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The self presentation theory and how to present your best self

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What does self presentation mean?

What are self presentation goals, individual differences and self presentation.

How can you make the most of the self presentation theory at work?  

We all want others to see us as confident, competent, and likeable — even if we don’t necessarily feel that way all the time. In fact, we make dozens of decisions every day — whether consciously or unconsciously — to get people to see us as we want to be seen. But is this kind of self presentation dishonest? Shouldn’t we just be ourselves?

Success requires interacting with other people. We can’t control the other side of those interactions. But we can think about how the other person might see us and make choices about what we want to convey. 

Self presentation is any behavior or action made with the intention to influence or change how other people see you. Anytime we're trying to get people to think of us a certain way, it's an act of self presentation. Generally speaking, we work to present ourselves as favorably as possible. What that means can vary depending on the situation and the other person.

Although at first glance this may seem disingenuous, we all engage in self-presentation. We want to make sure that we show up in a way that not only makes us look good, but makes us feel good about ourselves.

Early research on self presentation focused on narcissism and sociopathy, and how people might use the impression others have of them to manipulate others for their benefit. However, self presentation and manipulation are distinct. After all, managing the way others see us works for their benefit as well as ours.

Imagine, for example, a friend was complaining to you about   a tough time they were having at work . You may want to show up as a compassionate person. However, it also benefits your friend — they feel heard and able to express what is bothering them when you appear to be present, attentive, and considerate of their feelings. In this case, you’d be conscious of projecting a caring image, even if your mind was elsewhere, because you value the relationship and your friend’s experience.

To some extent, every aspect of our lives depends on successful self-presentation. We want our families to feel that we are worthy of attention and love. We present ourselves as studious and responsible to our teachers. We want to seem fun and interesting at a party, and confident at networking events. Even landing a job depends on you convincing the interviewer that you are the best person for the role.

There are three main reasons why people engage in self presentation:

Tangible or social benefits:

In order to achieve the results we want, it often requires that we behave a certain way. In other words, certain behaviors are desirable in certain situations. Matching our behavior to the circumstances can help us connect to others,   develop a sense of belonging , and attune to the needs and feelings of others.

Example:   Michelle is   a new manager . At her first leadership meeting, someone makes a joke that she doesn’t quite get. When everyone else laughs, she smiles, even though she’s not sure why.

By laughing along with the joke, Michelle is trying to fit in and appear “in the know.” Perhaps more importantly, she avoids feeling (or at least appearing) left out, humorless, or revealing that she didn’t get it — which may hurt her confidence and how she interacts with the group in the future.

To facilitate social interaction:

As mentioned, certain circumstances and roles call for certain behaviors. Imagine a defense attorney. Do you think of them a certain way? Do you have expectations for what they do — or don’t — do? If you saw them frantically searching for their car keys, would you feel confident with them defending your case?

If the answer is no, then you have a good idea of why self presentation is critical to social functioning. We’re surprised when people don’t present themselves in a way that we feel is consistent with the demands of their role. Having an understanding of what is expected of you — whether at home, work, or in relationships — may help you succeed by inspiring confidence in others.

Example:   Christopher has always been called a “know-it-all.” He reads frequently and across a variety of topics, but gets nervous and tends to talk over people. When attending a networking event, he is uncharacteristically quiet. Even though he would love to speak up, he’s afraid of being seen as someone who “dominates” the conversation. 

Identity Construction:

It’s not enough for us to declare who we are or what we want to be — we have to take actions consistent with that identity. In many cases, we also have to get others to buy into this image of ourselves as well. Whether it’s a personality trait or a promotion, it can be said that we’re not who   we   think we are, but who others see.

Example:   Jordan is interested in moving to a client-facing role. However, in their last performance review, their manager commented that Jordan seemed “more comfortable working independently.” 

Declaring themselves a “people person” won’t make Jordan’s manager see them any differently. In order to gain their manager’s confidence, Jordan will have to show up as someone who can comfortably engage with clients and thrive in their new role.

We may also use self presentation to reinforce a desired identity for ourselves. If we want to accomplish something, make a change, or   learn a new skill , making it public is a powerful strategy. There's a reason why people who share their goals are more likely to be successful. The positive pressure can help us stay accountable to our commitments in a way that would be hard to accomplish alone.

Example:   Fatima wants to run a 5K. She’s signed up for a couple before, but her perfectionist tendencies lead her to skip race day because she feels she hasn’t trained enough. However, when her friend asks her to run a 5K with her, she shows up without a second thought.

In Fatima’s case, the positive pressure — along with the desire to serve a more important value (friendship) — makes showing up easy.

Because we spend so much time with other people (and our success largely depends on what they think of us), we all curate our appearance in one way or another. However, we don’t all desire to have people see us in the same way or to achieve the same goals. Our experiences and outcomes may vary based on a variety of factors.

One important factor is our level of self-monitoring when we interact with others. Some people are particularly concerned about creating a good impression, while others are uninterested. This can vary not only in individuals, but by circumstances.   A person may feel very confident at work , but nervous about making a good impression on a first date.

Another factor is self-consciousness — that is, how aware people are of themselves in a given circumstance. People that score high on scales of public self-consciousness are aware of how they come across socially. This tends to make it easier for them to align their behavior with the perception that they want others to have of them.

Finally, it's not enough to simply want other people to see you differently. In order to successfully change how other people perceive you, need to have three main skills: 

1. Perception and empathy

Successful self-presentation depends on being able to correctly perceive   how people are feeling , what's important to them, and which traits you need to project in order to achieve your intended outcomes.

2. Motivation

If we don’t have a compelling reason to change the perception that others have of us, we are not likely to try to change our behavior. Your desire for a particular outcome, whether it's social or material, creates a sense of urgency.

3.  A matching skill set

You’ve got to be able to walk the talk. Your actions will convince others more than anything you say. In other words, you have to provide evidence that you are the person you say you are. You may run into challenges if you're trying to portray yourself as skilled in an area where you actually lack experience.

How can you make the most of the self presentation theory at work?

At its heart, self presentation requires a high-level of self awareness and empathy. In order to make sure that we're showing up as our best in every circumstance — and with each person — we have to be aware of our own motivation as well as what would make the biggest difference to the person in front of us.

Here are 6 strategies to learn to make the most of the self-presentation theory in your career:

1. Get feedback from people around you

Ask a trusted friend or mentor to share what you can improve. Asking for feedback about specific experiences, like a recent project or presentation, will make their suggestions more relevant and easier to implement.

2. Study people who have been successful in your role

Look at how they interact with other people. How do you perceive them? Have they had to cultivate particular skills or ways of interacting with others that may not have come easily to them?

3. Be yourself

Look for areas where you naturally excel and stand out. If you feel comfortable, confident, and happy, you’ll have an easier time projecting that to others. It’s much harder to present yourself as confident when you’re uncomfortable.

4. Be aware that you may mess up

As you work to master new skills and ways of interacting with others,   keep asking for feedback . Talk to your manager, team, or a trusted friend about how you came across. If you sense that you’ve missed the mark, address it candidly. People will understand, and you’ll learn more quickly.

Try saying, “I hope that didn’t come across as _______. I want you to know that…”

5. Work with a coach

Coaches are skilled in interpersonal communication and committed to your success. Roleplay conversations to see how they land, and practice what you’ll say and do in upcoming encounters. Over time, a coach will also begin to know you well enough to notice patterns and suggest areas for improvement.

6. The identity is in the details

Don’t forget about the other aspects of your presentation. Take a moment to visualize yourself being the way that you want to be seen. Are there certain details that would make you feel more like that person? Getting organized, refreshing your wardrobe, rewriting your resume, and even cleaning your home office can all serve as powerful affirmations of your next-level self.

Self presentation is defined as the way we try to control how others see us, but it’s just as much about how we see ourselves. It is a skill to achieve a level of comfort with who we are   and   feel confident to choose how we self-present. Consciously working to make sure others get to see the very best of you is a wonderful way to develop into the person you want to be.

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Allaya Cooks-Campbell

With over 15 years of content experience, Allaya Cooks Campbell has written for outlets such as ScaryMommy, HRzone, and HuffPost. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and is a certified yoga instructor as well as a certified Integrative Wellness & Life Coach. Allaya is passionate about whole-person wellness, yoga, and mental health.

Impression management: Developing your self-presentation skills

How to make a presentation interactive and exciting, 6 presentation skills and how to improve them, how to give a good presentation that captivates any audience, what is self-preservation 5 skills for achieving it, 8 clever hooks for presentations (with tips), how self-knowledge builds success: self-awareness in the workplace, developing psychological flexibility, self-management skills for a messy world, similar articles, how self-compassion strengthens resilience, what is self-efficacy definition, examples, and 7 ways to improve it, what is self-awareness and how to develop it, how to not be nervous for a presentation — 13 tips that work (really), what i didn't know before working with a coach: the power of reflection, self-advocacy: improve your life by speaking up, building resilience part 6: what is self-efficacy, why learning from failure is your key to success, stay connected with betterup, get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research..

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Psychology Glossary

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self representation skills definition

Self-representation

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Deutsch: Selbstrepräsentation / Español: Autorepresentación / Português: Auto-representação / Français: Auto-représentation / Italiano: Autorappresentazione /

In psychology, "self-representation" pertains to the way individuals perceive and depict themselves to both themselves and others. It encompasses the multifaceted aspects of self- identity , self-concept, and self- presentation , all of which play a significant role in an individual's mental and emotional well-being. Self-representation can be influenced by various factors, including personal experiences, social interactions, and cultural norms . In this article, we will explore the concept of self-representation in psychology, provide examples, discuss potential risks and application areas, offer recommendations for fostering healthy self-representation, and briefly touch upon historical and legal perspectives. Finally, we will list some similar psychological concepts.

Examples of Self-Representation in Psychology

Self-Identity : An individual's self-representation encompasses their self-identity, including aspects such as gender identity, ethnic identity, and religious beliefs. For example, a person may represent themselves as a feminist, reflecting their commitment to gender equality .

Self-Presentation : Self-representation is also evident in the way individuals present themselves to others. This includes how they dress, their communication style, and their online presence on social media platforms.

Self-Concept : Self-representation is intertwined with an individual's self-concept, which encompasses their beliefs about their abilities, values, and overall worth. For instance, someone with a strong self-concept may represent themselves as confident and capable.

Risks and Application Areas

Self-Esteem and Mental Health : An unhealthy or negative self-representation can contribute to low self-esteem and mental health issues, including depression and anxiety .

Interpersonal Relationships : Distorted self-representation can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, as others may perceive inconsistency or insincerity.

Social Influence : External factors, such as societal standards and media influence, can shape self-representation, potentially leading individuals to conform to unrealistic ideals.

Recommendations for Fostering Healthy Self-Representation

Self-Acceptance : Encourage self-acceptance and self-compassion. Accepting oneself, flaws and all, is crucial for fostering a positive self-representation.

Self-Reflection : Engage in self-reflection to better understand one's values, beliefs, and aspirations. This can help align self-representation with authentic self-concept.

Seeking Support : In cases where self-representation issues are deeply ingrained or related to mental health concerns, seeking therapy or counseling can provide valuable guidance and support.

Media Literacy : Develop media literacy skills to critically evaluate media messages and reduce the influence of unrealistic beauty and lifestyle standards on self-representation.

Historical and Legal Perspectives

Historically, the concept of self-representation has roots in early psychological theories, including those of William James and Sigmund Freud , who explored the development of self-identity and self-concept. Over time, psychologists have delved deeper into understanding the complexities of self-representation and its impact on mental health and well-being.

From a legal perspective, self-representation primarily pertains to issues related to identity and personal expression. Legal considerations may arise in cases involving gender identity, discrimination , and individual rights to self-expression and self- identification . Legal frameworks and protections vary by jurisdiction .

Similar Psychological Concepts

Self-Identity : Self-identity is closely related to self-representation and refers to the core aspects of an individual's sense of self, including their values, beliefs, and personal history.

Self-Concept : Self-concept encompasses an individual's overall perception of themselves, including their self-esteem, self-worth, and beliefs about their abilities .

Self-Esteem : Self-esteem refers to an individual's evaluation of their own worth and competence. It plays a significant role in self-representation.

Self-Presentation Theory : This theory explores how individuals strategically present themselves to others, considering factors such as impression management and social desirability.

In psychology, self-representation encompasses the various ways individuals perceive and depict themselves, both internally and externally. It includes self-identity, self-concept, and self-presentation, all of which influence an individual's mental and emotional well-being. Self-representation can be influenced by internal factors, external pressures , and societal norms. Unhealthy self-representation can lead to low self-esteem and mental health issues, impacting interpersonal relationships and overall life satisfaction . Fostering a healthy self-representation involves self-acceptance, self-reflection, seeking support when needed, and developing media literacy skills. Historically, self-representation has been explored in psychological theories, and from a legal standpoint, it relates to issues of identity and self-expression. Similar psychological concepts include self-identity, self-concept, self-esteem, and self-presentation theory, all of which contribute to a holistic understanding of the self in psychology.

