Motivation and emotion/Textbook/Motivation/Self-concept

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Self-Concept: The unification of self-schemas to form a sense of self

Motivation & self-concept[edit source]

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Box 1.1 Self-Concept of a Boy Aged 9

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My name is Bruce C. I have brown eyes. I have brown hair. I have brown eyebrows. I am 9 years old. I LOVE sports. I have 7 people in my family. I'm a boy. I LOVE food. (Adapted from Ross, 1992)

Who are you? Are you tall? Short? Do you have brown or blonde hair? Is academic competence important to you? Do you only value knowledge and intelligence in a particular domain, say, maths or history? Are you a fit and althetic person? Do you get along with your peers or work colleagues? Are you shy or boisterous?

Each of these questions reflects a particular self-schema which forms the framework of one's self-concept. Self-concept can be understood as guiding the energy and direction behind attitudes, emotions and behaviours. Why do you dress the way you do? Why did you enrol in university or apply for a particular job? An individual's self-concept permeates all facets of his/her life and is a key motivational factor underlying attitudes, emotions and behaviours in the hope to attain facets of psychological well-being (Ross, 1992).

What is Self-Concept and Motivation and how are they Related?[edit | edit source]


'Self' as a noun came into the English language around AD 1400 and was initially defined by negative connotations, such as selfishness (Ross, 1992). The negative connotations reflect the historical context as seen in the following pledge; "Our own self we shall deny, and follow our Lord Almighty" (Baumeister, 1986).

This trend continued into the 16th century when hyphenations of the self became popularised, such as self-pity, self-praise and self-conceit. From the 17th century onwards, the self took on a more positive light with the development of terms such as self-interest, self-efficacy and self-determination (Ross, 1992). The importance and purpose behind the self also shifted in direction as portrayed by the following 18th century Nathaniel Cotton poem excerpt; "The world has nothing to bestow; From our own selves our joys must flow" (Cotton, 2003).

Box 1.2 Self-Concept of a Girl Aged 11 1/2

My name is A. I'm a girl. I'm not pretty. I do so-so in my studies. I'm a very good pianist. I'm old-fashioned. Mostly I'm good, but I lose my temper. I'm not well-liked by some girls and boys. (Adapted from Ross, 1992)

The term self-concept emanates from the previously mentioned derivatives of the self, for example, it incorporates aspects of self-interest, self-praise and self-efficacy. Specifically, self-concept can be understood as one's conception of themselves as a distinct individual; mental representations of who one is and who they wish to become in the context of their environment (Beck, 2000). Box 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 provide examples of the developing self-concepts of three young people. Reeve (2009) asserts that the self-concept develops from personal experiences, reflections on these experiences and feedback from the social environment. Thus, the process of self-concept development and consolidation involves a reciprocal, cyclic process as depicted in the following diagram:

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The self-concept is organised into a semantic hierarchy of self-schemas; cognitive generalisations which are domain specific (Reeve, 2009). Self-schemas can include appraisals in social (peers, significant others), academic (general or specific intelligence), emotional (specific emotions), or physical (abilities, appearance) domains (Ross, 1992). Within the self-schema hierarchy, individuals can also possess high or low levels of differentiation and integration (Lipka & Brinthaupt, 1992).

Differentiation refers to the breadth of an individual's self-concept with children often exhibiting low differentiation and adults high differentiation. For example, a child's hierarchy may revolve around a limited number of self-schemas, such as physical ('I am tall', 'I have brown hair') and academic ('I love math', 'I dislike English') domains. Conversely, adults often possess more extensive hierarchies, incorporating many domains (Ross, 1992).

Box 1.3 Self-Concept of a Girl Aged 17

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I am a human being. I am a girl. I am an individual. I don't know who I am. I am moody, indecisive and ambitious. I am not an individual. I am not a classifiable person (i.e. I don't want to be). (Adapted from Ross, 1992)

Integration subsequently defines how cohesive and interrelated an individual's hierarchy is, with children again showing low levels and adults high levels. For example, a child often displays disjointed self-schemas such as defining themselves by hair colour (physical domain) and athletic ability (physical domain). Alternatively, adults often define themselves through an integrated network of self-schemas such as their social abilities (social domain) based on interactions with family, peers, strangers and work colleagues and how this relates to their emotional intelligence (academic domain) and the way they present themselves (physical domain) (Deckers, 2004).


Motivation refers to the energising and directive properties behind human behaviour which determines the quantity and quality of our actions (Reeve, 2009). It is shaped and driven by an individual's unique composition internal and external motives including biological, physiological, psychological, cognitive and environmental forces (Beck, 2000). Motivation energises and directs an individual to work out who they are (self-assessment), create a consistent and accurate hierarchy of self-schemas (self-verification) and enable control and psychological well-being (self-enhancement). The purpose of the self-concept therefore reflects the human tendency to seek consistency, control and predictability over their attitudes, emotions and behaviours which will be discussed later in the attribution theory (Lipka & Brinthaupt, 1992).

Chapter Outline and Focus Questions[edit | edit source]

  • Introduction
    • How is self-concept and motivation defined?
    • What is the relationship between self-concept and motivation?
    • What is the importance of this topic?
  • Self-concept development
    • How do biological, brain structure, socio-cultural and psychological elements contribute to self-concept development?
  • Self-concept stability
    • How do human tendencies and motives influence self-concept development?
    • How stable is the self-concept?
    • Why is self-concept stability important?
  • Self-concept change
    • What causes self-concept change?
    • How is the self-concept changed/managed?
    • When are individuals most aware of undesirable self-concepts?
    • Can we become the person we want to be?
    • How does social comparison affect the self-concept?

Self-Concept Development[edit | edit source]

Physical attractiveness influences an individual's self-concept..

Self-concept development is influenced by numerous factors including biological, brain structure, neurotransmitter, socio-cultural and psychological elements. Each element has a differential quantity and quality of impact on an individual and combined they create a unique self-concept. Consequently, individuals demonstrate differences in motivated attitudes, emotions and behaviour which produces varying levels of self-concept change, management and stability (Deckers, 2004).

Biological Elements[edit | edit source]

Biological elements, including genotype and phenotype, play an important role in the development and maintenance of an individual's self-concept (Ross, 1992). The genotype describes the internal genetic code which uniquely controls the inner-workings of each individual. The primary link between genotype and self-concept is the ability for the genotype to control the phenotype. The phenotype defines the outward manifestation of an individual via physical appearance, personality and behaviour (Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007). Thus, genetics influence the development of particular self-schemas, such as in social, physical or academic domains, which interact to form an individual’s self-concept.

Box 1.1 Big-5 Personality Traits

  • Openness: curious, analytical, perceptive, knowledgeable
  • Conscientiousness: cautious, reliable, organised, hardworking
  • Extraversion: sociable, talkative, enthusiastic
  • Agreeableness: warm, cooperative, trustful
  • Neuroticism: anxiety, depressive, self-conscious, emotional

(Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007)

Physical attractiveness has firstly been shown to influence an individual’s self-concept. Adams and Read (1983) demonstrated that attractive individuals perceived themselves as possessing significantly more positive personality traits than unattractive individuals, such as a superior analytical and critical thought ability and a warm, extraverted social manner. Conversely, unattractive participants perceived themselves as possessing more negative than positive qualities, such as poorer control of interpersonal situations. Similarly, Marks, Miller and Maruyama (1981) found participants were biased when rating others, for example, attractive samples were deemed more intelligent, thoughtful and open-minded than unattractive samples. Interestingly, even psychological therapists have been found to exhibit this bias when evaluating a new client (Hobfoll & Penner, 1978).

