Social Psychology - Chapter 4

How is a self-concept built and influenced? - Chapter 4


The construction of the self concept

Self-knowledge consists of two components:

  • The self-concept: what we know about ourselves.

  • Self-esteem: what we think about ourselves.

The self-concept concerns the whole of someone's knowledge about his or her own qualities and these are based on different types of information. It comes about in the same way when you are impressed by others: it is actively constructed on the basis of your own behavior, the thoughts and feelings, the reactions of others and on the basis of comparisons with others.

The self-perception theory is the theory in which people assume that they make interferences about their character traits on the basis of their own open behavior. This process only takes place if there are no strong inner thoughts or feelings about that part of ourselves. The motivation for showing certain behavior can come from two sides. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from someone, while extrinsic motivation has an external goal. Behavior that arises from intrinsic motivation generally leads to inferences about the person rather than extrinsic information. Motivation resulting from external rewards (extrinsic motivation) has the effect that it reduces intrinsic motivation. Accessibility again has a large share in the formation of interferences. Imagined reactions can also be input for forming the self-image.

Our own thoughts and feelings also have a big part in learning who we are; perhaps these even play a greater role than behaviors.

The reactions of other people are often used to gain self-knowledge. Research shows that people, especially children, behave exactly as they are described by others. This effect is greatest in people who have not yet developed their self-concept, or are insecure about it.

In the social comparison theory of Festinger (1954) it is assumed that the self-concept is mainly formed by making comparisons with (kind of) equal others. The motives for comparison are as follows:

  • To form a correct image about oneself.

  • To learn to distinguish oneself from others.

  • To create solidarity.

  • To get a positive image of oneself.

Two effects of social comparison are the contrast effect and the assimilation effect. When we compare our average skills with someone who is extremely good or bad, we often see ourselves as exactly the opposite. This is called the contrast effect. For example: if you compare yourself with a master in the profession, you see yourself as ridiculously bad; If you compare yourself with a beginner, then you are great. Comparisons with similar others may also entail bias. When you compare your average self with someone who is moderately good or bad, your self-image moves a bit more in the same direction. This is called the assimilation effect.

Yet knowledge that one has about himself differs from the knowledge he or she has about someone else. This is mainly because the knowledge one has about himself has a larger quantity. This knowledge also has a greater variety, because you experience yourself in many different situations. In addition, the information one has about himself is often more detailed than the knowledge one has about another. In addition, the cause of certain behaviors in their own behavior is often devoted to the situation, whereas the cause of certain behavior in someone else is more often seen as a characteristic of his / her personality (in other words, corresponding conclusions take place). These are called the actor-observer differences in attribution. There are several reasons for the occurrence of this effect:

What attracts attention is striking (this is also called salience). With our own behavior, the cause of the behavior occurs, not the behavior itself. In someone else, this seems to work exactly the other way around because the behavior stands out and the cause is much more difficult to trace.

The use of different causal alternatives in describing the behavior of ourselves and that of others.

You often explain your own behavior on the basis of your own views, while often explaining the behavior of another person (unjustly) from some less direct causes.

Despite the differences in quantity, variety and detail, it does not mean that people's judgments about themselves are more accurate than judgments about others.

An important point in the self-concept is that account must be taken of the fact that people in different social situations have different behaviors, thoughts and feelings. This leads to having multiple 'selves'. Every self-aspect (for example: at an academic level, in a relationship, in a friendship) summarizes what the person believes about himself in specific domains, roles or activities.

Creating an unambiguous self-concept

A coherent and stable self-concept can be obtained by focusing on a few central characteristics and selectively remembering previous behaviors.

By selecting some stable properties that you yourself believe will make you unique, you create a self-schema (Markus, 1977). A second way to achieve self-coherence is by making available only a subset of our self-knowledge and self-aspects at any given moment. Thirdly, selective memory plays a major role in creating an unambiguous self-concept. In fact, inconsistent information is generally easier to forget than consistent information. It is often also the case that information is reconstructed in such a way that inconsistent information becomes consistent. In addition, attribution can also play an important part in obtaining a coherent self-concept, because inconsistent behavior is often attributed to inconsistent circumstances.

In all cultures, the primary function of the self-concept is the same, namely that the self-concept is a crucial tool to be able to adapt to your (social) environment.