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2.3: Self-Presentation

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How we perceive ourselves manifests in how we present ourselves to others. Self-presentation is the process of strategically concealing or revealing personal information in order to influence others’ perceptions. 1 We engage in this process daily and for different reasons. Although people occasionally intentionally deceive others in the process of self-presentation, in general we try to make a good impression while still remaining authentic. Since self-presentation helps meet our instrumental, relational, and identity needs, we stand to lose quite a bit if we are caught intentionally misrepresenting ourselves. In May of 2012, Yahoo!’s CEO resigned after it became known that he stated on official documents that he had two college degrees when he actually only had one. In a similar incident, a woman who had long served as the dean of admissions for the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology was dismissed from her position after it was learned that she had only attended one year of college and had falsely indicated she had a bachelor’s and master’s degree. 2 Such incidents clearly show that although people can get away with such false self-presentation for a while, the eventual consequences of being found out are dire. As communicators, we sometimes engage in more subtle forms of inauthentic self-presentation. For example, a person may state or imply that they know more about a subject or situation than they actually do in order to seem smart or “in the loop.” During a speech, a speaker works on a polished and competent delivery to distract from a lack of substantive content. These cases of strategic self-presentation may not ever be found out, but communicators should still avoid them as they do not live up to the standards of ethical communication.

Consciously and competently engaging in self-presentation can have benefits because we can provide others with a more positive and accurate picture of who we are. People who are skilled at impression management are typically more engaging and confident, which allows others to pick up on more cues from which to form impressions. 3 Being a skilled self-presenter draws on many of the practices used by competent communicators, including becoming a higher self-monitor. When self-presentation skills and self-monitoring skills combine, communicators can simultaneously monitor their own expressions, the reaction of others, and the situational and social context. 4

Sometimes people get help with their self-presentation. Although most people can’t afford or wouldn’t think of hiring an image consultant, some people have started generously donating their self-presentation expertise to help others. Many people who have been riding the tough job market for a year or more get discouraged and may consider giving up on their job search. Now a project called “Style Me Hired” has started offering free makeovers to jobless people in order to offer them new motivation and help them make favorable impressions and hopefully get a job offer. 5

There are two main types of self-presentation: prosocial and self-serving. 6 Prosocial self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as a role model and make a person more likable and attractive. For example, a supervisor may call on her employees to uphold high standards for business ethics, model that behavior in her own actions, and compliment others when they exemplify those standards. Self-serving self-presentation entails behaviors that present a person as highly skilled, willing to challenge others, and someone not to be messed with. For example, a supervisor may publicly take credit for the accomplishments of others or publicly critique an employee who failed to meet a particular standard. In summary, prosocial strategies are aimed at benefiting others, while self-serving strategies benefit the self at the expense of others.

In general, we strive to present a public image that matches up with our self- concept, but we can also use self-presentation strategies to enhance our self-concept. 7 When we present ourselves in order to evoke a positive evaluative response, we are engaging in self-enhancement. In the pursuit of self-enhancement, a person might try to be as appealing as possible in a particular area or with a particular person to gain feedback that will enhance one’s self-esteem. For example, a singer might train and practice for weeks before singing in front of a well-respected vocal coach but not invest as much effort in preparing to sing in front of friends. Although positive feedback from friends is beneficial, positive feedback from an experienced singer could enhance a person’s self-concept. Self-enhancement can be productive and achieved competently, or it can be used inappropriately. Using self-enhancement behaviors just to gain the approval of others or out of self-centeredness may lead people to communicate in ways that are perceived as phony or overbearing and end up making an unfavorable impression. 8

“Getting Plugged In” - Self-Presentation Online: Social Media, Digital Trails, and Your Reputation 

Although social networking has long been a way to keep in touch with friends and colleagues, the advent of social media has made the process of making connections and those all-important first impressions much more complex. Just looking at Facebook as an example, we can clearly see that the very acts of constructing a profile, posting status updates, “liking” certain things, and sharing various information via Facebook features and apps is self- presentation.  People also form impressions based on the number of friends we have and the photos and posts that other people tag us in. All this information floating around can be difficult to manage. So how do we manage the impressions we make digitally given that there is a permanent record?

Research shows that people overall engage in positive and honest self- presentation on Facebook.  Since people know how visible the information they post is, they may choose to only reveal things they think will form favorable impressions. But the mediated nature of Facebook also leads some people to disclose more personal information than they might otherwise in  such a public or semipublic forum. These hyperpersonal disclosures run the risk of forming negative impressions based on who sees them. In general, the ease of digital communication, not just on Facebook, has presented new challenges for our self-control and information management. Sending someone a sexually provocative image used to take some effort before the age of digital cameras, but now “sexting” an explicit photo only takes a few seconds. So people who would have likely not engaged in such behavior before are more tempted to now, and it is the desire to present oneself as desirable or cool that leads people to send photos they may later regret. 

In fact, new technology in the form of apps is trying to give people a little more control over the exchange of digital information. An iPhone app called “Snapchat” allows users to send photos that will only be visible for a few seconds. Although this isn’t a guaranteed safety net, the demand for such apps is increasing, which illustrates the point that we all now leave digital trails of information that can be useful in terms of our self-presentation but can also create new challenges in terms of managing the information floating around from which others may form impressions of us.

  • What impressions do you want people to form of you based on the information they can see on your Facebook page?
  • Have you ever used social media or the Internet to do “research” on a person? What things would you find favorable and unfavorable?
  • Do you have any guidelines you follow regarding what information about yourself you will put online or not? If so, what are they? If not, why?

Key Takeaways

  • Our self-concept is the overall idea of who we think we are. It is developed through our interactions with others and through social comparison that allows us to compare our beliefs and behaviors to others.
  • Our self-esteem is based on the evaluations and judgments we make about various characteristics of our self-concept. It is developed through an assessment and evaluation of our various skills and abilities, known as self-efficacy, and through a comparison and evaluation of who we are, who we would like to be, and who we should be (self-discrepancy theory).
  • Social comparison theory and self-discrepancy theory affect our self- concept and self-esteem because through comparison with others and comparison of our actual, ideal, and ought selves we make judgments about who we are and our self-worth. These judgments then affect how we communicate and behave.
  • Socializing forces like family, culture, and media affect our self- perception because they give us feedback on who we are. This feedback can be evaluated positively or negatively and can lead to positive or negative patterns that influence our self-perception and then our communication.
  • Self-presentation refers to the process of strategically concealing and/or revealing personal information in order to influence others’  perceptions. Prosocial self-presentation is intended to benefit others  and self-serving self-presentation is intended to benefit the self at the expense of others. People also engage in self-enhancement, which is a self-presentation strategy by which people intentionally seek out positive evaluations.
  • Make a list of characteristics that describe who you are (your self- concept). After looking at the list, see if you can come up with a few words that summarize the list to narrow in on the key features of your self-concept. Go back over the first list and evaluate each characteristic, for example noting whether it is something you do well/poorly, something that is good/bad, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable. Is the overall list more positive or more negative? After doing these exercises, what have you learned about your self-concept and self- esteem?
  • Discuss at least one time in which you had a discrepancy or tension between two of the three selves described by self-discrepancy theory (the actual, ideal, and ought selves). What effect did this discrepancy have on your self-concept and/or self-esteem?
  • Take one of the socializing forces discussed (family, culture, or media) and identify at least one positive and one negative influence that it/they have had on your self-concept and/or self-esteem.
  • Getting integrated: Discuss some ways that you might strategically engage in self-presentation to influence the impressions of others in an academic, a professional, a personal, and a civic context.
  • Lauren J. Human et al., “Your Best Self Helps Reveal Your True Self: Positive Self-Presentation Leads to More Accurate Personality Impressions,” Social Psychological and Personality Sciences 3, no. 1 (2012): 23.
  • Lauren Webber and Melissa Korn, “Yahoo’s CEO among Many Notable Resume Flaps,” Wall Street Journal Blogs, May 7, 2012, accessed June 9, 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2012/05/07/ yahoos-ceo-among-many-notableresume-flaps.
  • Lauren J. Human et al., “Your Best Self Helps Reveal Your True Self: Positive Self-Presentation Leads to More Accurate Personality Impressions,” Social Psychological and Personality Sciences 3, no. 1 (2012): 27.
  • John J. Sosik, Bruce J. Avolio, and Dong I. Jung, “Beneath the Mask: Examining the Relationship of SelfPresentation Attributes and Impression Management to Charismatic Leadership,”The Leadership Quarterly 13 (2002): 217.
  • “Style Me Hired,” accessed June 6, 2012, http://www.stylemehired.com .
  • John J. Sosik, Bruce J. Avolio, and DongI. Jung, “Beneath the Mask: Examining the Relationship of SelfPresentation Attributes and Impression Management to Charismatic Leadership,” The Leadership Quarterly 13 (2002): 217.
  • Owen Hargie, Skilled Interpersonal Interaction: Research, Theory, and Practice (London: Routledge, 2011), 99– 100.
  • John J. Sosik, Bruce J. Avolio, and Dong I. Jung, “Beneath the Mask: Examining the Relationship of SelfPresentation Attributes and Impression Management to Charismatic Leadership,” The Leadership Quarterly 13 (2002): 236

Contributors and Attributions

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Phil Reed D.Phil.

  • Personality

Self-Presentation in the Digital World

Do traditional personality theories predict digital behaviour.

Posted August 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams

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  • Personality theories can help explain real-world differences in self-presentation behaviours but they may not apply to online behaviours.
  • In the real world, women have higher levels of behavioural inhibition tendencies than men and are more likely to avoid displeasing others.
  • Based on this assumption, one would expect women to present themselves less on social media, but women tend to use social media more than men.

Digital technology allows people to construct and vary their self-identity more easily than they can in the real world. This novel digital- personality construction may, or may not, be helpful to that person in the long run, but it is certainly more possible than it is in the real world. Yet how this relates to "personality," as described by traditional personality theories, is not really known. Who will tend to manipulate their personality online, and would traditional personality theories predict these effects? A look at what we do know about gender differences in the real and digital worlds suggests that many aspects of digital behaviour may not conform to the expectations of personality theories developed for the real world.

Half a century ago, Goffman suggested that individuals establish social identities by employing self-presentation tactics and impression management . Self-presentational tactics are techniques for constructing or manipulating others’ impressions of the individual and ultimately help to develop that person’s identity in the eyes of the world. The ways other people react are altered by choosing how to present oneself – that is, self-presentation strategies are used for impression management . Others then uphold, shape, or alter that self-image , depending on how they react to the tactics employed. This implies that self-presentation is a form of social communication, by which people establish, maintain, and alter their social identity.

These self-presentational strategies can be " assertive " or "defensive." 1 Assertive strategies are associated with active control of the person’s self-image; and defensive strategies are associated with protecting a desired identity that is under threat. In the real world, the use of self-presentational tactics has been widely studied and has been found to relate to many behaviours and personalities 2 . Yet, despite the enormous amounts of time spent on social media , the types of self-presentational tactics employed on these platforms have not received a huge amount of study. In fact, social media appears to provide an ideal opportunity for the use of self-presentational tactics, especially assertive strategies aimed at creating an identity in the eyes of others.

Seeking to Experience Different Types of Reward

Social media allows individuals to present themselves in ways that are entirely reliant on their own behaviours – and not on factors largely beyond their ability to instantly control, such as their appearance, gender, etc. That is, the impression that the viewer of the social media post receives is dependent, almost entirely, on how or what another person posts 3,4 . Thus, the digital medium does not present the difficulties for individuals who wish to divorce the newly-presented self from the established self. New personalities or "images" may be difficult to establish in real-world interactions, as others may have known the person beforehand, and their established patterns of interaction. Alternatively, others may not let people get away with "out of character" behaviours, or they may react to their stereotype of the person in front of them, not to their actual behaviours. All of which makes real-life identity construction harder.

Engaging in such impression management may stem from motivations to experience different types of reward 5 . In terms of one personality theory, individuals displaying behavioural approach tendencies (the Behavioural Activation System; BAS) and behavioural inhibition tendencies (the Behavioural Inhibition System; BIS) will differ in terms of self-presentation behaviours. Those with strong BAS seek opportunities to receive or experience reward (approach motivation ); whereas, those with strong BIS attempt to avoid punishment (avoidance motivation). People who need to receive a lot of external praise may actively seek out social interactions and develop a lot of social goals in their lives. Those who are more concerned about not incurring other people’s displeasure may seek to defend against this possibility and tend to withdraw from people. Although this is a well-established view of personality in the real world, it has not received strong attention in terms of digital behaviours.