Intelligence and Self-Concept

Intelligence also plays a role in self-concept development, such as shaping social, physical and academic-domain self-schemas.. (Maltby, Day & Macaskill, 2007)

Physical attractive bias does appear to partly comprise a biological component as Langlois, Roggman and Rieser-Danner (1990) demonstrated that infants displayed positive affective tone, less withdrawal behaviour and high play involvement with an attractive confederate or doll as compared to an unattractive confederate or doll. Socio-cultural elements tend to stimulate and consolidate the presence of physical attractive biases. For instance, Salmivalli (1998) found school yard bullies often contained a high but negative social and physical self-concept and victims a low social and physical self-concept. Bias is also evident within occupational domains with attractiveness positively correlated with higher income (Judge, Hurst & Simon, 2009), flexible benefits and individual-based pay rates (Cable & Judge, 1994). Individuals also tend to engage in romantic relationships of similar physical attractiveness which is argued to partly reflect an evolutionary basis to maintain survival (which in contemporary society can relate to status and wealth) and reproduction (Horton, 2003). Thus, attractiveness influences how an individual perceives themselves in addition to how others perceive them. The consequences of this bias shapes self-concept development and maintenance. At its most extreme, attractiveness bias can lead individuals to unrealistically distort or evaluate their physical self-schema which plays a role in the development of eating disorders (Jansen, Smeets, Martijn & Nederkoorn, 2006).

Personality traits also influence an individual’s self-concept as they energise and direct approach or avoidance behaviour toward particular self-schemas (Maltby et al., 2007). Twin, adoption and family study research indicates personality traits are partly hereditary, accounting for approximately 20-50% of the variance in self-concept (Lounsbury, Levy, Leong & Gibson, 2007). The big-5 theory of personality provides a common framework for understanding hereditable traits, as displayed in Box 1.1. McCroskey, Heisel and Richmond (2001) demonstrated that extraverts were more assertive and self-accepting than introverts and tended to approach social and arousing occupations and relationships. Conversely, introverts have a tendency to be socially inhibited and apprehensive, preferring predictable and independent occupations and relationships. van der Zee, Thijs and Schakel (2002) found neuroticism to be negatively correlated with emotional intelligence which subsequently appeared to weaken academic intelligence and research on interpersonal conflict suggests individuals high on agreeableness are more responsive to conflict and enact strategies to diffuse these situations (Jensen-Campbell & Graziano, 2001). Research therefore indicates that personality traits predispose individuals with certain abilities and tendency which subsequently influence self-concept development.

Brain Structure Elements[edit | edit source]

Mood & Self-Concept: A positive mood is often associated with a more positive self-concept, while a negative mood is often associated with a more negative self-concept (Showers, Abramson & Hogan, 1998)

Specific brain structures influence self-concept development, depending on individual differences, which can be illustrated through Eysenck's biological model of personality and arousal (Lounsbury et al., 2007). The model asserts that extraverted and neurotic personality dispositions trigger specific brain structure activity which influences behaviour and self-schema development. The model firstly claims that individuals attempt to maintain an equilibrium between their excitatory (alert, active and aroused) and inhibitory (inactivity and lethargy) mechanisms. Equilibrium is achieved through the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) which controls arousal via the reticulo-cortical circuit (incoming stimuli) and reticulo-limbi circuit (emotional stimuli). The ARAS is situated in the brain stem and connects the thalamus (switchboard), hypothalamus (metabolism & autonomic processes) and cortex (neural processing) to provide an integrated response to information and stimulation (Maltby et al., 2007).

The second component of the model relates to individual differences based on extraverted and neurotic personality types. Extraversion is associated with arousal of the reticulo-cortical (incoming stimuli) circuit in which low arousal levels are present in extraverts (as they are under-aroused and desire stimulation) and high arousal levels are present in introverts (as they are over-aroused and attempt to avoid stimulation). This assertion is supported by literature mentioned in the biological section, such as extraverts preferring social and arousing environments and introverts preferring independent and predictable environments (McCroskey et al., 2001). Alternatively, neuroticism is associated with the arousal of the reticulo-limbic (emotional stimuli) circuit in which neurotics tend to be more aroused by emotional stimulation than stable individuals. Again, this is reflected in aforementioned literature such as neurotics' inability to demonstrate emotional intelligence (van der Zee et al., 2002).

Socio-cultural Elements[edit | edit source]

Culture and Self-Concept
Culture can influence self-concept, for example, Western societies promote values of autonomy and individuality. Conversely, the Ilongots from the Philippines value social similarity and collectivism. (Brinthaupt & Lipka, 1992)

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Socio-cultural elements play a role in self-concept development including the influence of gender roles, family, peers and religion. Research suggests that most cultures socialise individuals into particular gender roles, for example, Western society overtly and covertly encourages femininity amongst females and masculinity amongst males which continues throughout the life span (Gouze & Nadelman, 1980). Bassen and Lamb (2006) posit that gender roles sway the development of schemas in social, emotional and academic domains. For example, male participants frequently indicated their social and emotional self-schema comprised qualities such as assertiveness whereas females highlighted qualities such as affiliativeness. Furthermore, Rudman and Phelan's (2010) study demonstrated that priming females with traditional gender stereotypes (female: teacher, male: mechanic) led to less reported interest in male-stereotyped roles. Interestingly, priming of nontraditional roles (female: mechanic, male: teacher) resulted in participants reporting a lowered leadership self-schema because they engaged in upward social comparison and therefore perceived the scenario as a threat. Gender stereotype threat is a final example of how prescribed roles influence self-concept. A common example in literature is the proposal that males perform better than females on maths equations. This subsequently lowers female performance and academic-domain self-schemas due to performance pressures. Importantly, this effect appears to be limited to females who report a high-identification academic-domain schema (Keller, 2007).

Family and peer interactions also shape an individual's self-concept. Triadic family interaction refers to the social relations between mother, father and child (Brown, Mangelsdorf, Neff, Schoppe-Sullivan & Frosch, 2009). The family systems' perspective posits that the attributes and behaviours of family members, parenting techniques and the differential roles of the mother and father influences self-concept development in childhood (Brown et al., 2009; von Wyl et al., 2008). For instance, Brown et al. (2009) found harmonious interactions were correlated with children expressing positive self-schemas, such as adventurousness. Conversely, discordant interactions such as hostility or low engagement were associated with self-schemas including fearfulness and less agreeableness. Thus, a child is likely to experience constructive self-concept development if they are exposed to parents who (a) possess supportive attributes or (b) provide positive role-modelling or (c) utilise supportive and encouraging parenting techniques or (d) fulfil nurturing mother or father roles. Similarly, supportive or aversive peer interactions shape an individual's self-concept, particularly during middle childhood and adolescence (Lipka & Brinthaupt, 1992). For example, Egbochuku (2009) found that secondary school females reported higher self-concept in academic and social domains when they attended single-sex as opposed to co-educational schools. This finding was explained by the impact of differing peer interactions and subsequent influences.

