which may be organized in terms of contexts (home, school, with friends), roles (student, athlete), traits (creative, nurturing), behaviors (studying, playing tennis), and time frames (past, present, and future selves). Intuitively, greater self-complexity involves having a more differentiated view of the self. The greater the extent to which a person makes distinctions among the attributes or features associated with various self-aspects, the greater the person’s self-complexity is. Furthermore, a person who is higher in self-complexity is likely to associate different emotions and self-appraisals with different self-aspects. For example, a person may feel good about himself or herself as an athlete but not as a student.
History and Background of Self-Complexity
The concept of self-complexity provides a perspective on several enduring issues and paradoxes in the psychology of the self. First, it is directly related to a classic debate about whether people have a unified, single self (a view espoused by many early self theorists) or multiple selves (espoused by William James and most contemporary researchers). The current self-complexity concept assumes that self-knowledge is represented and processed in terms of multiple self-aspects related to various contexts of experience. Second, the self-complexity concept helps people understand the classic paradox—How can a person maintain seemingly discrepant beliefs about the self? A person may associate different self-attributes or behaviors with different aspects of the self, allowing inconsistent self-knowledge to coexist. For example, a woman may perceive herself as outgoing in small social gatherings yet shy at large parties. Third, the self-complexity concept helps explain the enduring paradox—How can the self be both stable yet malleable? Different self-aspects may be cognitively activated or accessible at different points in time or in different contexts, thus creating a flexible working self. Furthermore, certain core self-aspects (e.g., self as a moral person) may be stable over long periods, whereas others may adapt rapidly in the face of changing experience (e.g., self as a competitive athlete). Also, one may develop entirely new self-aspects as one enters new realms of experience (e.g., self as a parent).
Self-Complexity Importance and Consequences
People differ substantially in their degree of self-complexity. Do these differences have any important consequences for their lives? People also differ substantially in how they react to good and bad events in their lives. The self-complexity concept is important largely because it helps to explain these differences in reactions to life events.
Self-Complexity and Affective Extremity
According to the self-complexity model, those lower in self-complexity will experience greater swings in affect and self-appraisal in response to life events such as success or failure. They will evaluate themselves more positively (and experience more positive emotion) when good things happen, but they will also evaluate themselves more negatively (and experience more negative emotion) when bad things happen. Why? People who are lower in self-complexity tend to maintain stronger ties among the traits or behaviors describing various self-aspects. Thus, a positive or negative event that has a direct impact on one self-aspect is likely to have a relatively broad overall impact on the self because strong ties among the traits and behaviors describing various self-aspects will lead to greater spillover (generalization) from one trait to another or one self-aspect to another. In contrast, with greater self-complexity, there will be less generalization across traits or self-aspects, so a smaller proportion of the self will be affected by any given positive or negative event.
Several types of evidence support this general hypothesis. First, studies of reactions to performance feedback show that those lower in self-complexity experience both a greater increase in affect and self-appraisal following success feedback and a greater decrease in affect and self-appraisal following failure feedback. Second, assuming that people experience both positive and negative events over time, the self-complexity model predicts that those lower in self-complexity will experience greater mood variability over time. This prediction was supported in a mood diary study in which participants filled out a set of mood scales each day over a 2-week period. In short, higher self-complexity buffers a person against the bad times but also keeps his or her feet on the ground in good times.
Self-Complexity as a Stress Buffer
Stressful events can lead to mental and physical health problems. Furthermore, people higher in self-complexity experience less negative emotional reactions following negative events. If these negative emotional reactions contribute to stress-related depression and illness, then greater self-complexity may also reduce the adverse health and mental health effects of negative stressful events. As this line of reasoning suggests, several studies have found that greater self-complexity moderates the adverse mental and physical health effects of stressful life events; that is, those higher in self-complexity are less adversely affected by stressful events. They seem less prone to both physical illnesses (e.g., upper respiratory infections) and depressive symptoms 2 weeks after experiencing high levels of stressful life events.
Related Findings and Research
In an interesting extension of self-complexity to present and future goals, Paula Niedenthal and her colleagues showed that the complexity of the present self moderates reactions to feedback about current goals, whereas complexity of possible selves moderates reactions to feedback about future goals. Roy Baumeister and others have extended self-complexity to the realm of self-regulation. One interesting finding is that those lower in self-complexity are more threatened by failure and consequently are more motivated to escape from self-awareness following failure. Consistent with this prediction, those lowest in self-complexity were the quickest to finish an essay on self goals in front of a mirror following failure. Another interesting finding is that those who are higher in self-complexity regarding activities have higher optimal activity levels. Greater activity complexity appears to reduce the rate at which performing additional tasks leads to ego depletion and fatigue.
Another important issue concerns the source of differences in self-complexity. Peter Salovey has shown that both positive and negative mood lead to greater self-complexity because both lead to greater self-focused attention than a neutral mood state. Similarly, individuals with greater attentional resources (e.g., working memory capacity) also display higher levels of self-complexity.
Yet another set of interesting issues concerns the mechanisms underlying the link between self-complexity and emotional extremity. Recent research supports the assumption that the emotional consequences of positive and negative experiences spill over from the most directly affected self-aspects to others. As predicted, the degree of spillover is greater for those lower in self-complexity.
The self-complexity concept is quite intuitive, but applications of self-complexity require a precise measure. Linville’s original formulation of self-complexity theory relies on a card-sorting procedure in which people sort a set of features (e.g., smart, shy) into piles describing different self-aspects. Using the results of this sorting task, one can compute a complexity measure known as the H-statistic, which reflects the number of independent dimensions implicitly present in the self-aspects created. The self-complexity model and findings rely heavily on the properties of this measure of differentiation. Recently, there have been several attempts to reformulate the self-complexity concept in terms of separate measures of number of self-aspects and degree of feature overlap between self-aspects. At present, it appears that a reformulation of self-complexity in terms of feature overlap often fails to confirm the theoretical predictions of the self-complexity model. Consequently, almost all of the findings reported here were obtained in studies in which the H-statistic was computed from feature sorting tasks. The self-complexity hypotheses described here are closely tied to the properties of the H-statistic. These hypotheses may not hold for other conceptual definitions or measures of self-complexity. In this context, the specific measure used matters.
Related Concepts and Research on Self-Complexity
The term self-complexity has close links to other concepts such as self-schemas and self-differentiation. Self-complexity also has links to other cognitive complexity concepts. In general, experts about a domain perceive objects in the domain in a more differentiated or complex way. For example, ingroup members tend to have a more differentiated view of their group than do outgroup members and political experts have a more complex view of political candidates than do nonexperts. Finally, the self-complexity model has close ties to the complexity-extremity model of social judgment, developed by Linville and Edward Jones.
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- Niedenthal, P. M., Setterlund, M. B., & Wherry, M. B. (1992). Possible self-complexity and affective reactions to goal-relevant evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 575-584.