Real-World Personality Theories May Not Apply Online

One test bed for the application of this theory in the digital domain is predicted gender differences in social media behaviour in relation to self-presentation. Both self-presentation 1 , and BAS and BIS 6 , have been noted to show gender differences. In the real world, women have shown higher levels of BIS than men (at least, to this point in time), although levels of BAS are less clearly differentiated between genders. This view would suggest that, in order to avoid disapproval, women will present themselves less often on social media; and, where they do have a presence, adopt defensive self-presentational strategies.

The first of these hypotheses is demonstrably false – where there are any differences in usage (and there are not that many), women tend to use social media more often than men. What we don’t really know, with any certainty, is how women use social media for self-presentation, and whether this differs from men’s usage. In contrast to the BAS/BIS view of personality, developed for the real world, several studies have suggested that selfie posting can be an assertive, or even aggressive, behaviour for females – used in forming a new personality 3 . In contrast, sometimes selfie posting by males is related to less aggressive, and more defensive, aspects of personality 7 . It may be that women take the opportunity to present very different images of themselves online from their real-world personalities. All of this suggests that theories developed for personality in the real world may not apply online – certainly not in terms of putative gender-related behaviours.

We know that social media allows a new personality to be presented easily, which is not usually seen in real-world interactions, and it may be that real-world gender differences are not repeated in digital contexts. Alternatively, it may suggest that these personality theories are now simply hopelessly anachronistic – based on assumptions that no longer apply. If that were the case, it would certainly rule out any suggestion that such personalities are genetically determined – as we know that structure hasn’t changed dramatically in the last 20 years.

1. Lee, S.J., Quigley, B.M., Nesler, M.S., Corbett, A.B., & Tedeschi, J.T. (1999). Development of a self-presentation tactics scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 26(4), 701-722.

2. Laghi, F., Pallini, S., & Baiocco, R. (2015). Autopresentazione efficace, tattiche difensive e assertive e caratteristiche di personalità in Adolescenza. Rassegna di Psicologia, 32(3), 65-82.

3. Chua, T.H.H., & Chang, L. (2016). Follow me and like my beautiful selfies: Singapore teenage girls’ engagement in self-presentation and peer comparison on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 190-197.

4. Fox, J., & Rooney, M.C. (2015). The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 161-165.

5. Hermann, A.D., Teutemacher, A.M., & Lehtman, M.J. (2015). Revisiting the unmitigated approach model of narcissism: Replication and extension. Journal of Research in Personality, 55, 41-45.

6. Carver, C.S., & White, T.L. (1994). Behavioral inhibition, behavioral activation, and affective responses to impending reward and punishment: the BIS/BAS scales. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(2), 319.

7. Sorokowski, P., Sorokowska, A., Frackowiak, T., Karwowski, M., Rusicka, I., & Oleszkiewicz, A. (2016). Sex differences in online selfie posting behaviors predict histrionic personality scores among men but not women. Computers in Human Behavior, 59, 368-373.

Phil Reed D.Phil.

Phil Reed, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Swansea University.

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IResearchNet

Self-Presentation

Self-presentation definition.

Self-presentation refers to how people attempt to present themselves to control or shape how others (called the audience) view them. It involves expressing oneself and behaving in ways that create a desired impression. Self-presentation is part of a broader set of behaviors called impression management. Impression management refers to the controlled presentation of information about all sorts of things, including information about other people or events. Self-presentation refers specifically to information about the self.

Self-Presentation History and Modern Usage

Early work on impression management focused on its manipulative, inauthentic uses that might typify a used car salesperson who lies to sell a car, or someone at a job interview who embellishes accomplishments to get a job. However, researchers now think of self-presentation more broadly as a pervasive aspect of life. Although some aspects of self-presentation are deliberate and effortful (and at times deceitful), other aspects are automatic and done with little or no conscious thought. For example, a woman may interact with many people during the day and may make different impressions on each person. When she starts her day at her apartment, she chats with her roommates and cleans up after breakfast, thereby presenting the image of being a good friend and responsible roommate. During classes, she responds to her professor’s questions and carefully takes notes, presenting the image of being a good student. Later that day, she calls her parents and tells them about her classes and other activities (although likely leaving out information about some activities), presenting the image of being a loving and responsible daughter. That night, she might go to a party or dancing with friends, presenting the image of being fun and easygoing. Although some aspects of these self-presentations may be deliberate and conscious, other aspects are not. For example, chatting with her roommates and cleaning up after breakfast may be habitual behaviors that are done with little conscious thought. Likewise, she may automatically hold the door open for an acquaintance or buy a cup of coffee for a friend. These behaviors, although perhaps not done consciously or with self-presentation in mind, nevertheless convey an image of the self to others.

Self-Presentation

Although people have the ability to present images that are false, self-presentations are often genuine; they reflect an attempt by the person to have others perceive him or her accurately, or at least consistent with how the person perceives himself or herself. Self-presentations can vary as a function of the audience; people present different aspects of themselves to different audiences or under different conditions. A man likely presents different aspects of himself to his close friends than he does to his elderly grandmother, and a woman may present a different image to her spouse than she does to her employer. This is not to say that these different images are false. Rather, they represent different aspects of the self. The self is much like a gem with multiple facets. The gem likely appears differently depending on the angle at which it is viewed. However, the various appearances are all genuine. Even if people present a self-image that they know to be false, they may begin to internalize the self-image and thereby eventually come to believe the self-pres

entation. For example, a man may initially present an image of being a good student without believing it to be genuine, but after attending all his classes for several weeks, visiting the professor during office hours, and asking questions during class, he may come to see himself as truly being a good student. This internalization process is most likely to occur when people make a public commitment to the self-image, when the behavior is at least somewhat consistent with their self-image, and when they receive positive feedback or other rewards for presenting the self-image.

Self-presentation is often directed to external audiences such as friends, lovers, employers, teachers, children, and even strangers. Self-presentation is more likely to be conscious when the presenter depends on the audience for some reward, expects to interact with the audience in the future, wants something from the audience, or values the audience’s approval. Yet self-presentation extends beyond audiences that are physically present to imagined audiences, and these imagined audiences can have distinct effects on behavior. A young man at a party might suddenly think about his parents and change his behavior from rambunctious to reserved. People sometimes even make self-presentations only for themselves. For instance, people want to claim certain identities, such as being fun, intelligent, kind, moral, and they may behave in line with these identities even in private.

Self-Presentation Goals

Self-presentation is inherently goal-directed; people present certain images because they benefit from the images in some way. The most obvious benefits are interpersonal, arising from getting others to do what one wants. A job candidate may convey an image of being hardworking and dependable to get a job; a salesperson may convey an image of being trustworthy and honest to achieve a sale. People may also benefit from their self-presentations by gaining respect, power, liking, or other desirable social rewards. Finally, people make certain impressions on others to maintain a sense of who they are, or their self-concept. For example, a man who wants to think of himself as a voracious reader might join a book club or volunteer at a library, or a woman who wishes to perceive herself as generous may contribute lavishly to a charitable cause. Even when there are few or no obvious benefits of a particular self-presentation, people may simply present an image that is consistent with the way they like to think about themselves, or at least the way they are accustomed to thinking about themselves.

Much of self-presentation is directed toward achieving one of two desirable images. First, people want to appear likeable. People like others who are attractive, interesting, and fun to be with. Thus, a sizable proportion of self-presentation revolves around developing, maintaining, and enhancing appearance and conveying and emphasizing characteristics that others desire, admire, and enjoy. Second, people want to appear competent. People like others who are skilled and able, and thus another sizable proportion of self-presentation revolves around conveying an image of competence. Yet, self-presentation is not so much about presenting desirable images as it is about presenting desired images, and some desired images are not necessarily desirable. For example, schoolyard bullies may present an image of being dangerous or intimidating to gain or maintain power over others. Some people present themselves as weak or infirmed (or exaggerate their weaknesses) to gain help from others. For instance, a member of a group project may display incompetence in the hope that other members will do more of the work, or a child may exaggerate illness to avoid going to school.

Self-Presentation Avenues

People self-present in a variety of ways. Perhaps most obviously, people self-present in what they say. These verbalizations can be direct claims of a particular image, such as when a person claims to be altruistic. They also can be indirect, such as when a person discloses personal behaviors or standards (e.g., “I volunteer at a hospital”). Other verbal presentations emerge when people express attitudes or beliefs. Divulging that one enjoys backpacking through Europe conveys the image that one is a world-traveler. Second, people self-present nonverbally in their physical appearance, body language, and other behavior. Smiling, eye contact, and nods of agreement can convey a wealth of information. Third, people self-present through the props they surround themselves with and through their associations. Driving an expensive car or flying first class conveys an image of having wealth, whereas an array of diplomas and certificates on one’s office walls conveys an image of education and expertise. Likewise, people judge others based on their associations. For example, being in the company of politicians or movie stars conveys an image of importance, and not surprisingly, many people display photographs of themselves with famous people. In a similar vein, high school students concerned with their status are often careful about which classmates they are seen and not seen with publicly. Being seen by others in the company of someone from a member of a disreputable group can raise questions about one’s own social standing.

Self-Presentation Pitfalls

Self-presentation is most successful when the image presented is consistent with what the audience thinks or knows to be true. The more the image presented differs from the image believed or anticipated by the audience, the less willing the audience will be to accept the image. For example, the lower a student’s grade is on the first exam, the more difficulty he or she will have in convincing a professor that he or she will earn an A on the next exam. Self-presentations are constrained by audience knowledge. The more the audience knows about a person, the less freedom the person has in claiming a particular identity. An audience that knows very little about a person will be more accepting of whatever identity the person conveys, whereas an audience that knows a great deal about a person will be less accepting.

People engaging in self-presentation sometimes encounter difficulties that undermine their ability to convey a desired image. First, people occasionally encounter the multiple audience problem, in which they must simultaneously present two conflicting images. For example, a student while walking with friends who know only her rebellious, impetuous side may run into her professor who knows only her serious, conscientious side. The student faces the dilemma of conveying the conflicting images of rebellious friend and serious student. When both audiences are present, the student must try to behave in a way that is consistent with how her friends view her, but also in a way that is consistent with how her professor views her. Second, people occasionally encounter challenges to their self-presentations. The audience may not believe the image the person presents. Challenges are most likely to arise when people are managing impressions through self-descriptions and the self-descriptions are inconsistent with other evidence. For example, a man who claims to be good driver faces a self-presentational dilemma if he is ticketed or gets in an automobile accident. Third, self-presentations can fail when people lack the cognitive resources to present effectively because, for example, they are tired, anxious, or distracted. For instance, a woman may yawn uncontrollably or reflexively check her watch while talking to a boring classmate, unintentionally conveying an image of disinterest.

Some of the most important images for people to convey are also the hardest. As noted earlier, among the most important images people want to communicate are likeability and competence. Perhaps because these images are so important and are often rewarded, audiences may be skeptical of accepting direct claims of likeability and competence from presenters, thinking that the person is seeking personal gain. Thus, people must resort to indirect routes to create these images, and the indirect routes can be misinterpreted. For example, the student who sits in the front row of the class and asks a lot of questions may be trying to project an image of being a competent student but may be perceived negatively as a teacher’s pet by fellow students.

Finally, there is a dark side to self-presentation. In some instances, the priority people place on their appearances or images can threaten their health. People who excessively tan are putting a higher priority on their appearance (e.g., being tan) than on their health (e.g., taking precautions to avoid skin cancer). Similarly, although condoms help protect against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy, self-presentational concerns may dissuade partners or potential partners from discussing, carrying, or using condoms. Women may fear that carrying condoms makes them seem promiscuous or easy, whereas men may fear that carrying condoms makes them seem presumptuous, as if they are expecting to have sex. Self-presentational concerns may also influence interactions with health care providers and may lead people to delay or avoid embarrassing medical tests and procedures or treatments for conditions that are embarrassing. For example, people may be reluctant to seek tests or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, loss of bladder control, mental disorders, mental decline, or other conditions associated with weakness or incompetence. Finally, concerns with social acceptance may prompt young people to engage in risky behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption, sexual promiscuity, or juvenile delinquency.

References:

  • Jones, E. E., Pittman, T. S. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. In J. Suls (Ed.), Psychological perspectives on the self (Vol. 1, pp. 231-260). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Leary, M. R. (1996). Self-presentation: Impression management and interpersonal behavior. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Leary, M. R., Tchividjian, L. R., & Kraxberger, B. E. (1994). Self-presentation can be hazardous to your health: Impression management and health risk. Health Psychology, 13, 461-470.
  • Schlenker, B. R. (1980). Impression management: The self-concept, social identity, and interpersonal relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

REVIEW article

Eighty phenomena about the self: representation, evaluation, regulation, and change.