Relgion, Social Class and Self-Concept Study

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This particular study found:

  • Catholics possessed higher 'love' scores than Jewish participants
  • Upper class participants demonstrated higher 'dominance' scores than lower class participants
  • These qualities influenced participants social self-schemas and general self-concept

(Bieri & Lobeck, 1961)

Lastly, the media also contributes to self-concept development. The level of influence depends on the extent to which an individual attributes importance to the medium and subsequently internalises the content (Beck, 2000). The media exerts influence in most self-schema domains including social, academic, emotional, physical and sexual. For example, Aubrey (2007) found female university students developed negative and dissatisfied sexual self-schemas from viewing soap operas, prime time dramas or excessive amounts of television. Similarly, Bessenoff (2006) found excessive television, newspaper or magazine viewing was associated with the exacerbation of actual-ideal physical self-schemas, particularly for women and thin body shapes. However, the media is also claimed to produce positive self-concept development, such as providing education outlets which develops an individual's academic self-schema (Ross, 1992).

Psychological Elements[edit | edit source]

The development of an individual's self-concept is also shaped by psychological elements which gain increasing complexity throughout the life span. A famous experiment demonstrated the ability of infants aged 12 to 18 months to engage in self-recognition through identifying rouge on their nose when looking at a mirror (Lipka & Brinthaupt, 1992). This illustrates an individual's first experience of identifying the existential self. Infants then develop self-awareness through self-perception exercises, for example, kicking a toy mobile is connected to the mobile swinging and making sounds. Subsequently, the swinging and sounds are associated with the emotion of joy. The ability to connect events and emotions therefore develops an individual's initial journey to understanding their likes and dislikes which directs their behaviour in later life (Ross, 1992).

Attachment behaviour during early childhood marks the ability to distinguish humans and develop one's social self-schema. Research suggests three attachment styles including secure (adventurous, healthy child-mother attachment), resistance (afraid of solo play, crying upon reunion with mother) and avoidant (sporadic play, avoidance upon reunion). These attachment styles are subsequently claimed to continue into middle childhood and influence an individual's understanding of their self-concept (Beck, 2000).

Throughout childhood and adolescence, the acquirement of language and learning of cognitive labels plays the key role in establishing a concrete understanding of one's self-concept. Research shows that during this period individuals learn to distinguish between purely external qualities, such as appearance and possessions, and internal qualities, such as personality traits and possible selves (Salmivalli, 1998). During adulthood psychological needs including autonomy, competence and relatedness motivate the finer distinctions within one's self-concept. For example, achieving a goal under autonomy-supportive conditions, rather than controlled regulation, has been associated with eudaimonic self-concept development (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Self-Concept Stability[edit | edit source]

Two universal factors which influence self-concept development and consolidation are human tendencies, outlined by the attribution theory, and human motives, including self-assessment, self-verification and self-enhancement. These tendencies and motives shape and predict self-concept-related attitudes, emotions and behaviours in addition to change, management and stability. The underlying purpose of these tendencies and motives is to ensure control, consistency, predictability and psychological well-being.

Figure 1. Differing academic self-schemas as determined by attribution type

Attribution Theory[edit | edit source]

The attribution theory asserts that humans have a tendency to attribute causality to events, people and situations (West & Turner, 2007). Individuals commonly display three inferences; internal or external, stability and controllability attributions. An internal attribution infers an internal cause, such as explaining attitudes, emotions and behaviour by personality, mood, ability or effort. Conversely, external attributions infer an external cause, such as luck, social influence or task difficulty. Stability describes the attribution of a stable or temporary cause, such as personality dispositions or the effects of alcohol consumption. Controllability is a final attribution which is the distinction between a controllable or uncontrollable cause, such as a situation which was influenced by effort or luck. Figure 1 outlines differing attributions for an individual's academic self-schema. This behaviour enables an individual to develop a coherent view of the world and maintain some level of control, consistency and predictability (Graham & Folkes, 1990).

Self-assessment: getting to know who you truly are

Self-Assessment, Self-Verification and Self-Enhancement[edit | edit source]

The attribution theory therefore provides the basis for motivated behaviour and self-assessment, verification and enhancement build upon this basis to shape and predict self-concept-related attitudes, emotions and behaviours. Self-assessment defines the desire to gain an accurate perception of one's self-concept, regardless of negative or positive findings (Crisp & Turner, 2010). This desire relates back to the attribution theory as individuals seek to reduce uncertainty and gain predictability over their attitudes, emotions and behaviour by possessing accurate self-concept knowledge. Self-verification subsequently refers to the desire to confirm and consolidate our self-concept. Similarly, this motive derives from the desire to gain control, consistency and predictability over one's self-concept. Self-enhancement, unlike the former two motives, specifically aims to enable positive perceptions about one's self-concept. This is argued to be the most influential motive and often overrides the former two motives because it maintains self-concept stability and psychological well-being through high self-esteem (Elliott, 2007).

Self-verification: confirming what we already believe about ourselves

How do Human Tendencies and Motives Influence the Self-Concept?[edit | edit source]

It is therefore important to keep in mind that self-concept development, change, management and stability stem from the underlying need to attribute causality and maintain control, consistency and predictability. Human tendencies and motives influence self-concept development as individuals innately seek out information to understand and confirm and enhance their perceptions. For example, gender roles provide a way for individuals to carry out self-assessment, social interaction enables self-verification and psychological processes such as self-serving bias promote self-enhancement.

The next section addresses precursors for self-concept change and management, which is also influenced by human tendencies and motives. Inconsistent attitudes and behaviours (cognitive dissonance theory), actual-ideal or actual-ought selves (self-discrepancy theory) and negative social comparisons (self-evaluation maintenance model and social identity theory) all impinge on an individual's sense of control, consistency, predicatability and psychological well-being (Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001). Thus, a fundamental motivation within self-concept change and management involves the recognition of undesirable states and subsequent efforts to restore stable, accurate and positive self-schemas.

How Stable is the Self-Concept?[edit | edit source]

Research suggests that self-concept is both stable and malleable (Lipka & Brinthaupt, 1992). An individual often possesses a core sense of self which is complemented by an ever-changing outer self. The core self comprises biological elements and innate human tendencies and motives. For example, an individual's genotype and phenotype predisposes them with a particular gender role and unique personality traits, temperaments and neural functioning. Furthermore, the aforementioned human tendencies and motives encourage individuals to constantly seek out and identify a controllable, consistent and predictable self-concept.

The ever-changing outer self-concept is influenced chiefly by psychological and socio-cultural elements. Psychological influences include the recognition of unstable self-schemas (cognitive dissonance) and discrepancies within ideal and possible selves (self-discrepancies). Socio-cultural influences include factors such as peer or family relations, religious beliefs, social class, cultural background or the effects of social comparison (self-evaluation maintenance model and social identity theory). Thus, each of these elements play a role in modifying and altering an individual's self-concept.