Self concept and cultural differences

Again there are differences between independent (individualistic) cultures and interdependent (collectivist) cultures. In independent cultures, such as Western culture, individual characteristics are central to the definition of the self-concept. In interdependent cultures the social roles and relationships as a whole are emphasized. In addition, collectivist cultures focus primarily on self-aspects rather than self-schemata, as happens in individualistic cultures. Furthermore, people from individualistic cultures see the structure of the self as unitary and stable (constant in situations and relationships), while people from collectivist cultures see the structure as fluid and variable (different between situations / relationships). Finally, people from individualistic cultures are mainly focused on being unique, expressing yourself, pursuing your own goals and being direct, while people from collectivist cultures focus on wanting to belong to groups, behave appropriately, promote common goals and be indirect.

The self-concept is what we think about ourselves; the self-esteem is the positive or negative evaluation of ourselves. The trait self-esteem concerns the trait self-esteem ("in general I am satisfied with who I am"); State self-esteem is the relative self-esteem at a certain moment ("at the moment I feel more dull than others"), which can therefore drop or rise considerably after a certain experience.

Finding a balance between accurate self-knowledge and self-exaltation

Self-esteem thus indicates to what extent someone has positive or negative evaluations about themselves. It often happens that people make their performances and qualities more beautiful than they actually are, which increases self-esteem. This is also called the self-enhancing bias. The case is that self-esteem is a combination of accuracy of self-esteem and self-exaltation. The self-enhancing bias can ensure that negative events have less effect and positive events have a greater effect on self-esteem. In addition, one is inclined to remember success more successfully than failure and that people generally go into situations that give a positive feeling. As soon as self-complexity (which is equal to the amount of 'selves') is small, failure has a greater effect on a certain aspect of the self.

Social comparisons: better or worse than others?

As mentioned earlier, making comparisons between himself and others is an important way of evaluating oneself. The result, which can be positive or negative, depends on two factors, according to Tesser's (1988) theory of self-evaluation maintenance:

1. The importance of the attribute in question

2. The closeness with the comparator

Tesser's theory deals with the conditions under which one's self-esteem is maintained, or negatively influenced by social comparisons with people close to you or further away from you.

In general, we tend to avoid negative outcomes by creating distance with the comparison person. We can also choose to compare ourselves with people we see as worse or less. We are so focused on a positive bias of our self-image (the self-enhancement bias), because this has an effect on our self-improvement, which ensures that there is a positive effect on our performance (which is the successful use of our self) or self-regulation (which represents being to adjust our behavior in accordance with internal or external standards). In addition, high self-esteem is a protection against negative experiences.

Cultural differences

The self-enhancement bias is also culturally sensitive. The differences are again explained by the different view on the self. In interdependent cultures people are less focused on the bias because here the focus is on the ability to live in harmony with each other. Negative information about the self is used in these cultures to strengthen the harmony. In independent cultures, one focuses more on autonomous aspects of the self. Self-criticism is in both cases a way of self-improvement or self-exaltation and is thus used by both cultures, although in different ways. High self-esteem is an important meter for success and acceptance.

Effects of the self: self-regulation

Thoughts about ourselves and others

Self-concept is the stable construct that reflects one's own knowledge about personal qualities. Because it is a stable construct, it is difficult to change. In addition, the self-concept is a kind of framework in which general information about others is processed and stored. In general, people with an unstable self-image have low self-esteem and can respond very emotionally. The self-concept also has the ability to influence the way in which others perceive. This is because we compare ourselves and our characteristics with others.


In general, it is assumed that emotions are the result of appraisals of a self-reliant object or event. An appraisal is a personal, flexible interpretation of an event or situation, in which the causes and consequences for the self are central. Appraisals of the cause of an event do not always have to be correct and can be different about situations. In addition, appraisals are culturally determined. The following two appraisals are important for emotions:

  • The appraisal of positive or negative implications of the event for the self.

  • The appraisal about the cause of the event.

The appraisal serves as a guide for the emotional and behavioral response. Examples of these reactions are laughter, frowning and flight. These emotional and behavioral reactions can affect our thinking. All these different processes can be associated with each other, so the activation of one component also activates the rest of the reactions.

Behavioral regulation

We use it to direct our behavior. Two motives for choosing certain behaviors are self-expression and self-presentation.

Self-expression is a motivation to opt for behavior that ensures that the self-concept is displayed and expressed.

Self-presentation is a motivation to opt for behavior that is aimed at creating a certain impression of yourself in others. It influences the impressions that others have about us and that we have about ourselves.