\r\nPaul Thagard*

  • 1 Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada
  • 2 Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

We propose a new approach for examining self-related aspects and phenomena. The approach includes (1) a taxonomy and (2) an emphasis on multiple levels of mechanisms. The taxonomy categorizes approximately eighty self-related phenomena according to three primary functions involving the self: representing, effecting, and changing. The representing self encompasses the ways in which people depict themselves, either to themselves or to others (e.g., self-concepts, self-presentation). The effecting self concerns ways in which people facilitate or limit their own traits and behaviors (e.g., self-enhancement, self-regulation). The changing self is less time-limited than the effecting self; it concerns phenomena that involve lasting alterations in how people represent and control themselves (e.g., self-expansion, self-development). Each self-related phenomenon within these three categories may be examined at four levels of interacting mechanisms (social, individual, neural, and molecular). We illustrate our approach by focusing on seven self-related phenomena.

Introduction

Social and clinical psychologists frequently use the concept of the self in their discussions of a wide range of phenomena (e.g., Baumeister, 1999 ; Sedikides and Brewer, 2001 ; Leary and Tangney, 2003 ; Alicke et al., 2005 ; Sedikides and Spencer, 2007 ). However, there is no general, unified psychological theory of the self that can account for these phenomena. Thagard (2014) has proposed a view of the self as a multilevel system consisting of social, individual, neural, and molecular mechanisms. Like James (1890) and Mead (1967) , this view accommodates social, cognitive, and physiological aspects of the self, but provides far more detail about the nature of the relevant mechanisms. Our aim in the current paper is to show the applicability of the multilevel system account of the self to a large range of phenomena.

We will present a new taxonomy that categorizes approximately eighty self-related phenomena according to three primary aspects of the self: representing, effecting, and changing. The representing self encompasses the ways in which people depict themselves, either to themselves or to others (e.g., self-concepts, self-presentation). The effecting self concerns ways in which people facilitate or limit their own traits and behaviors (e.g., self-enhancement, self-regulation). The changing self is less time-limited than the effecting self; it concerns phenomena that involve lasting alterations in how people represent and control themselves (e.g., self-expansion, self-development). After presenting this taxonomy, we will describe how four levels of mechanisms—social, individual, neural, and molecular—are relevant to understanding these phenomena about the self. It would be premature to offer a full theory of the self, because not enough is known about the nature of these mechanisms and how they produce the relevant phenomena. But we hope our taxonomy and outline of relevant mechanisms provides a new and useful framework for theorizing about the self.

A Taxonomy of Self-Phenomena

There are more than eighty frequently discussed topics that we call the self-phenomena. More accurately, each of these topics should be understood as a group of phenomena. For example, there are many empirical findings about self-esteem that should count as distinctive phenomena to be explained, so there are potentially hundreds of findings for which a scientific theory of the self should be able to account.

Fortunately, the task of accounting for all of the self-phenomena, through causal explanations of the large number of empirical findings about them, can be managed by grouping the phenomena according to three primary aspects of the self: representing, effecting, and changing. All of the self-phenomena fall primarily under one of these functional groups, although a few are related to more than one group. Figure 1 summarizes the proposed organization of self-phenomena that we now discuss in more detail.

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Figure 1. Grouping of many self-phenomena into six main classes: self-representing (with three sub-categories), self-effecting (with two sub-categories), and self-changing. Source: Thagard (2014) .

The Representing Self

A representation is a structure or activity that stands for something, and many of the self-phenomena listed in Figure 1 concern ways in which people represent themselves. The representing self can roughly be divided into three subgroups concerned with (1) depicting oneself to oneself, (2) depicting oneself to others, and (3) evaluating oneself according to one’s own standards.

The most general terms for depicting oneself to oneself are self-knowledge and self-understanding, which seem roughly equivalent. Self-concepts and self-schemata are both mental ingredients of self-knowledge, serving as cognitive structures to represent different aspects of the self. (Later we provide a more detailed account of self-concepts.) Self-interest consists in the collection of one’s personal goals, conscious or unconscious. Self-identity and self-image are also ways in which one represents oneself to oneself, although they may also contribute to how one represents oneself to others. Self-discovery and self-projection are processes that involve self-representation.

Several aspects of depicting oneself to oneself assume conscious experience, as in self-awareness and other phenomena listed in Figure 1 . Such experience is not purely cognitive, as it can also involve prominent affective components such as moods and emotions. Another set of phenomena that involve depicting oneself to oneself includes self-deception and self-delusion, in which the representation of self is false. The second division within the group of self-representing phenomena involves depicting and communicating oneself to others.

The third sub-group of self-phenomena in the representing category concerns the evaluation of the self, either as on ongoing process or as the product that results from the evaluation. Phenomena concerned with the process of evaluation include self-appraisal. There are many products that result from this process, including both general assessments such as self-confidence and particular emotional reactions such as self-pity.

The Effecting Self

The self does more than just represent itself; it also does things to itself, including facilitating its own functioning in desirable ways and limiting its functioning to prevent undesirable consequences. Self-phenomena that have a facilitating effect include self-actualization. Self-evaluation can also produce the self-knowledge that unconstrained actions may have undesirable consequences, as in excessive eating, drinking, drug use, and dangerous liaisons. Accordingly, there is a set of important phenomena concerning limits that people put on their own behavior, including self-control. All of these self-effecting phenomena involve people encouraging or discouraging their own behaviors, but they do not bring about fundamental, longer lasting changes in the self, which is the third and probably rarest aspect of the self.

The Changing Self

Over a lifetime, people change as the result of aging and experiences such as major life events. Some self-phenomena such as self-development concern processes of change. The changes can involve alterations in self-representing, when people come to apply different concepts to themselves, and also self-effecting, if people manage to change the degree to which they are capable of either facilitating desired behaviors or limiting undesired ones. Whereas short-term psychotherapy is aimed at dealing with small-scale problems in self-representing and self-efficacy, long-term psychotherapy may aim at larger alterations in the underlying nature of the self.

The proposed grouping of self-phenomena summarized in Figure 1 is not meant to be exhaustive, as there are aspects of self that are described by words without the “self” prefix, such as agency, autonomy, personhood, and resilience, as well as more esoteric terms that do use the prefix. But the diagram serves to provide an idea of the large range of phenomena concerning the self. Our goal is to show the applicability of the multilevel account of the self to this range of phenomena, by selecting phenomena from each of the six main classes in Figure 1 . It would be tedious to apply the multilevel theory to more than eighty phenomena, so we take a representative sampling that includes: self-concepts, self-presentation, self-esteem, self-enhancement, self-regulation, self-expansion, and self-development. Each of these has aspects that need to be understood by considering the self as a system that operates at social, individual, neural, and molecular levels.

Figure 2 displays the relevant levels and their interconnections. We understand a mechanism to be a system of parts whose interactions produce regular changes ( Bechtel, 2008 ; Thagard, 2012 ). The social level consists of people who communicate with each other. The individual level consists of mental representations and computational procedures that operate on them. The neural level consists of neurons that excite and inhibit each other. Finally, the molecular level consists of genes, proteins, neurotransmitters, and hormones that affect neural operation. For defense of this account of levels of mechanisms, and the occurrence of causal links between social and molecular levels, see Thagard (2014) .

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Figure 2. Diagram of the self as a multilevel system. Lines with arrows indicate causality. Thick lines indicate composition. Source: Thagard (2014) .

We do not mean to suggest that there are three separate selves capable of representing, effecting, and changing, any more than we implied that there are separate social, individual, neural, and molecular selves. We especially want to avoid the ridiculous suggestion that a person might consist of twelve different selves combining three different aspects at four different levels. Our goal is to display the unity of the self, not just its amazing diversity. Unification arises first from seeing the interconnections of the four levels described earlier, and second from recognizing how the interconnected mechanisms produce all three of the self’s functions.

The scientific value of understanding the self as a multilevel system depends on its fruitfulness in generating explanations of important empirical findings concerning the various self-phenomena. We will attempt to show the relevance of multiple mechanisms for understanding three phenomena that are involved in representational aspects of the self: self-concepts, self-presentation, and self-esteem. Respectively, these involve representing oneself to oneself, representing oneself to others, and evaluating oneself.

Self-Concepts (Representing Oneself to Oneself)

Self researchers distinguish between self-concept, which involves content —one’s thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge about the self—and self-esteem, which involves evaluation —evaluation of oneself as good, bad, worthy, unworthy, and so forth. Here we focus on self-concepts, considering them at individual, social, neural, and molecular levels. Psychologists studying the self no longer think of people as possessing a single, unified self-concept, but as possessing self-views in many domains ( Baumeister, 1999 ). People have various concepts that they apply to characterize themselves with respect to features such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, occupation, hobbies, personality, and physical characteristics. For example, a man might think of himself as an intellectual, Canadian, and aging father. Moreover, not all content of those various self-views can be held in mind at once. The part of self-concept that is present in awareness at a given time has been called the “working self-concept” ( Markus and Kunda, 1986 ). What is the nature of the concepts that people apply to themselves, and what are the mechanisms underlying these applications?

The individual level of mental representations is clearly highly relevant to understanding concepts including ones about the self. What kind of mental representations are concepts? Unfortunately, there is no single currently available psychological theory of concepts that can be applied to self-concepts. Debate is ongoing about whether concepts should be understood as prototypes, collections of exemplars, or theoretical explanations ( Murphy, 2002 ; Machery, 2009 ), and all of these aspects are relevant to self-concepts ( Kunda, 1999 , Ch. 2). For example, the concept of extravert carries with it prototypical conditions such as enjoying social interactions, exemplars such as Bill Clinton, and explanations such as people going to parties because they are extraverted. Below we will suggest how all of these aspects of concepts can be integrated at the neural level.

Psychological mechanisms such as priming carried out by spreading activation between concepts explain how different concepts get applied in different situations. For example, people at parties may be especially prone to think of themselves as extraverted. Such explanations require also taking into account social mechanisms such as communication and other forms of interaction. Then the causes of applying the concept extraverted to oneself include social mechanisms as well as the individual mechanism of spreading activation among concepts.

The vast literature on self-concepts points to the interplay of the individual and social levels in a myriad of ways. First is research on social comparison, which shows that one’s working self-concept depends on the other people present ( Wood, 1989 ). Ads with skinny models can make one feel fat, and unkempt people can make one feel well-groomed. When asked to describe themselves, people tend to list characteristics that make them distinctive in their immediate social setting. A woman in a group of men is especially likely to list her gender, and a white man in a group of African–American men is especially likely to list his race (e.g., McGuire et al., 1978 ).

More permanent aspects of one’s social surround can have more consequential effects on self-concept. For example, college graduates’ career aspirations depend on their standing relative to their peers at their own college, regardless of the college’s standing relative to other institutions ( Davis, 1966 ). A student who earns high grades at institutions where grading is easier tends to have higher career aspirations than an equally qualified student at a more competitive college. This phenomenon has been called “the campus as a frog pond”; for the frog in a shallow pond aims his [or her] sights higher than an equally talented frog in a deep pond ( Pettigrew, 1967 , p. 257). According to social identity theory, one psychological basis of group discrimination is that people identify with some groups and contrast themselves with other groups that are viewed less favorably ( Tajfel, 1974 ).

Self-concepts are also influenced by the culture in which one lives. Markus and Kitayama (1991) proposed that whereas Westerners have more “independent self-construals,” in which the self is autonomous and guided by internal thoughts and feelings, Asians have more “interdependent self-construals,” in which the self is connected with others and guided, at least in part, by others’ thoughts and feelings.

Another way that the individual and social levels intersect with respect to self-concept involves the “looking-glass self” or “reflected appraisals”—the idea that people come to see themselves as others see them. This idea has been prominent in social science for some time (e.g., Mead, 1967 ), but research in social psychology in the last few decades leads to a different conclusion: People do not see very clearly how others, especially strangers, see them, and instead believe that others see them as they see themselves (see Tice and Wallace, 2003 , for a review). Instead of others’ views influencing one’s self-view, then, one’s self-view determines how one thinks others view oneself. It is possible, however, that within close relationships, the reflected self plays a greater role in shaping the self-concept ( Tice and Wallace, 2003 ).

Feedback from others can also affect self-concepts, and not just in the way one might expect. For example, although people may think of themselves as more attractive when they have been told they are attractive, people sometimes resist others’ feedback in various ways ( Swann and Schroeder, 1995 ). For example, when people with high self-esteem (HSEs) learn they have failed in one domain, they recruit positive self-conceptions in other domains (e.g., Dodgson and Wood, 1998 ). People are more likely to incorporate others’ feedback into their self-views if that feedback is close to their pre-existing self-view than if it is too discrepant ( Shrauger and Rosenberg, 1970 ).