Why is Self-Concept Stability Important?[edit | edit source]

A minimum level of self-concept stability is important for psychological well-being and optimum functioning (Elliott, 2007). The importance of stability can be understood through the self-determination theory. The theory asserts that optimal motivation stems from humans' inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs. Specifically, motivation falls along a continuum of perceived locus of causality which ranges from extrinsic motivations (e.g. external regulation and compliance) to intrinsic motivations (e.g. intrinsic regulation and personal interest and agency) (Deckers, 2004). A individual's locus of causality subsequently derives from the extent of psychological need satisfaction, including autonomy, competence and relatedness needs. The ability to equally fulfil these psychological needs and pursue self-concordant goals promotes intrinsic motivation which fosters self-concept stability and psychological well-being, such as self-acceptance, positive interpersonal relations, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth (Reeve, 2009). Table 1 outlines specific facets of psychological well-being obtained from a stable and well-developed self-concept.

Table 1. The Importance of Self-Concept Stability and its Relationship to Self-Determination Theory

Facet of Psychological Well-Being Example
1. Self-acceptance: positive self-esteem and acceptance of positive and negative self-schemas and past experiences Slight, gradual change is often a natural process for self-acceptance and self-concept stability which is often demonstrated through the transition from adolescence to adulthood (Salmivalli, 1998).
2. Positive interpersonal relations: the ability to form and maintain intimate, empathetic and deep relationships Self-regulation promotes selective interaction which is the process of selecting friends who will provide effective social support and share similar values which reinforces an individual's self-concept and aids in self-enhancement through positive social feedback (Egbochuku, 2009).
3. Autonomy: fulfilling psychological needs to obtain intrinsic motivation toward self-concordant goals Successful athletes often possess social support, agency in pursuing their sporting goals and competency in their physical domain which produces intrinsic motivation and effective performance (Thrash & Elliot, 2002).
4. Environmental mastery: ability to seek out and interact effectively with optimal environments The ability to demonstrate self-awareness and perception to gain information about the self-concept (self-assessment), use this information to confirm positive self-schemas (self-verification) and promote self-efficacy in domain-related tasks (self-enhancement) (Roney & Sorrentino, 1995).
5. Purpose in life: the development of meaning and direction in life The ability to assess, verify and enhance the self-concept is important for the development of meaning and direction in life, for example, the formation of ideal and positive selves as well as self-concordant goals (McDaniel & Grice, 2008).
6. Personal growth: self-concept improvement, growth and actualisation An individual who can optimally integrate the former facets of psychological well-being place themselves in a position to move beyond hedonic well-being (pleasure attainment, pain avoidance) to the attainment of eudaimonic well-being (self-concept actualisation, fully functioning) (Ryan & Deci, 2001).

Summary: Self-concept comprises a core part and ever-changing outer part which interact to produce motivated attitudes, emotions and behaviours. Change is often necessary for self-concept development and stability as it enables an individual to assess, modify and reaffirm their self-schemas. Furthermore, change often takes the form of only slight, gradual differences which enables the core part to maintain effective functioning. Although a lack of self-awareness can lead to the pursuance of self-disconcordant goals, humans possess an innate tendency to strive for self-concordant goals. This enables the fulfilment of psychological needs, such as striving for autonomy through life goals, competence through environmental mastery and relatedness through positive interpersonal relations. Together, self-concordant goals and psychological need satisfaction encourage the development of intrinsic motivation which enables persistence, creativity, conceptual understanding and optimal functioning (Reeve, 2009).

Self-Concept Change and Management[edit | edit source]

The final section of this chapter addresses specific forms of self-concept change and management. As previously mentioned, self-concept change often takes the form of slight, gradual differences and to a limited number of self-schema domains at one point in time. As self-concept construction is deemed to stem from personal reflections on experiences as well as social feedback, three key theories will be addressed. The cognitive dissonance theory firstly outlines self-concept change derived from personal reflections on experiences and subsequent motivational properties designed to obtain attitude and behaviour equilibrium. Secondly, the self-discrepancy theory highlights how personal reflection can trigger awareness of discrepancies between actual, ideal and ought selves in addition to possible selves. Positive and negative self-esteem is also addressed to illustrate its role in preventing or enabling a person to become who they want to be. The final theory, self-evaluation maintenance model, highlights the influence of social feedback on self-concept change and management. It further emphasises the motivational properties produced through social comparison.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory[edit | edit source]

Cognitive Dissonance: In Focus

This case study follows Liz and Ben, a once happy couple who are now experiencing cognitive dissonance because their attitude ('we love each other') is inconsistent with their behaviour (constant bickering).

Dissonance-arousing Situations:

  • Choice: they have chosen to maintain their own sides of the argument. Liz recognises that her attitude ('happy couples compromise') is inconsistent with her behaviour ('sticking to her opinion').
  • Insufficient justification: Liz realises that she automatically rejects a call from Ben which makes her uncomfortable because she believes committed couples will always display an implicit desire to resolve conflict. She subsequently appraises the situation with the explanation that Ben must have really hurt her.
  • Effort justification: Liz reflects on her impromptu act of kindness where she prepares a romantic dinner for herself and Ben. She decides that the amount of effort she exerted must illustrate her deep love for Ben.
  • New information: Liz comes across an article which claims that opposites do not last in the long term. Applying this principle to the opposite personalities possessed by herself and Ben, she decides to rationalise the belief rather than accept it by reassuring herself that they are soul mates and 'one in a million'.

Resulting cognitive dissonance

Liz may recognise aversive emotions such as tension and physical arousal.

Motivated behaviour to attain a consonant relationship

Liz rejects the call from Ben (avoidance) but attempts to resolve the conflict through a romantic dinner (approach).

Determinants of change

  • Importance: Liz may reason that Ben is the biggest part of her life and this would influence her behaviour differently from if she regarded the relationship having run its course.
  • Dissonance ratio: Liz may identify that her consonant reasons to stay in the relationship (‘we love each other’, ‘we have surpassed difficulties in the past’, ‘we have many fond memories’) outnumbers the dissonant reasons to dissolve the relationship (‘we have experienced a heated argument’, ‘we are both stubborn in fights’).
  • Rationale: Liz may acknowledge that Ben’s recent occupation change and financial strains while he was locating a new position may have triggered or intensified the fighting.
  • Reality: Liz may consider whether Ben really defines her as a person or whether she could benefit from putting more effort into excelling at her job or maintaining other friendships.
  • Pain-cost ratio: Liz may justify withstanding the arguments with Ben and sleepless nights because she believes resolving the dissonance and continuing their relationship is worth the associated costs and pain.

Methods and outcomes of dissonance reduction or elimination

  • Importance determinant: Ben is very important to me Arrow green2 en.svg Remove dissonance by ceasing to argue and showing forgiveness through a hug.
  • Rationale determinant: Ben's new occupation and the couple's financial strains are problematic Arrow green2 en.svg Liz may reduce the importance of the dissonance by reasoning that situational factors are the underlying cause of the fight
  • Dissonance Ratio determinant: We have more dissonance and reasons to end, rather than savor, the relationship Arrow green2 en.svg Liz may add a consonant attitude by reasoning that the relationship does not define her as a person and she should be focusing on creating a balance in her life, for example, by exerting more effort in excelling at her job or maintaining her friendships.
  • Reality determinant: Can working on the relationship and balancing other aspects of her life realistically work? Arrow green2 en.svg Liz may increase the importance of the consonant attitude by scheduling in some relationship counselling and making times to see her friends

Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory proposes that inconsistent attitudes, thoughts and behaviours about the self produce psychological discomfort (West & Turner, 2007). As illustrated in the attribution theory, cognitive dissonance arises from an individual's desire to maintain consistency, control and predictability in their life. Dissonance is therefore aversive because it makes one's self-concept unstable which erodes the foundational base that people function from (Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001). Accordingly, motivation arises from the need to harmonise the inconsistent relationship. The following section will outline the process of cognitive dissonance as depicted in Figure 2.