All people do these two processes, but everyone generally has a preference for either one. This individual difference is called self-monitoring: a personality trait that reflects the extent to which people are sensitive to the expectations of others and adjust their behavior accordingly. People who are a high self-monitor want very much to meet the requirements of the situation and will therefore do more self-presentation. Low self-monitors prefer to show who they are and mainly do self-expression.

According to Higgins (1987), self-guides are personal standards that are being pursued. There are two forms:

  • The ideal self (ideal self): the person we would like to be (our ideal).

  • The expected self (ought self): the person we think we should be.

According to Higgin's regulatory focus theory, people have promotion goals (in which self-regulation is controlled by the ideal self) or preventive goals (in which self-regulation is primarily controlled by the expected self). For someone with a promotion focus, positive outcomes that are relevant to their goals are sought; someone with a prevention focus tries to avoid negative outcomes. The difference between who we think we are and our self-guides influences emotional well-being and therefore self-esteem. This is also called the self-discrepancy theory. In the interdependent (collectivist) cultures, the focus is mainly on prevention goals, while in the independent (individualistic) cultures more value is attached to promotion goals. Self-discrepancy usually works as a motivation to achieve our goals, but can lead to negative emotions and lower self-esteem.

Self-regulation is a matter of hard work. The process appeals to inner sources. People who are tired and / or stressed, or have few inner sources at their disposal, have a harder time regulating their behavior. Self-confirmation can restore self-control when someone has few inner sources to his / her disposal. Self-affirmation is any activity or event that increases or emphasizes one's sense of personal integrity, such as confirming their own most important values.

There are two factors that increase awareness of discrepancies and thus pose a threat to self-regulation:

  • People with a greater self-focus (which leads to greater self-awareness, where attention is focused on the self and its own standards) are more aware of possible discrepancies. In addition, they are often more concerned with the way they can deal with it.

  • Short-term goals that overshadow the long-term goals, together with the depletion of our sources, may lead to a reduction in self-regulation.

Threats to the self

Known threats to the self are inconsistencies, losing control, failure, minor frustrations and the awareness of our mortality. The "terror management theory" of Solomon and colleagues (2000) states that memories of our mortality ensure that we try to reconfirm our perspectives about the world (for example about our faith, or what we find most important in life), which can have both positive and negative consequences.

The response to such threats is influenced by the level of self-esteem. People with a high and stable self-esteem are better resistant to threats, while people with an unstable or low self-esteem are less protected against this. Sometimes threats to the self result in physical suffering. Especially people with type A personalities (competitive, ambitious, hostile and angry) are bothered by this.

Learned helplessness is a result of the repeated loss of control. This is the feeling that someone can have that whatever he or she does, there is no change in the negative situation in which he or she is sitting. The consequences of this include depression, low self-esteem and pessimism.

Defense against threats

Coping strategies are ways in which people defend themselves against threats to the self. People with high self-esteem have a lot of strategies to deal with threats against the self. For people with low self-esteem and for example depression, it is much more difficult to counter the threats. There are different types of coping strategies.

Emotion-focused coping strategies are mainly used in uncontrollable situations. The negative emotions that result from this are often suppressed, or the person seeks distraction so as not to experience the emotions. This way indirectly deals with stress. The three main examples of such a strategy are:

  • Escape the threatening situation mentally or physically.

  • Self-expression - expressing feelings in threatening situations, for example, by writing about it.

  • Emphasizing positive qualities and camouflaging negative characteristics in order to reduce the potential threat.

Tend and befriend (Taylor, 2000) is a strategy that is more often used by women than men. It means that someone gives a lot of love to her / his own self and close environment, and he / she pays attention to his / her social network.

Problem-focused coping is addressing a threatening situation. In this direct coping style, the situation is usually re-evaluated (in order to view the situation as non-threatening) or the potential threat is eliminated. This can be done as follows:

  • Making an apology: blaming something or someone else for failure.

  • Self-handicap: to protect yourself in advance by coming up with apologies for failure or

  • actively sabotaging your own performance (for example, by not learning or exercising).

Solve the problem, or improve yourself. Self-efficiency refers to taking control over the problem. Another crucial ingredient in the controlling process is counterfactual thinking, which involves the ways in which the outcome could be changed (if ... then ...).

The own personal sources, as well as the characteristics of the threatening situation (in particular the degree of controllability) determine the best coping strategy. No strategy is always the best, but many help to overcome the threat, maintain psychological well-being and protect physical health.

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