Self-concepts also change with one’s relationships. Two longitudinal studies showed that people’s self-descriptions increased in diversity after they fell in love; people appear to adopt some of their beloved’s characteristics as their own ( Aron et al., 1995 ). Several studies also indicate that cognitive representations of one’s romantic partner become part of one’s own self-representation (as reviewed by Aron, 2003 ). Andersen and Chen (2002) describe a “relational self” in which knowledge about the self is linked with knowledge about significant others.

Interactions with other people also affect the self-concept through a process called “behavioral confirmation,” whereby people act to confirm other people’s expectations ( Darley and Fazio, 1980 ). For example, when male participants were led to believe that a woman they were speaking to over an intercom was physically attractive, that woman ended up behaving in a more appealing way than when the man thought she was unattractive ( Snyder et al., 1977 ). Presumably, a man’s expectation that a woman is attractive leads him to act especially warmly toward her, which in turn brings to the fore a working self-concept for her that is especially friendly and warm. Evidence suggests that when people believe that others will accept them, they behave warmly, which in turn leads those others to accept them; when they expect rejection, they behave coldly, which leads to less acceptance ( Stinson et al., 2009 ). More consequential results of behavioral confirmation are evident in a classic study of the “Pygmalion” effect, in which teachers were led to have high expectations for certain students (randomly determined), who then improved in academic performance ( Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968 ).

So far we have considered social effects on the self-concept. In turn, one’s self-concept influences one’s judgments of others in many ways. In his review of this large literature, Dunning (2003) grouped such effects into three main categories. First, in the absence of information about others, people assume that others are similar to themselves. Second, in their impressions of another person, people emphasize the domains in which they themselves are strong or proficient. Third, when judging others on some dimension, such as physical fitness, people tend to use themselves as a benchmark. Given a man who takes a daily 20-min walk, athletes will judge him to be unfit, whereas couch potatoes will judge him to be highly fit.

Finally, researchers have examined not only the content of self-concepts, but their clarity. People with clearer self-concepts respond to questions about themselves more quickly, extremely, and confidently, and their self-concepts are more stable over time ( Campbell, 1990 ). Recent research has pointed to social influences on self-concept clarity. For example, clarity of self-concepts regarding particular traits depends in part on how observable those traits are to others ( Stinson et al., 2008b ). And when people with low self-esteem (LSEs) receive more social acceptance than they are accustomed to, they become less clear in their self-concepts; the same is true when people with high self-esteem encounter social rejection ( Stinson et al., 2010 ). In sum, social factors are as relevant to understanding the operation of self-concepts as are factors involving the operation of mental representations in individual minds.

Moving to the level of neural mechanisms provides a way of seeing how concepts can function in all the ways that psychologists have investigated—as prototypes, exemplars, and theories, if concepts are understood as patterns of neural activity ( Thagard, 2010 , p. 78),

Simulations with artificial neural networks enable us to see how concepts can have properties associated with sets of exemplars and prototypes. When a neural network is trained with multiple examples, it forms connections between its neurons that enable it to store the features of those examples implicitly. These same connections also enable the population of connected neurons to behave like a prototype, recognizing instances of a concept in accord with their ability to match various typical features rather than having to satisfy a strict set of conditions. Thus even simulated populations of artificial neurons much simpler than real ones in the brain can capture the exemplar and prototype aspects of concepts.

It is trickier to show how neural networks can be used in causal explanations, but current research is investigating how neural patterns can be used for explanatory purposes ( Thagard and Litt, 2008 ). Blouw et al. (forthcoming) present a detailed model of how neural populations can function as exemplars, prototypes, and rule-based explanations.

Another advantage of moving down to the neural level is that it becomes easier to apply multimodal concepts such as ones concerned with physical appearance. People who think of themselves as thin or fat, young or old, and quiet or loud, are applying to themselves representations that are not just verbal but also involve other modalities such as vision and sound. Because much is known about the neural basis of sensory systems, the neural level of analysis makes it easier to see how human concepts can involve representations tied to sensory systems, not only for objects such as cars with associated visual and auditory images, but also for kinds of people ( Barsalou, 2008 ).

Brain scanning experiments reveal important neural aspects of self-concepts. Tasks that involve reflecting on one’s own personality traits, feelings, physical attributes, attitudes, or preferences produce preferential activation in the medial prefrontal cortex ( Northoff and Bermpohl, 2004 ; Mitchell, 2009 ; Jenkins and Mitchell, 2011 ). Neural correlates of culturally different self-construals have also have been demonstrated. When East Asian participants were primed with an independent self-construal, right ventrolateral PFC (prefrontal cortex) activity was more active for their own face relative to a coworker’s face, whereas when primed with an interdependent self-construal, this region was activated for both faces ( Sui and Han, 2007 ).

Once concepts are understood partly in neural terms, the relevance of molecular mechanisms becomes evident too, because of the important role of affect and emotion in self-concepts. For most people, thinking of themselves as young and thin carries positive affect, whereas thinking of themselves as old and fat carries negative valence. When such valences are interpreted neurologically, molecular mechanisms involving neurotransmitters and hormones can be applied. For example, the pleasurable feelings associated with young, thin , and other concepts that people enjoy applying to themselves plausibly result from activity in neural regions rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine, such as the nucleus accumbens. On the negative side, negative feelings such as anxiety are associated with activity in the amygdala, whose neurons have receptors for the stress hormone cortisol as well as various neurotransmitters. Hence if we want to understand why people much prefer to apply some concepts to themselves and different concepts to others, it is helpful to consider the molecular mechanisms that underlie emotion as well as social, individual, and neural mechanisms. Of course, merely knowing about physiological correlates does not provide causal explanations, which requires mechanisms that link physiology to behavior.

Self-concepts illustrate complex interactions among multiple levels, belying oversimplified reductionist views that see causality as only emanating from lower to higher levels. For example, a social interaction such as a job interview can have the psychological effects of applications of particular concepts (e.g., nervous or competent ) to oneself. Activation of these concepts consists of instantiation of patterns of firing in neural populations, attended by increases and decreases in levels of various chemicals such as cortisol and dopamine. Changes in chemical levels can in turn lead to social changes, as when high cortisol makes a person socially awkward, producing counterproductive social interactions that then lead to self-application of negative concepts. Under such circumstances, the four levels can provide an amplifying feedback loop, from the social to the neuromolecular and back again.

Self-Presentation (Representing Oneself to Others)

The modes of self-representing discussed so far largely concern how one thinks about oneself, although some aspects of self-image and self-identity also sometimes concern how one wants others to think about oneself. Self-presentation is the central phenomenon for representing oneself to others. It has been discussed extensively by sociologists such as Goffman (1959) and by social psychologists ( Leary and Kowalski, 1990 ). We want to show that self-presentation involves multilevel interacting mechanisms.

Thirty years of research by social psychologists highlight the interplay of the individual and social levels in self-presentation ( Schlenker, 2003 ). One’s goals, at the individual level, affect the social level. People have a basic need for relatedness, for belonging to groups of people that they care about ( Baumeister and Leary, 1995 ; Deci and Ryan, 2000 ). People know that they are more likely to be accepted by others who have a positive impression of them, so it is natural that people typically want to create a favorable impression. However, people’s goals sometimes lead them to present themselves in socially undesirable ways (for references, see Schlenker, 2003 ). They may self-deprecate to lower others’ expectations, or try to appear intimidating to generate fear.

The social level also affects the individual level. One’s audience influences one’s self-presentation goals. For example, people tend to be more self-aggrandizing with strangers and more modest with friends ( Tice et al., 1995 ). Particularly striking evidence of the social level affecting the individual level comes from studies indicating that one’s self-presentation to others can influence one’s private self-concept (see Schlenker, 2003 ; Tice and Wallace, 2003 ). For example, in one study, participants who had been randomly assigned to present themselves as extraverted were more likely than those who had presented themselves as introverted to later rate themselves as extraverted, and even to behave in a more outgoing fashion, by sitting closer and talking more to others ( Fazio et al., 1981 ). Such self-concept change does not seem to occur unless one’s actions are observed by others ( Tice and Wallace, 2003 ), which again emphasizes the social level. In reviewing the self-presentation literature, Baumeister (1998 , p. 705) stated:

People use self-presentation to construct an identity for themselves. Most people have a certain ideal image of the person they would like to be. It is not enough merely to act like that person or to convince oneself that one resembles that person. Identity requires social validation.

Self-presentation is also dependent on neural mechanisms. People naturally fear not being accepted by others, and a variety of studies have found that the social pain of rejection involves some of the same brain areas as physical pain, such as the periaqueductal gray ( MacDonald and Leary, 2005 ). On the other hand, being accepted by others produces pleasure, which involves activation of brain areas such as the nucleus accumbens ( Ikemoto and Panksepp, 1999 ). Izuma et al. (2009) found that the prospect of social approval activates the ventral striatum, which includes the nucleus accumbens. Of course, these neural processes are also molecular ones, with dopamine and opioids associated with positive social experiences, and stress hormones like cortisol associated with negative ones. For example, when people have to give a public speech, often a painful instance of self-presentation, their cortisol levels increase, which may even produce behaviors that undermine the effectiveness of their attempts to produce a good impression ( Al’Absi et al., 1997 ).

Another substance at the molecular level that is likely to be involved in self-presentation is oxytocin, a neuropeptide that has been linked to various social behaviors (e.g., Carter, 1998 ). Oxytocin is implicated when successful self-presentation requires accurately “reading” other people to understand what would impress or please them, because oxytocin has been linked with social recognition ( Kavaliers and Choleris, 2011 ), empathic accuracy ( Rodrigues et al., 2009 ; Bartz et al., 2010 ), the processing of positive social cues ( Unkelbach et al., 2008 ), and discerning whether others are trustworthy and should be approached or not ( Mikolajczak et al., 2010 ). Thus, self-presentation involves the complex interaction of social, individual, neural, and molecular mechanisms.

Self-Esteem (Evaluating Oneself)

The third major kind of self-representing is self-evaluation, which can involve processes such as self-appraisal and self-monitoring, and result in products that range from self-love to self-loathing. We discuss self-esteem as a sample product.

Self-esteem refers to one’s overall evaluation of and liking for oneself. People differ from each other in their characteristic levels of self-esteem, which remain quite stable over time, yet people also fluctuate in their self-esteem around their own average levels. “State self-esteem” refers to one’s feelings about oneself at the moment. Measures of explicit self-esteem obtained by surveys may differ from measures of implicit self-esteem, which are thought to be based associations that are unconscious, or at least less cognitively accessible ( Zeigler-Hill and Jordan, 2011 ).

At the individual level, self-esteem involves the application of self-concepts with positive or negative emotional valence, for example thinking of oneself as a success or failure in important pursuits such as love, work, and play. When people focus on positive aspects of themselves, their state self-esteem increases (e.g., McGuire and McGuire, 1996 ).

Considerable evidence indicates that social experiences are central to both trait and state self-esteem. According to attachment theory, people begin to learn about their self-worth as infants, in their interactions with caregivers. If the caregiver is loving and responsive to the infant’s needs, the infant develops a model of the self that is worthy of love and responsiveness. If not, the child will develop negative self-models and be anxious in relationships (e.g., Holmes et al., 2005 ). We have already discussed how social comparisons can influence one’s self-concept; comparisons with other people also can boost or deflate one’s self-esteem ( Wood, 1989 ).

Social acceptance may be the chief determinant of self-esteem. Leary’s sociometer theory proposed that the very existence of self-esteem is due to the need to monitor the degree to which one is accepted and included by other people ( Leary and Baumeister, 2000 ). Indeed, the more people feel included by other people in general, as well as accepted and loved by specific people in their lives, the higher their trait self-esteem ( Leary and Baumeister, 2000 ). Numerous experimental studies indicate that rejection leads to drops in state self-esteem (e.g., Wood et al., 2009a ). Interpersonal stressors in the everyday lives of university students are associated with declines in state self-esteem ( Stinson et al., 2008a ). In contrast, being in a long-term relationship with a loving partner can raise the self-esteem of people with low self-esteem ( Murray et al., 1996 ).

The connection between the individual and social levels of self is also evident in research on how individuals’ self-esteem-related goals influence their social lives. A vast social psychological literature reveals that motivations to maintain, protect, or improve self-esteem can, for example, guide how people present themselves to others (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1989 ), lead people to compare themselves with others who are less fortunate so as to boost their own spirits ( Wood et al., 1985 ), and lead them to stereotype other people in order to feel better about themselves ( Fein and Spencer, 1997 ; Sinclair and Kunda, 2000 ).