What causes self-concept change?

  • Dissonance-arousing situations

Cognitive dissonance occurs when individuals appraise their attitudes, thoughts or behaviours as being incompatible, immoral or unreasonable. Reeve (2009) asserts that cognitive dissonance commonly arises under four circumstances; firstly, choice refers to the ultimatum individuals are faced with where they have to choose between two difficult options. Secondly, insufficient justification occurs when an individual has to explain an action which had little or no external prompting. Thirdly, effort justification defines a situation when an individual needs to reason why they exerted substantial effort for a particular behaviour. Fourthly, new information triggers cognitive dissonance because it can challenge or contradict one's beliefs.

The discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance incorporates both physiological and psychological arousal. Elkin and Leippe (1986) found that cognitive dissonance was a drive state with arousal reduction dependent upon a participant changing their attitude or becoming unaware of the dissonance after partaking in the task for a long duration of time. Similarly, Cooper, Zanna and Taves' (1978) study where participants completed a dissonance task after ingesting either a sedative or amphetamine. Results showed that sedatives attenuated the effects of dissonance in which an attitude change was no more prominent than the control group. Conversely, amphetamines augmented the effects of dissonance in which an attitude change was significantly more likely to occur.

Cognitive dissonance also comprises a psychological component of discomfort. Research indicates that dissonance triggers discrete, aversive feelings which are differentiated from positive or negative affect (Elliot & Devine, 1994). The cause of the psychological discomfort relates back to the attribution theory, where individuals are uncomfortable with possessing a self-concept which is inconsistent and unpredictable. Thus, when an individual notices their attitude and behaviour are incongruent, it produces motivational properties to harmonise the inconsistency.

  • Motivated behaviour to attain a consonant relationship

The key component behind the cognitive dissonance theory relates to its motivational properties (West & Turner, 2007). When an individual experiences dissonance (providing it is of motivational magnitude), the individual is energized to enact either approach or avoidance behaviour. The particular direction to reduce dissonance will be discussed later, but it is important to note that at this point in the process an individual is energized to reduce the dissonance.

How is the self-concept changed/managed?

  • Determinants of change

The determinants of approach or avoidance behaviour are governed by magnitudes of dissonance; the quantitative amount of dissonance an individual experiences including importance, dissonance ratio, rationale, reality and pain-cost ratio (Reeve, 2009; West & Turner, 2007). Importance refers to how imperative the issue is to an individual; dissonance ratio defines the number of consonant attitudes relative to the dissonant attitudes; rationale refers to the reasoning exercised to explain the dissonance; reality describes an individual's appraisal of whether attitudinal or behavioural changes are realistic; and the pain-cost ratio simply refers to the amount of pain and costs required to eliminate a dissonance. Therefore, the determinants of change impact on whether an individual displays approach or avoidance behaviours to reduce or eliminate the dissonance.

  • Methods and outcomes of dissonance reduction or elimination

The reduction or elimination of dissonance commonly occurs through the use of one of four methods including removal of dissonance, reduction of the importance of dissonance, addition of a consonant attitude or increase the importance of the new consonant attitude (West & Turner, 2007).

Figure 2. Cognitive Dissonance Model

Summary: one explanation for why people modify or change their self-concept is when they become aware of cognitive dissonance. As described by the attribution theory, people desire control, consistency and predictability over their attitudes, emotions and behaviour. Noticing an inconsistency between an attitude and behaviour therefore triggers physiological and psychological discomfort. Subsequently, people seek to harmonise this inconsistency through modifying or changing their attitudes or behaviours. When modification or change is successfully executed, individuals are able to clarify and consolidate particular self-schemas which make up the self-concept.

Self-Discrepancy Theory[edit | edit source]

Self-Discrepancy Theory Illustrated through Western Pop Music

'Empty' by The Cranberries
"All my plans fell through my hands,

They fell through my hands on me.

All my dreams it suddenly seems,

It suddenly seems,


  • Illustrates an actual-ideal discrepancy. The persona expresses plans that they had forseen for themselves which end up dissolving. Thus, they have not achieved aspects of their ideal self-concept. Consequently, the persona expresses emptiness, a dejection-related emotion which reflects the self-discrepancy theory (Boldero et al., 2005)
'Don't let me get me' by Pink
Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears

She's so pretty, that just ain't me

"Don't let me get me

I'm my own worst enemy

Its bad when you annoy yourself

So irritating

Don't wanna be my friend no more

I wanna be somebody else"

  • Illustrates an actual-ought discrepancy. The persona conveys the psychological discomfort experienced from believing they need to achieve the standards of celebrities, such as Britney Spears. Literature highlights the impact of the media and pressures to attain Western ideals including fame, achievement and wealth which consequently triggers psychological discomfort, particularly among youth (Dittmar, 2009; Johnson & Krueger, 2006; Sanchez & Crocker, 2005). In response to the persona's actual-ought discrepancy, they express feelings of irriation, which also reflects the self-discrepancy theory (McDaniel & Grice, 2008).
'Perfect' by Simple Plan
"Hey Dad look at me

Think back and talk to me

Did I grow up according

To plan?

Do you think I’m wasting

My time doing things I

Wanna do?

But it hurts when you

Disapprove all along"

  • Illustrates an actual-ideal and actual-ought discrepancy. The persona communicates a perceived pressure to fulfil their father's expectations of what self-schemas they should possess (actual-ought). Furthermore, there is a discrepancy between what the father perceives as idyllic as compared to the persona (actual-ideal). Consequently, the persona conveys a mixture of frustration (agitation-related emotions) and sadness (dejection-related emotions) which reflects the self-discrepancy theory (Boldero et al., 2005).

The Self-Discrepancy Theory addresses the motivational and emotional properties triggered from actual, ideal and ought self discrepancies (Crisp & Turner, 2010). The actual self refers to an individual’s current self-concept, the ideal self to an individual’s idyllic self-concept and the ought self to what an individual perceives their self-concept should encompass due to obligation or responsibility (McDaniel & Grice, 2008). Discrepancies consequently arise when the selves conflict which triggers the psychological discomfort outlined in the attribution theory due to the inconsistency and instability of one’s self-concept. Discrepancies stimulate negative emotional reactions including dejected-related emotions in response to actual-ideal inconsistencies and agitation-related emotions in response to actual-ought inconsistencies (Boldero, Moretti, Bell & Francis, 2005). Self-discrepancies have also been proposed as an indirect contributor to suicidal ideation, mood disorders and anxiety disorders (Cornette, Strauman, Abramson & Busch, 2009; McDaniel & Grice, 2008).

The self-discrepancy theory demonstrates how actual-ideal-ought discrepancies can impact on one's self-concept and emotional displays. The theory also provides insight into how these discrepancies motivate behaviour. Specifically, discrepancies can motivate us to change or modify our self-schemas to bridge the gap between our actual-ideal or actual-ought selves. For example, a shy person (actual self) wanting to be confident (ideal self) may enrol in an assertiveness course, practise saying no or gradually become comfortable with delivering speeches through relaxation techniques. The discrepancy has therefore motivated them to engage in strategising and productive behaviours.

The ability for self-discrepancies to motivate behaviour is evident in a diverse range of real life contexts. Wilson, Mack and Grattan (2008) propose that discrepancies between actual-ideal and actual-ought selves can motivate physically unfit or overweight individuals to engage in exercise and diet schedules. Similarly, the theory can be applied to individuals who engage in excessive alcohol consumption and subseqently improve drinking behaviour through a greater self-awareness of actual-ideal standards (McNally, Palfai & Kahler, 2005).

Pentina, Taylor and Voelker (2009) also found that self-discrepancies play a role in young females' decisions to undergo cosmetic surgery. Specifically, actual-ideal discrepancies motivated individuals to seek cosmetic surgery possibly because they had internalised body image values which indicated that their physical self-schema was inadequate. However, actual-ought discrepancies actually reduced cosmetic surgery-seeking behaviours possibly because it leads people to question and avoid risky and commercialised consumption choices. Importantly, family support tended to reduce cosmetic surgery-seeking behaviour while peer support increased it which suggests that additional factors contribute to motivated behaviour. Thus, self-discrepancies play a key role in energising and directing behaviour, however, contemporary research suggests this is moderated by individual factors.

The type and intensity of motivated behaviour produced by self-discrepancies appears to be moderated by individual characteristics (e.g. Lodewyk, Gammage & Sullivan, 2009; Roney & Sorrentino, 1995). Roney and Sorrentino (1995) firstly outline numerous biological, cognitive and psychological factors which implicate motivated behaviour. Biological predispositions such as personality tendencies can direct behaviour in two ways; individuals can possess a tendency to simply avoid discrepancies rather than engage in self-regulation to monitor and improve actual-ideal-ought discrepancies, and individuals often innately exhibit an uncertainty-oriented or certainty-oriented tendency. Uncertainty-oriented individuals are energised to seek out new information about themselves in a process called self-assessment, which subsequently enables them to engage and thrive on amending self-discrepancies.

Conversely, certainty-oriented individuals are energised to maintain consistent self-schemas and subsequently avoid self-assessment to prevent the confrontation of conflicting information about themselves (Deckers, 2004). Thus, uncertainty-oriented individuals often embrace self-discrepancies while certainty-oriented individuals avoid self-discrepancies which provides one explanation for, say, those individuals who devise and maintain a weight loss program and those who do not.

Roney and Sorrentino (1995) also outline several cognitive factors which influence motivated behaviour. Firstly, their study demonstrated that regardless of certainty or uncertainty orientation, individuals who possessed a success-oriented mindset performed better academically than individuals who possessed a failure-threatened mindset. Thus, when individuals set out to reduce a self-discrepancy, approaching the situation with a positive and success-oriented mindset is paramount in effective performance and goal attainment.

A second cognitive factor explored by Roney and Sorrentino involved the process of priming individuals with ideal or ought selves prior to the academic task. Results showed improved performance when individuals were primed with ideal selves and poorer performance when primed with ought selves. This supports Pentina et al. (2009) whose findings suggest that ideal selves stem from an individual's internalised, private beliefs while ought selves stem from an individual's perception of socially desirable beliefs and behaviours.

Roney and Sorrentino also posit that psychological factors can influence motivated behaviour. Their findings suggested that harder goals do not necessarily lead to superior performance as advocated by the goal-setting theory (Locke & Latham, 2006). This is because difficult goals can lead to greater self-discrepancies over time in addition to intensified negative emotions. Thus, self-discrepancies can motivate productive behaviour on the proviso that goal difficulty is reasonable and attainable.

A final dimension which implicates motivated behaviour involves social influences. Lodewyk et al. (2009) emphasise the effects of Western ideals such as achievement and physical attractiveness pressures. Specifically, extreme self-discrepancies can lead to unconstructive, rather than productive, behaviours where the actual-ideal-ought selves trigger anxiety, low self-efficacy and poor outcomes. Similarly, Pentina et al. (2009) highlight the influence of social support on motivated behaviour as mentioned previously. The relationship between self-discrepancies and motivated behaviour can therefore trigger productive or counter-productive behaviour. The direction of behaviour appears to be moderated by biological, cognitive, psychological and social factors in combination with the time-frame, type and difficulty of the self-discrepancy.

Self-Discrepancy Theory: In Focus

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a somatoform disorder which is characterised by a preoccupation with an imagined or slight physical defect, such as the size or shape of the nose (Buhlmann & Wilhelm, 2004). The disorder leads to impaired functioning and distress and is commonly comorbid with other disorders such as major depression, social phobia or anxiety (Durand & Barlow, 2010). Body dysmorphic disorder has been associated with the self-discrepancy theory as research suggests sufferers demonstrate inconsistencies between their actual-ideal and actual-ought selves (e.g. Veale, Kinderman, Riley & Lambrou, 2003).

Specifically, one participant recorded on a 10-point scale that their breasts were too saggy (10-points; actual self), they their ideal breasts would be firm, high and with small nipples (10-points; ideal self), and their ought breasts should also be firm, high and with small nipples (10-points; ought self). Thus, body dysmorphic disorder is intimately related and intensified by discrepancies between what a sufferer perceives they should, ideally and actually look like. Sufferers recognise inconsistencies within their self-concept, stimulated by dejected or agitated emotions. Consequently, a preoccupation with ‘fixing’, checking or avoidance of the defect is evident as sufferers attempt to cope with the discrepancy.

Possible Selves[edit | edit source]

Possible Selves and KidZania

Possible Selves and KidZania: The development of possible selves is evident from childhood with contemporary society further promoting this process with the establishment of facilities such as KidZania. KidZania was founded in Mexico, 1999, and is now located in 14 other cities. The facility is designed to provide children aged 3+ with work experience, independence, social skill development and an understanding of sensible money use. Children come to the facility with their parents and participate in one of the 90 'jobs' for an entire work shift (9am-3pm or 4pm-9pm). They receive training and specific tasks related to their job, such as preparing and cooking a meal as a chef, and on completion of the shift are paid in KidZos which they can use to purchase products and services in the gift shop. Thus, it enables children to 'test out' their possible selves and gain a clearer understanding of the ideal selves they wish to strive for.

Like self-discrepancies, possible selves energise and direct behaviour. Possible selves refer to the totality of self-schemas one does and does not wish to possess to form a coherent and consistent self-concept (Deckers, 2004). For example, an individual may wish to be an excellent conversationalist but not desire to have superior physical fitness. Possible selves subsequently direct an individual's attention to exert effort and persistence in strategically planning and monitoring goal attainment (Reeve, 2009). For instance, the individual in the former example would exert effort in improving their language skills, humour and ability to be personable.

Research suggests that individuals are more likely to think about future rather than past selves (Erikson, 2007), consider positive rather than negative selves (vanDellen & Hoyle, 2008) and believe they will become their positive rather than negative selves (Hart, Fegley & Brengelman, 1993). However, these tendencies are moderated by an individual's level of optimism and pessimism, with optimism being positively correlated to these tendencies and pessimism being negatively correlated (Deckers, 2004). Failure to substantiate one's possible self commonly results in one of two outcomes; the individual rejects the possible self or develops strategies and goals to achieve the posisble self (Reeve, 2009). Thus, the role of possible selves is to enable an individual to evaluate their current self and strive for a future self of more value.