We have repeatedly described the neural and molecular underpinnings of self-representations involving emotions, and the account of self-concepts as patterns of neural activity associated with particular kinds of neurochemical activity applies directly to self-esteem. Self-esteem is connected with depression, which has been examined at the neural level. Depression and self-esteem are substantially inversely correlated (e.g., with r s reaching –0.60 and –0.70 s; Watson et al., 2002 ); low self-esteem is even one of the symptoms of depression. Depression is well known to have neurotransmitter correlates and to be associated with brain changes.

Evidence is mounting that social acceptance and rejection are accompanied by changes at the neural level (e.g., Eisenberger et al., 2003 , 2007 ; Way et al., 2009 ). For example, in one study, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they viewed words (e.g., boring, interesting) that they believed to be feedback from another person. The rejection-induced drops in self-esteem that we described earlier were accompanied by greater activity in rejection-related neural regions (dorsal ACC, anterior insula; Eisenberger et al., 2011 ). Neuroimaging studies suggest that the social pain caused by rejection involve the same brain areas as does physical pain (namely, dorsal ACC activity), whereas signs of social acceptance have been associated with subgenual ACC activity ( Somerville et al., 2006 ), and ventral striatum activity ( Izuma et al., 2008 ), neural regions associated with reward (see Lieberman, 2010 ).

Social threats not only lead to changes in the neural level, but also elicit a host of physiological responses, which point to the links between the social and molecular level. Dickerson et al. (2011) reviewed evidence of cardiovascular (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate), neuroendocrine (e.g., cortisol reactivity), and immune (e.g., inflammatory activity) changes, as well as ways in which social threats “influence the regulation of these systems” (p. 799).

Connections between the social level (rejection and acceptance by others) and the neural level (anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex) have also been associated with the individual level (self-esteem). People who were low in self-esteem differed in their neural responses from those high in self-esteem when others evaluated them ( Somerville et al., 2010 ) or others excluded them ( Onoda et al., 2010 ).

Similarly, individual differences in traits that have been associated with trait self-esteem, rejection sensitivity and attachment styles, have also been linked with differences in neural responses to rejection. Burklund et al. (2007) found that rejection-sensitive people had increased dorsal anterior cingulate activity in response to disapproving facial expressions. Zayas et al. (2009) found that women who differed in attachment styles (which are associated with self-esteem) differed in their neural responses to partner rejection, as reflected in event-related potentials. There is some evidence that the causes of low self-esteem may be genetic as well as social ( Roy et al., 1995 ; Neiss et al., 2002 ), which provides another reason for moving down to the molecular level in order to consider how genes affecting neural processing might be involved in self-esteem. The operation of the molecular level also may underlie self-esteem differences in responses to stress. Taylor et al. (2003) found that people who had positive self-appraisals had lower cardiovascular responses to stress, more rapid cardiovascular recovery, and lower baseline cortisol levels than people with negative self-appraisals. Furthermore, additional research by Taylor et al. (2008) links these findings with the neural level. Participants with greater psychosocial resources, including higher self-esteem along with other characteristics such as optimism and extraversion, exhibited lower amygdala activity during threat regulation, which appeared to account for their lower cortisol reactivity ( Taylor et al., 2008 ). These psychosocial resources appear to be linked with the oxytocin receptor gene ( Saphire-Bernstein et al., 2011 ).

The interplay of three levels—social, individual, and molecular—is suggested by research by Stinson et al. (2008a) . Two studies of university students yielded evidence consistent with their prediction that low self-esteem (individual level) led to interpersonal problems (social level), which in turn resulted in health problems (e.g., missed classes due to illness and visits to the physician). Health problems indicate changes at the molecular level as they imply physiological changes. Dickerson et al. (2011) have made a compelling case that the physiological responses brought about by social threats can worsen physical health.

Considering self-esteem at the neural and molecular levels may provide explanations for why self-esteem in some individuals is less influenced by life experience than learning theories would explain. For example, not all successful people have high self-esteem (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2003a ), and it is possible that the exceptions may arise from underlying neural and molecular differences that the individual level does not capture.

In addition to the dozens of self-phenomena concerned with self-representation, there are many phenomena concerned with the self attempting to modify its own states and behavior. These self-effecting phenomena fall into two groups, self-facilitating cases in which one attempts to foster positive aspects of oneself, and self-limiting cases in which one attempts to prevent the behavioral expression of negative aspects of oneself. We will discuss self-enhancement as an important kind of self-facilitation, and self-regulation as an important kind of self-limitation.

Self-Enhancement

Self-enhancement, the motive to develop and maintain a positive self-view, has been a dominant topic in the social psychological literature for decades. Self-enhancement has been seen as a motivation guiding much of human behavior, with some researchers concluding that it is the paramount self-related motive, overriding other goals such as self-accuracy and self-consistency (e.g., Baumeister, 1998 ; but see Kwang and Swann, 2010 ). However, a wealth of self-verification studies have provided compelling evidence that people also want to confirm their self-views and to get others to see them as they see themselves ( Swann, 2012 ). Hence self-verification can sometimes be self-limiting and sometimes self-facilitating.

Research has identified many strategies of self-enhancement. To cope with failure, for example, people may attribute the failure externally (e.g., say the test is unfair), minimize the failure, focus on other positive aspects of themselves, derogate other people, or make downward comparisons—that is, compare themselves with others who are inferior (e.g., Blaine and Crocker, 1993 ; Dodgson and Wood, 1998 ). Over and over again, research has found that the people who engage in such self-enhancement strategies are dispositionally high in self-esteem, rather than low in self-esteem (e.g., Blaine and Crocker, 1993 ). This self-esteem difference may occur because people with high self-esteem are more motivated than people with low self-esteem to repair unhappy moods ( Heimpel et al., 2002 ); or because HSEs are more motivated than LSEs to feel good about themselves (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1989 ); or because LSEs are equally motivated to self-enhance, but cannot as readily claim or defend a positive view of themselves (e.g., Blaine and Crocker, 1993 ).

One self-enhancement strategy deserves mention because it is a mainstay of self-help books and the popular press: positive self-statements. People facing a stressor, cancer patients, and people chronically low in self-esteem are encouraged to say to themselves such things as, “I am a beautiful person” and “I can do this!” Despite the popularity of positive self-statements and the widespread assumption that they work, their effectiveness was not subjected to scientific scrutiny until recently. Wood et al. (2009b) found that repeating the statement, “I am a lovable person” improved people’s moods only for those who already had high self-esteem. For people with low self-esteem, the statement actually backfired, worsening their moods and their feelings about themselves.

A strikingly different self-enhancement strategy is “self-affirmation” ( Steele, 1988 ). As studied by social psychologists, self-affirmation does not refer to saying positive things to oneself, but to much more subtle methods involving the expression of one’s values. Self-affirmation strategies have included writing a paragraph concerning a value one cherishes (e.g., politics, social connections), or even merely completing a scale highlighting such values. Such strategies seem to be self-enhancing in that they reduce defensiveness (e.g., Crocker et al., 2008 ), reduce stereotyping ( Fein and Spencer, 1997 ), make people more open to self-evaluation ( Spencer et al., 2001 ), and can substitute for other methods of self-enhancement (e.g., Wood et al., 1999 ).

Although self-enhancement may seem to be a private matter, operating at the individual level, the social level is clearly influential. Most threats to self-esteem arise in social contexts when feedback from others or others’ behavior leads people to doubt their preferred view of themselves, or to feel devalued or rejected. Hence self-enhancement results from the process of self-evaluation, whose social causes and context we have already discussed. In addition, self-enhancement processes may enlist the social level. Some of the self-enhancement strategies identified above, such as downward comparisons and derogating other people, involve using the social realm to boost oneself at the individual level. Another example comes from research on the triggers of stereotyping. Fein and Spencer (1997) showed that after they fail, people were especially likely to seize on a stereotype of Jewish women. Similarly, after receiving negative feedback, people derogated the person who delivered the feedback, if that person was a woman rather than a man ( Sinclair and Kunda, 2000 ). Other social strategies of self-enhancement can include being boastful and overconfident (e.g., Colvin et al., 1995 ), helping others (e.g., Brown and Smart, 1991 ), and aggressing against others ( Twenge and Campbell, 2003 ). People may also enhance themselves through their group memberships and social identities ( Banaji and Prentice, 1994 ). Self-enhancement research, then, reveals links between the individual and social levels of self because the social world often elicits the need for self-enhancement, and certain self-enhancement strategies involve the interpersonal realm. In addition, because self-enhancement can encourage or diminish stereotyping, aggression, and prosocial behavior, self-enhancement clearly has many potential social consequences.

That self-enhancement also operates at the molecular level is shown by a study of self-affirmation. Participants who engaged in a values-affirmation task before they faced a stressor had lower cortisol responses to stress than did participants who had not engaged in values-affirmation ( Creswell et al., 2005 ).

Self-enhancement also operates at the neural level as it involves applications of concepts such as loveable which, as we argued earlier, can be understood as patterns of activation in populations of neurons. The study by Wood et al. (2009a) showed that self-statements can alter positive and negative moods, which plausibly involves alteration of activities of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Better understanding of the neural and genetic determinants of low self-esteem could provide the basis for explaining why positive self-statements can have negative effects on people with low self-esteem.

Self-Regulation

Although self researchers were long preoccupied with the topics of self-concept and self-esteem, they have come to appreciate that “self-regulation is one of the most important functions of the self” ( Gailliot et al., 2008 , p. 474). Self-regulation concerns how people pursue their goals or try to control their own behavior, thoughts, or feelings. An idea discussed earlier in the section on self-evaluation—that people continually compare themselves with standards—is central to many theories of self-regulation (e.g., Carver and Scheier, 1990 ). Such theories posit that when people experience a discrepancy between a standard and their own standing (behavior, thoughts, or feelings) on the relevant dimension, they deliberately or even automatically attempt to reduce that discrepancy, in one of three ways. They can try to adjust their behavior (or thoughts or feelings) so that it meets the standard, change their standards, or exit the situation. Self-regulation is successful when the discrepancy is eliminated or reduced (e.g., Carver and Scheier, 1990 ).

The biological aspects of the self are most obvious in the self-limiting phenomena aimed at controlling or managing excessive desires for food, alcohol, drugs, sex, or inactivity. Such desires are all rooted in neural and molecular mechanisms that must be counteracted in order to overcome self-destructive behaviors such as overeating. We will not attempt a comprehensive account of all the phenomena concerned with limiting the self, but discuss three main foci of self-regulation research in recent years: goal pursuit, emotion regulation, and ego-depletion—how exercising self-control in one domain diminishes one’s capacity to do so in a second domain.

Research on social comparison establishes a basic connection between the individual and social levels. To meet such goals as self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement, individuals compare themselves with other people ( Wood, 1989 ). In this case, other people serve as the standards for meeting one’s goal progress.

Other people can even influence which goals we adopt. Fitzsimons and her colleagues have found that observing a stranger’s goal-directed behavior can lead people to pursue the same goals themselves, or to synchronize their goal pursuits with others, with interesting consequences. For example, people who observe others fail work harder, and people who observe others succeed take it easy ( McCullough et al., 2010 ). Even being in the presence of someone who was a stranger a few minutes before, but who shares similarities such as tastes in movies, can lead one to adopt the other’s goals as one’s own ( Walton et al., 2012 ). Such effects can even occur subconsciously. For example, when participants who had a goal to achieve to please their mother were primed with their mother, they outperformed control participants on an achievement task ( Fitzsimons and Bargh, 2003 ).

One’s own goals also affect one’s relationships with others. People draw closer to others who are instrumental in helping them to progress toward their goals, and distance themselves from others who do not promote such progress ( Fitzsimons and Shah, 2008 ). People seem to cultivate a social environment for themselves that promotes their goals, especially when their progress toward their goals is poor ( Fitzsimons and Fishbach, 2010 ).

Regulation of emotions is an important topic in clinical, social, and cross-cultural psychology ( Vandekerckhove et al., 2008 ). Research on emotion regulation—which concerns how people try to manage their emotional states—has amply demonstrated the interplay between the individual and social levels. For example, people try to adjust their moods in preparation for an upcoming social interaction, according to the social requirements expected ( Erber and Erber, 2000 ). In addition, social events affect one’s emotion regulation: Rejection experiences appear to lead people with low self-esteem to feel less deserving of a good mood, which in turn dampens their motivation to improve a sad mood ( Wood et al., 2009a ).

A specific example of emotion regulation, anger management, shows the need for multilevel explanations. The strategies for anger management recommended by the American Psychological Association ( APA, 2012 ) operate at all four levels: social, individual, neural, and molecular. Social strategies including expressing concerns with a sympathetic person and moderately communicating with the sources of anger. Humor involving pleasant social interactions can be a potent way of defusing anger. Temporary or permanent removal from anger-provoking social environments can also be helpful.