Self-Esteem[edit | edit source]

The ideal self..
..and actual self

Self-esteem is a final factor which contributes to an individual's possible selves and the direction of their motivated behaviour. Self-esteem refers to the positive or negative evaluation of oneself based on how well the current self fares against the possible selves (Deckers, 2004). Specifically, self-esteem has been expressed through the following equation (Rodriguez, Wigfield & Eccles, 2003):

The equation defines pretensions as an individual's imagined possible selves and success as achievements towards becoming these possible selves. For example, Jenny may aspire to obtaining a 5.00 GPA which constitutes her possible self, and a success would involve achieving the 5.00 GPA. The theory subsequently proposes that increasing one's self-esteem requires either the reduction of pretensions or the increase of successes. Conversely, a decline in self-esteem is claimed to involve either an increase in pretensions or a decrease in successes (Rodriguez et al., 2003). Importantly, self-esteem is relative to the extent that an individual attributes importance to the possible self. If Jenny attributed no importance to academic schemas, then a failure to attain a 5.00 GPA would not necessarily result in reduced self-esteem (Deckers, 2004). Self-esteem therefore influences the direction and intensity of motivated behaviour and the subsequent selection and development of self-schemas which comprise one's self-concept.

Self-esteem influences motivated behaviour in different ways depending on whether one's self-esteem is positive or negative (Elliott, 2007). Cross and Markus (1994) illustrated this concept through a study which examined task performance in students who were schematic and aschematic in problem-solving. The results demonstrated that an individual with a positive self-esteem (schematic) possesses self-schemas which facilitate encoding, evaluation and retrieval of domain-relevant information. Schematic individuals were able to quickly reject inconsistent feedback (e.g. unbothered by an incorrect answer), were primed to respond in a particular way (e.g. quick and confident judgements, high information-processing) and were more sensitive and attentive to domain-relevant information (e.g. responded productively to feedback, utilised problem-solving skills). Thus, schematic individuals in a particular schema domain possess a superior ability to form and attain possible selves in that domain. Furthermore, motivated behaviour is action-oriented which is complemented by high self-efficacy.

Conversely, individuals with a negative self-esteem (aschematic) produced comparative results in the first task (which illustrates equal performance) but showed increasingly poorer performance throughout the remainder of the experiment. This is because they appraised the task as beyond their competence level which triggers avoidance reactions including reduced concentration, a lack of enjoyment and less exerted effort. Interestingly, aschematic participants who were given negative feedback throughout the task often improved their performance. Cross and Markus propose this result reflects an individual's fear that a problem-solving schema is indicative of general intelligence. When participants were consciously reminded of their performance, they were more attentive and exerted more effort than if they were not given feedback.

Self-Discrepancy Theory and Sun-Tanning

One practical application of the self-discrepancy theory designed to improve human well-being involves the reduction of sun-tanning. Shoveller, Lovato, Young and Moffat's (2003) research indicates that making intentional sun-tanners consciously aware of their actual, ideal and ought selves can firstly increase self-awareness. Secondly, by providing sun-safe education in addition to challenging Western ideals of beauty, participants demonstrated significant reductions in sun-tanning.

Sun tanning lying on her stomach.jpg

The importance of self-esteem can be summarised in the following example:

Arr r.png An individual's self-schema in a particular domain arouses perceived abilities and skills. For example, a social skill domain for Tim arouses his perception that he is personable, funny and competent in this domain.

Arr r.png Appraisal of the self-schema triggers the development and activation of possible selves. For example, Tim develops possible selves, such as being popular, and this self is activated when he is in a social situation.

Arr r.png The development and activation of positive possible selves subsequently primes task-relevant thoughts, emotions and actions. For example, Tim becomes attentive to people's body language when in a social situation and channels in on skills such as being warm, empathetic and humorous.

Arr r.png The activation of task-relevant skills enables an individual to utilise their skills in conjunction with increased self-efficacy which enables effective performance and self-concept consolidation. For example, Tim tunes into necessary social skills and is therefore able to utilise his skills, exert effort and persistence to attain his goal and in turn reaffirm his self-concept.

Summary: the self-discrepancy theory provides a second explanation for why and how individuals change their self-concept. Like cognitive dissonance theory, it explains self-concept change through self appraisals which produce motivational and emotional properties due to an inconsistent and unpredictable self. When an individual becomes aware of a discrepancy they cognitively appraise it with agitated-related emotions (actual-ought discrepancies) or dejected-related emotions (actual-ideal discrepancies). It is the cognitive appraisal and subsequent aversive emotions that produce the motivation behind goal setting and strategy formulation to modify or change one's self-schema or general self-concept. However if one's ideal or ought self is too far removed from their actual self, counter-productive behaviour can occur. Similarly, possible selves generate motivational and emotional properties in the form of approach or avoidance behaviour. Self-esteem tends to moderate the motivational and emotional properties of self-discrepancies and possible selves. Specifically, a positive self-esteem can trigger task-relevant thoughts, self-efficacy, optimisation of individual skills and abilities and self-concept growth. Conversely, a negative self-esteem can hinder self-concept development and stunt growth in self-schema domains.

Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model[edit | edit source]

Figure 1.1. Factors Contributing to Social Reflection

The Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model posits that challenges to one's self-concept and self-esteem motivates the engagement in either social comparison or social reflection depending on how the individual appraises the situation (Crisp & Turner, 2010). Social comparison involves the process of comparing oneself to another and subsequently using that analysis to define and evaluate their/your self-schemas (Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001). Comparisons often involve either upward comparisons where a person compares themselves to someone perceived as superior to them or downward comparisons where a person compares themselves to someone they perceive as inferior to them (Crisp & Turner, 2010). For example, social comparison is common amongst close work colleagues as it provides explicit performance judgements in the form of work evaluations, promotions or bonuses (Tesser, Millar & Moore, 1988).

Alternatively, social reflection refers to the bolstering of one’s self-esteem and development of the self-concept through internalising the achievements of others (Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001). For example, parents often engage in social reflection where they ‘bask in reflected glory’ from the achievements of their child such as sporting or academic accomplishments (Hannawa & Spitzberg, 2009).

Figure 1.2. Factors Contributing to Social Comparison

Two key factors are argued to determine whether social comparison or social reflection is utilised, as detailed in Figures 1.1 and 1.2. However, recent research suggests performance, closeness and information are additional determinants (Beach et al., 1996; Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001). Specifically, individuals are more likely to engage in social comparison if they perceive their past or future performance is threatened by others and/or if they are provided with performance information about the other person which suggests competence (Pemberton & Sedikides, 2001). Similarly, individuals are more likely to engage in social comparison if they possess a close relationship to the other person, as opposed to being strangers (Beach et al., 1996). Some research goes further by arguing that all other determinants of behaviour are irrelevant if the comparison is with a stranger (e.g. Tesser et al., 1988). This is because strangers do not directly implicate an individual’s self-concept or self-esteem as they are separate from one’s micro world and therefore hold no value in relation to one’s social environment.

  • Note: Self-concept refers to the mental representations of oneself while self-esteem defines the subjective negative or positive appraisal of oneself (Crisp & Turner, 2010).