Psychological strategies for managing anger include the revisions of beliefs, goals, and attitudes. Cognitive therapy aims to help people by changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotion. Dysfunctional aspects of anger can be addressed by examining whether the beliefs and goals that underlie angry reactions are inaccurate and modifiable. According to the theory of emotions as cognitive appraisals, anger is a judgment that someone or something is thwarting one’s goals, so that anger should be reduced by realization either that the goals are not so important or by revision of beliefs about whatever is thought to be responsible for goal blocking.

Emotions such as anger, however, are not merely cognitive judgments, but also simultaneously involve brain perception of physiological states ( Thagard, 2006 ; Thagard and Aubie, 2008 ). Hence it is not surprising that anger management techniques include various methods for reducing physiological arousal, such as exercise and relaxation through deep breathing, mediation, and muscle tensing and release. Reducing physiological arousal reduces perception of body states performed by the insula and other brain areas, thereby reducing the overall brain activity that constitutes anger. Similarly, when oxytocin is administered to couples discussing a conflict, their positive verbal and non-verbal behaviors increase ( Ditzen et al., 2009 ).

In severe cases of anger, pharmaceutical treatments may be useful, including anti-depressants such as Prozac that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin, anti-anxiety drugs that affect the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), and sometimes even anti-psychotics that affect various other neurotransmitters. The onset of anger can also be exacerbated by recreational use of drugs such as alcohol whose effects on brain chemistry are well known. Hence anger management is an aspect of self-regulation that operates at the molecular level as well as the higher ones.

Ego-depletion studies demonstrate that when people override their emotions, thoughts, impulses, or automatic or habitual behaviors, they have trouble doing so a second time ( Baumeister et al., 2007 ). For example, in one study, research participants had to resist freshly-baked chocolate-chip cookies; they were allowed to eat only radishes instead. When they then faced an impossible puzzle, they gave up more rapidly than participants who had not been required to resist the tempting cookies ( Baumeister et al., 1998 ). In another study, participants who were asked to suppress certain thoughts subsequently had more trouble resisting free beer than did control participants, even when they expected to take a driving test ( Muraven et al., 2002 ).

Ego-depletion research has shown connections between the individual and social levels in two ways. First, difficult social interactions can deplete one’s self-regulatory resources ( Vohs et al., 2005 ). Interracial interactions, for example, can be taxing if one tries not to appear prejudiced. Richeson and Shelton (2003) found that after prejudiced white participants interacted with a black participant, they performed more poorly on a cognitive control task, compared to participants who interacted with a white participant or participants scoring low in prejudice. Social interactions also can be depleting if one is required to engage in atypical self-presentation, such as being boastful to strangers ( Vohs et al., 2005 ). And in yet another example of the harmful consequences of social rejection, studies have indicated that it too can impair self-regulation (see Gailliot et al., 2008 , for references).

Second, ego-depletion makes it difficult to navigate social interactions. Participants who had engaged in previous acts of unrelated effortful self-regulation later were more egotistical in their self-descriptions and less able to choose topics for discussion with a stranger that were appropriate in their level of intimacy ( Vohs et al., 2005 ). Self-regulatory depletion also may encourage sexual infidelity and acts of discrimination ( Gailliot et al., 2008 ). Successful self-regulation, then, may smooth one’s interpersonal interactions and make one’s close relationships more harmonious. It is unclear, however, whether ego-depletion is the result of fundamental neural mechanisms of will, or rather individual mechanisms of self-representation: Job et al. (2010) report studies that support the view that reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion.

People who have sustained damage to the prefrontal cortex exhibit various self-regulatory deficits, such as impulsivity and poor judgment (see Gailliot et al., 2008 , for references). The anterior cingulate is involved in tasks that deplete self-regulatory resources via the coordination of divided attention, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex affects the activation, maintenance, and modification of goal-directed responses ( Baumeister et al., 2003b ). Attempts at self-control recruit a network of brain regions including the lateral and posterior dorsomedial prefrontal cortex ( MacDonald et al., 2000 ). The consensus across thirty neuroimaging studies of emotion regulation in particular is that right ventrolateral PFC and left ventrolateral PFC activity are involved. Other areas also are implicated, including the presupplementary motor area, the posterior dorsomedial PFC, left dorsolateral PFC, and rostral ACC, and their involvement appears to depend on whether the emotion regulation is intentional or incidental to the participants’ task (see Lieberman, 2010 , for a review).

Research by Richeson et al. (2003) elegantly links the neural, individual, and social levels of self-regulation. They found that for White participants who held especially negative unconscious attitudes toward Blacks, interacting with a Black person led them to perform poorly on a subsequent self-regulatory task. This effect was mediated by the extent to which these White participants’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was activated while they viewed Black faces (in a separate session).

Molecular mechanisms are also undoubtedly involved in self-regulation, although few have been identified. Blood glucose has been thought to underlie ego-depletion phenomena ( Gailliot et al., 2008 ), but recent evidence has challenged that idea (e.g., Molden et al., 2012 ). Oxytocin may well promote self-regulation in the interpersonal sphere. It appears to lead mothers to tend to their offspring ( Taylor, 2002 ; Feldman et al., 2007 ), lead people in general to seek and provide social support in stressful circumstances ( Taylor, 2002 ), and to promote helping behavior ( Brown and Brown, 2006 ).

In sum, self-effecting phenomena such as self-enhancement and self-regulation are best understood at multiple mechanistic levels.

Self-effecting phenomena involve local changes and behavior, but there is a final group of phenomena that involve more permanent changes to the self ( Brinthaupt and Lipka, 1994 ). We cover two change phenomena: self-expansion and self-development.

Self-Expansion

According to Aron’s self-expansion theory, human beings have a central desire to expand the self—to acquire resources, perspectives, and identities that enhance their ability to accomplish goals. Self expansion is a motivation to enhance potential efficacy ( Aron et al., 2004 , p. 105).

This motivation to self-expand at the individual level influences the social level: Aron et al. (2004) argue that self-expansion motives lead people to enter and maintain close relationships with others. In close relationships, each partner includes the other in the self, meaning that each takes on the other’s resources, perspectives, and identities to some extent. Evidence for such processes is illustrated by findings of a study by Aron et al. (1995) , who asked university students to respond to the open-ended question “Who are you today?” every 2 weeks for 10 weeks. When respondents had fallen in love during the preceding 2 weeks, their answers to this question revealed increases in the diversity of their self-concept, compared to periods when they had not fallen in love and compared to other respondents who had not fallen in love. They also showed increased self-efficacy and self-esteem. These results remained significant even after mood changes were controlled statistically.

Falling in love also seems to be accompanied by changes in the brain. fMRI studies show that when people who have recently fallen intensely in love look at a photo of or think about their beloved, they have increased activity in the caudate nucleus, which is a central part of the brain’s reward system, as well as in the right ventral tegmental area, a region associated with the production and distribution of dopamine to other brain regions ( Aron et al., 2005 ). Even subliminal priming with a beloved’s name has similar effects ( Ortigue et al., 2007 ). These results suggest that passionate romantic love is associated with dopamine pathways in the reward system of the brain. These dopaminergic pathways are rich in oxytocin receptors ( Bartels and Zeki, 2004 ; Fisher et al., 2006 ). When women talk about a love experience, oxytocin release is associated with the extent to which they display affiliation cues such as smiles and head nods ( Gonzaga et al., 2006 ).

Recent research offers exciting evidence of possible brain changes with self-expansion. Ortigue and Bianchi-Demicheli (2010) found that when people were primed with their romantic partner’s name (and not a friend’s), they showed more intense activation of the left angular gyrus, the same region that is activated when people think of themselves.

Self-Development

Self-development refers to the changes that people naturally undergo over the course of their lives. Major developmental periods include early years when infants and toddlers begin to acquire identities ( Bloom, 2004 ; Rochat, 2009 ), adolescence when teenagers establish increasing independence from parents ( Sylwester, 2007 ), and old age when physical decline imposes new limitations on the self. Each of these periods involves extensive social, individual, neural, and molecular changes, but we will focus on old age, drawing on Breytspraak (1984) and Johnson (2005) .

Social relations and the aspects of the self dependent on them change dramatically as people get older. Major changes can include the completion of child-rearing, retirement from employment, diminishing social contacts resulting from physical disabilities, and loss of friends and family to death or infirmity. These changes can all affect the quantity and quality of social interactions that are causally associated with a person’s behaviors and representations.

At the individual level, there are changes in processes, representations, and emotions. Cognitive functioning measured by processing speed and short-term memory capability declines steadily from people’s thirties, and more precipitously in their sixties and later ( Salthouse, 2004 ). Self-conceptions may be stable in some respects, but often alter in others, as people define themselves increasingly in terms of health and physical functioning rather than work roles. People in early stages of old age tend to be happier than those in middle age, but infirmities can bring substantial difficulties ( Stone et al., 2010 ).

Neural causes of changes in the self are most evident in extreme cases like Alzheimer’s disease, when brain degeneration progressively eliminates anything but a minimal sense of self. There are also age-related disorders such as fronto-temporal dementia that can drastically diminish self-effecting phenomena such as self-control ( Eslinger et al., 2005 ). Aging also brings about molecular changes, for example in reduction of levels of hormones such as testosterone and estrogen that affect neural processing. Hence for a combination of social, individual, neural, and molecular reasons, self-development takes on important directions in old age. Similar observations could be made about other crucial stages of personal development such as adolescence. The changing self, like the representing and effecting self, operates through multilevel interacting mechanisms.

We have shown the relevance of social, individual, neural, and molecular levels to seven important phenomena: self-concepts, self-presentation, self-esteem, self-enhancement, self-regulation, self-expansion, and self-development. These seven are representative of three general classes (self-representing, self-effecting, and self-changing) that cover more than eighty self-phenomena important in psychological discussions of the self.

A full theory of the self will need to specify much more about the nature of the mechanisms at each level, and equally importantly, will need to specify much more about the relations between the levels. Thagard (2014) argued against the common reductionist assumption that causation runs only upward from molecular to neural to individual to social mechanisms. A social interaction such as one person complimenting another has effects on individuals’ mental representations, on neural firing, and on molecular processes such as ones involving dopamine and oxytocin. Fuller explanation of the more than eighty self-phenomena that we have classified in this paper will require elucidation of how they each result from multilevel interactions.

Explanations of complex systems often identify emergent properties, which belong to wholes but not to their parts because they result from the interactions of their parts ( Findlay and Thagard, 2012 ). This basic idea of emergence concerns only the connections of two levels, where the properties of wholes at the higher level (e.g., consciousness) emerge from interactions of parts at the lower levels (neurons). Thinking of the self as resulting from multiple interacting mechanisms points to a more complicated kind of emergence that has gone unrecognized. Multilevel emergence occurs when the property of a whole such as the self results from interactions in mechanisms at several different levels, in this case molecular and social as well as neural and cognitive. What you are as a self depends on your genes and your social influences as well as on your semantic pointers and mental representations. Major changes in the self such as religious conversions, dramatic career shifts, and recovery from mental illness are critical transitions that result from interactions among multiple levels. For example, recovery from severe depression often requires (1) changes in neurotransmitters through medication operating at the molecular and neural levels and (2) changes in beliefs and goals through psychotherapy operating at the mental and social levels. Future theoretical work on the self will benefit from more detailed accounts of the interactions of individual, social, neural, and molecular mechanisms.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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Keywords: self, mechanisms, self-change, self-representation, self-regulation

Citation: Thagard P and Wood JV (2015) Eighty phenomena about the self: representation, evaluation, regulation, and change. Front. Psychol. 6:334. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00334

Received: 19 December 2014; Accepted: 09 March 2015; Published: 27 March 2015.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2015 Thagard and Wood. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Paul Thagard, Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1, Canada [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Authentic Self-Representation

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self representation skills definition

  • Allan S. Taylor 2  

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In this chapter, I reframe practices of self-representation as a form of autoethnography, in which users attempt to re-map the self into a variety of cultural contexts and settings. This process is one of sense and meaning making for the individual, creating a narrative that forms the basis for their presentation practice. Self-representation is also positioned as an embodied practice, in that it contains a recognisable trace of the person posting it, resonant with their narrative identity. However, due to the temporal nature of authenticity, once it is recognised it then disappears. This is why the self is a continual work-in-progress: it is a quest to experience the deconstructive effect of the authentic, which is kinaesthetically embodied by the consumers of the social media artefact when they recognise it as authentic.