The Self-Evaluation Maintenance Model subsequently posits that social reflection or comparison triggers motivated behaviour (Deckers, 2004). Social reflection motivates the person to engage in positive thoughts about him/herself (they are a part of the success), energises positive emotions (such as joy and pride in the achievement) and directs positive behaviour (such as celebratory actions). Alternatively, social comparison motivates four main defense strategies which aim to protect and maintain a positive self-concept, as displayed in Table 2(Crisp & Turner, 2010).

Table 2 Strategies to Combat the Effects of Social Comparison
Strategy Example
1. Exaggerate the abilities of the other person "My work colleague, Sue, is beyond intelligent - She went to Harvard University so it's unrealistic to compare myself to her"
2. Distance yourself from the other person "I don't particularly agree with Sue's decisions anyway so I'm applying for a department transfer"
3. Devalue the importance of the domain "Sue is far too work-orientated - At least I have a superior level of fitness and a busy social life"
4. Compare yourself to a different person "I am more competent at my job than my other co-workers"

Summary: this model provides another explanation for why and how people modify/change their self-concepts. However, rather than self comparisons it addresses social comparisons and how an individual can maintain a stable self-concept and thus psychological well-being. Specifically, perceptions of oneself compared to others can trigger social comparison where an individual bolsters their self-concept through downward comparison or threaten the consistency and stability of their self-concept through upward comparison. Alternatively, individuals can engage in social reflection which acts as a protective and self-enhancing technique.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: An illustrative example of Social Comparison
Possibly not the most accurate representation of the fairest one of all!

The well-known 1937 fairytale provides an illustrative example of social comparison through two characters; The Queen and the Magic Mirror. In an attempt to maintain self-verification and self-enhancement, The Queen frequently asks the Magic Mirror (which can speak nothing but the truth):

The Magic Mirror

Mirror, Mirror on the wall, Who is the fairest one of all?

You, O Queen, are the fairest one of all

Thus, The Queen is able to maintain a stable and consistent self-concept through feedback from the Magic Mirror. However, as the tale unfolds, The Queen asks once again and is subsequently denied the fairest one of all as depicted in this clip

Consequently, The Queen engages in social comparison as she perceives Snow White as a threat to her relevant domain (fairest one of all) and becomes uncertain of her abilities (thus formulates an evil plan). Furthermore, The Queen perceives Snow White as a threat to her future performance and status, holds a somewhat close relationship with Snow White (as she is her maid) and possesses explicit information that Snow White is ‘fairer’ than her (Dirks, 2010).

Chapter Recap[edit | edit source]

  • Self-concept permeates all facets of an individual's life and is a primary contributor to psychological well-being. Motivation is instrumental in energising and directing an individual to work out who they are (self-assessment), create a consistent and accurate hierarchy of self-schemas (self-verification) and enable control and psychological well-being (self-enhancement). The purpose of the self-concept therefore reflects the human tendency to seek consistency, control and predictability over their attitudes, emotions and behaviours.
  • Self-concept develops from a range of elements including biological, brain structure, neurotransmitter, socio-cultural and psychological components. Each individual comprises a particular combination of these elements which subsequently produces an unique self-concept and motivated attitudes, emotions and behaviours.
  • Self-concept incorporates a core part and ever-changing outer part which interact to produce motivated attitudes, emotions and behaviours. Change is often necessary for self-concept development and stability as it enables an individual to assess, modify and reaffirm their self-schemas. However, changes tend to be slight, gradual differences which enable the core to maintain effective functioning.
  • Self-determination theory proposes that humans possess an innate tendency to strive for self-concordant goals. This enables the fulfilment of psychological needs, such as striving for autonomy through life goals, competence through environmental mastery and relatedness through positive interpersonal relations. Together, self-concordant goals and psychological satisfaction encourage the development of intrinsic motivation which enables persistence, creativity, conceptual understanding and optimal functioning. This subsequently places an individual in a position to attain facets of psychological well-being including self-acceptance, positive interpersonal relations, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life and personal growth.
  • The cognitive dissonance theory asserts that an inconsistent attitude and behaviour produces physiological and psychological discomfort which can trigger self-concept modification or change. When attitude or behaviour modification or change is successfully executed, individuals are able to clarify and consolidate particular self-schemas which make up the self-concept.
  • The self-discrepancy theory outlines self-concept change and management from personal reflections on inconsistent actual-ideal and actual-ought selves. When an individual becomes aware of a discrepancy they cognitively appraise it with agitated-related emotions (actual-ought discrepancies) or dejected-related emotions (actual-ideal discrepancies). It is the cognitive appraisal and subsequent aversive emotions that produce the motivation behind goal setting and strategy formulation to modify or change one's self-schema or general self-concept. However if one's ideal or ought self is too far removed from their actual self, counter-productive behaviour can occur.
  • Possible selves generate motivational and emotional properties in the form of approach or avoidance behaviour. Self-esteem tends to moderate the motivational and emotional properties of self-discrepancies and possible selves. Specifically, a positive self-esteem can trigger task-relevant thoughts, self-efficacy, optimisation of individual skills and abilities and self-concept growth. Conversely, a negative self-esteem can hinder self-concept development and stunt growth in self-schema domains.
  • The self-evaluation maintenance model highlights how social feedback can trigger self-concept change and management. Perceptions of oneself compared to others can trigger social comparison where an individual bolsters their self-concept through downward comparison or threatens the consistency and stability of their self-concept through upward comparison. Alternatively, individuals can engage in social reflection which acts as a protective and self-enhancing technique.

Test Yourself: Answering the Chapter Focus Questions


1 Self-concept describes:

One's social roles
Mental representations of oneself
Who you would like to become

2 Motivation describes:

The energy behind behaviour
The direction behind behaviour
All of the above

3 Motivation energises and directs an individual to work out who they are (self-...........), create a consistent and accurate hierarchy of self-schemas (self-.............) and enable control and psychological well-being (self-...........):

Self-enhancement, self-verification, self-assessment
Self-assessment, self-verification, self-enhancement
Self-assessment, self-enhancement, self-verification

4 An individual's self-concept permeates all facets of his/her life and is a key motivational factor underlying attitudes, emotions and behaviours in the hope to attain:

Psychological well-being
Eudaimonic well-being
Hedonic well-being

5 Personality traits, self-recognition and peer groups refer to which developmental elements (in order):

Psychological, biological, socio-cultural
Biological, socio-cultural, psychological
Biological, psychological, socio-cultural

6 Which of the following statements are false:

Self-concept change often occurs in all self-schema domains at once
Self-concepts often comprise a core stable part and an ever-changing outer part
Self-concept change is often slight and gradual

7 The cognitive dissonance theory asserts that individuals become aware of undesirable self-concepts when:

A stressful life event is encountered
An attitude is inconsistent with a behaviour
An individual enters a new life stage

8 Actual-ideal discrepancies often trigger which type(s) of emotions:

Dejected-related emotions
Agitated-related emotions
All of the above

9 Which of the following statements are false:

Negative self-esteem can lower performance
Positive self-esteem increases the probability of forming and attaining possible selves
Poor performance in a domain irrelevant self-schema produces negative self-esteem

10 Social reflection most often occurs when:

The domain is irrelevant and abilities are certain
The domain is irrelevant and abilities uncertain
The domain is relevant and abilities certain

See also

References[edit | edit source]

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