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Taylor, A.S. (2022). Authentic Self-Representation. In: Authenticity as Performativity on Social Media. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-12148-7_3

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Chapter 3. The Self

3.1 The Cognitive Self: The Self-Concept

Learning Objectives

  • Define and describe the self-concept, its influence on information processing, and its diversity across social groups.
  • Describe the concepts of self-complexity and self-concept clarity, and explain how they influence social cognition and behavior.
  • Differentiate the various types of self-awareness and self-consciousness.
  • Describe self-awareness, self-discrepancy, and self-affirmation theories, and their interrelationships.
  • Explore how we sometimes overestimate the accuracy with which other people view us.

Some nonhuman animals, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and perhaps dolphins, have at least a primitive sense of self (Boysen & Himes, 1999). We know this because of some interesting experiments that have been done with animals. In one study (Gallup, 1970), researchers painted a red dot on the forehead of anesthetized chimpanzees and then placed the animals in a cage with a mirror. When the chimps woke up and looked in the mirror, they touched the dot on their faces, not the dot on the faces in the mirror. This action suggests that the chimps understood that they were looking at themselves and not at other animals, and thus we can assume that they are able to realize that they exist as individuals. Most other animals, including dogs, cats, and monkeys, never realize that it is themselves they see in a mirror.

mirror

Infants who have similar red dots painted on their foreheads recognize themselves in a mirror in the same way that chimps do, and they do this by about 18 months of age (Asendorpf, Warkentin, & Baudonnière, 1996; Povinelli, Landau, & Perilloux, 1996). The child’s knowledge about the self continues to develop as the child grows. By two years of age, the infant becomes aware of his or her gender as a boy or a girl. At age four, the child’s self-descriptions are likely to be based on physical features, such as hair color, and by about age six, the child is able to understand basic emotions and the concepts of traits, being able to make statements such as “I am a nice person” (Harter, 1998).

By the time children are in grade school, they have learned that they are unique individuals, and they can think about and analyze their own behavior. They also begin to show awareness of the social situation—they understand that other people are looking at and judging them the same way that they are looking at and judging others (Doherty, 2009).

Development and Characteristics of the Self-Concept

Part of what is developing in children as they grow is the fundamental cognitive part of the self, known as the self-concept. The self-concept is a knowledge representation that contains knowledge about us, including our beliefs about our personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles, as well as the knowledge that we exist as individuals . Throughout childhood and adolescence, the self-concept becomes more abstract and complex and is organized into a variety of different cognitive aspects of the self , known as self-schemas. Children have self-schemas about their progress in school, their appearance, their skills at sports and other activities, and many other aspects. In turn, these self-schemas direct and inform their processing of self-relevant information (Harter, 1999), much as we saw schemas in general affecting our social cognition.

These self-schemas can be studied using the methods that we would use to study any other schema. One approach is to use neuroimaging to directly study the self in the brain. As you can see in Figure 3.3, neuroimaging studies have shown that information about the self is stored in the prefrontal cortex, the same place that other information about people is stored (Barrios et al., 2008).

Areas of the brain the process information about the self

Another approach to studying the self is to investigate how we attend to and remember things that relate to the self. Indeed, because the self-concept is the most important of all our schemas, it has an extraordinary degree of influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Have you ever been at a party where there was a lot of noise and bustle, and yet you were surprised to discover that you could easily hear your own name being mentioned in the background? Because our own name is such an important part of our self-concept, and because we value it highly, it is highly accessible. We are very alert for, and react quickly to, the mention of our own name.

Other research has found that information related to the self-schema is better remembered than information that is unrelated to it, and that information related to the self can also be processed very quickly (Lieberman, Jarcho, & Satpute, 2004). In one classic study that demonstrated the importance of the self-schema, Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker (1977) conducted an experiment to assess how college students recalled information that they had learned under different processing conditions. All the participants were presented with the same list of 40 adjectives to process, but through the use of random assignment, the participants were given one of four different sets of instructions about how to process the adjectives.

Participants assigned to the  structural task condition  were asked to judge whether the word was printed in uppercase or lowercase letters. Participants in the  phonemic task condition  were asked whether the word rhymed with another given word. In the  semantic task condition , the participants were asked if the word was a synonym of another word. And in the  self-reference task condition , participants indicated whether the given adjective was or was not true of themselves. After completing the specified task, each participant was asked to recall as many adjectives as he or she could remember. Rogers and his colleagues hypothesized that different types of processing would have different effects on memory. As you can see in Figure 3.4, “The Self-Reference Effect,” the students in the self-reference task condition recalled significantly more adjectives than did students in any other condition.

experimental conditions in which words were recalled, from most to least: self-reference, semantic, phonemic, structural

The chart shows the proportion of adjectives that students were able to recall under each of four learning conditions. The same words were recalled significantly better when they were processed in relation to the self than when they were processed in other ways. Data from Rogers et al. (1977).

The finding that  information that is processed in relationship to the self is particularly well remembered , known as the self-reference effect , is powerful evidence that the self-concept helps us organize and remember information. The next time you are studying, you might try relating the material to your own experiences—the self-reference effect suggests that doing so will help you better remember the information.

The specific content of our self-concept powerfully affects the way that we process information relating to ourselves. But how can we measure that specific content? One way is by using self-report tests. One of these is a deceptively simple fill-in-the-blank measure that has been widely used by many scientists to get a picture of the self-concept (Rees & Nicholson, 1994). All of the 20 items in the measure are exactly the same, but the person is asked to fill in a different response for each statement. This self-report measure, known as the Twenty Statements Test (TST), can reveal a lot about a person because it is designed to measure the most accessible—and thus the most important—parts of a person’s self-concept. Try it for yourself, at least five times:

  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                      
  • I am (please fill in the blank)                                                                     

Although each person has a unique self-concept, we can identify some characteristics that are common across the responses given by different people on the measure. Physical characteristics are an important component of the self-concept, and they are mentioned by many people when they describe themselves. If you’ve been concerned lately that you’ve been gaining weight, you might write, “I am overweight. ” If you think you’re particularly good looking (“I am attractive ”), or if you think you’re too short (“I am too short ”), those things might have been reflected in your responses. Our physical characteristics are important to our self-concept because we realize that other people use them to judge us. People often list the physical characteristics that make them different from others in either positive or negative ways (“I am blond ,” “I am short ”), in part because they understand that these characteristics are salient and thus likely to be used by others when judging them (McGuire, McGuire, Child, & Fujioka, 1978).

A second aspect of the self-concept relating to personal characteristics is made up of  personality traits — the specific and stable personality characteristics that describe an individual (“I am  friendly, ” “I am  shy, ” “I am  persistent ”). These individual differences are important determinants of behavior, and this aspect of the self-concept varies among people.

The remainder of the self-concept reflects its more external, social components; for example, memberships in the social groups that we belong to and care about. Common responses for this component may include “I am an artist ,” “I am Jewish ,” and “I am a mother, sister, daughter. ” As we will see later in this chapter, group memberships form an important part of the self-concept because they provide us with our social identity — the sense of our self that involves our memberships in social groups .

Although we all define ourselves in relation to these three broad categories of characteristics—physical, personality, and social – some interesting cultural differences in the relative importance of these categories have been shown in people’s responses to the TST. For example, Ip and Bond (1995) found that the responses from Asian participants included significantly more references to themselves as occupants of social roles (e.g., “I am Joyce’s friend”) or social groups (e.g., “I am a member of the Cheng family”) than those of American participants. Similarly, Markus and Kitayama (1991) reported that Asian participants were more than twice as likely to include references to other people in their self-concept than did their Western counterparts. This greater emphasis on either external and social aspects of the self-concept reflects the relative importance that collectivistic and individualistic cultures place on an interdependence versus independence (Nisbett, 2003).

Interestingly, bicultural individuals who report acculturation to both collectivist and individualist cultures show shifts in their self-concept depending on which culture they are primed to think about when completing the TST. For example, Ross, Xun, & Wilson (2002) found that students born in China but living in Canada reported more interdependent aspects of themselves on the TST when asked to write their responses in Chinese, as opposed to English. These culturally different responses to the TST are also related to a broader distinction in self-concept, with people from individualistic cultures often describing themselves using internal characteristics that emphasize their uniqueness, compared with those from collectivistic backgrounds who tend to stress shared social group memberships and roles. In turn, this distinction can lead to important differences in social behavior.

One simple yet powerful demonstration of cultural differences in self-concept affecting social behavior is shown in a study that was conducted by Kim and Markus (1999). In this study, participants were contacted in the waiting area of the San Francisco airport and asked to fill out a short questionnaire for the researcher. The participants were selected according to their cultural background: about one-half of them indicated they were European Americans whose parents were born in the United States, and the other half indicated they were Asian Americans whose parents were born in China and who spoke Chinese at home. After completing the questionnaires (which were not used in the data analysis except to determine the cultural backgrounds), participants were asked if they would like to take a pen with them as a token of appreciation. The experimenter extended his or her hand, which contained five pens. The pens offered to the participants were either three or four of one color and one or two of another color (the ink in the pens was always black). As shown in Figure 3.5, “Cultural Differences in Desire for Uniqueness,” and consistent with the hypothesized preference for uniqueness in Western, but not Eastern, cultures, the European Americans preferred to take a pen with the more unusual color, whereas the Asian American participants preferred one with the more common color.

self representation skills definition

In this study, participants from European American and East Asian cultures were asked to choose a pen as a token of appreciation for completing a questionnaire. There were either four pens of one color and one of another color, or three pens of one color and two of another. European Americans were significantly more likely to choose the more uncommon pen color in both cases. Data are from Kim and Markus (1999, Experiment 3).

Cultural differences in self-concept have even been found in people’s self-descriptions on social networking sites. DeAndrea, Shaw, and Levine (2010) examined individuals’ free-text self-descriptions in the About Me section in their Facebook profiles. Consistent with the researchers’ hypotheses, and with previous research using the TST, African American participants had the most the most independently (internally) described self-concepts, and Asian Americans had the most interdependent (external) self-descriptions, with European Americans in the middle.

As well as indications of cultural diversity in the content of the self-concept, there is also evidence of parallel gender diversity between males and females from various cultures, with females, on average, giving more external and social responses to the TST than males (Kashima et al., 1995). Interestingly, these gender differences have been found to be more apparent in individualistic nations than in collectivistic nations (Watkins et al., 1998).

Self-Complexity and Self-Concept Clarity

As we have seen, the self-concept is a rich and complex social representation of who we are, encompassing both our internal characteristics and our social roles. In addition to our thoughts about who we are right now, the self-concept also includes thoughts about our past self—our experiences, accomplishments, and failures—and about our future self—our hopes, plans, goals, and possibilities (Oyserman, Bybee, Terry, & Hart-Johnson, 2004). The multidimensional nature of our self-concept means that we need to consider not just each component in isolation, but also their interactions with each other and their overall structure. Two particularly important structural aspects of our self-concept are complexity and clarity.

Although every human being has a complex self-concept, there are nevertheless individual differences in self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves (Linville, 1987; Roccas & Brewer, 2002). Some selves are more complex than others, and these individual differences can be important in determining psychological outcomes. Having a complex self means that we have a lot of different ways of thinking about ourselves. For example, imagine a woman whose self-concept contains the social identities of student, girlfriend, daughter, psychology student , and tennis player and who has encountered a wide variety of life experiences. Social psychologists would say that she has high self-complexity. On the other hand, a man who perceives himself primarily as either a student or as a member of the soccer team and who has had a relatively narrow range of life experiences would be said to have low self-complexity. For those with high self-complexity, the various aspects of the self are separate, as the positive and negative thoughts about a particular self-aspect do not spill over into thoughts about other aspects.

Research has found that compared with people low in self-complexity, those higher in self-complexity tend to experience more positive outcomes, including  higher levels of self-esteem (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002), lower levels of stress and illness (Kalthoff & Neimeyer, 1993), and a greater tolerance for frustration (Gramzow, Sedikides, Panter, & Insko, 2000).

The benefits of self-complexity occur because the various domains of the self help to buffer us against negative events and enjoy the positive events that we experience. For people low in self-complexity, negative outcomes in relation to one aspect of the self tend to have a big impact on their self-esteem. For example, if the only thing that Maria cares about is getting into medical school, she may be devastated if she fails to make it. On the other hand, Marty, who is also passionate about medical school but who has a more complex self-concept, may be better able to adjust to such a blow by turning to other interests.

Although having high self-complexity seems useful overall, it does not seem to help everyone equally in their response to all events (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002). People with high self-complexity seem to react more positively to the good things that happen to them but not necessarily less negatively to the bad things. And the positive effects of self-complexity are stronger for people who have other positive aspects of the self as well. This buffering effect is stronger for people with high self-esteem, whose self-complexity involves positive rather than negative characteristics (Koch & Shepperd, 2004), and for people who feel that they have control over their outcomes (McConnell et al., 2005).

Just as we may differ in the complexity of our self-concept, so we may also differ in its clarity.  Self-concept clarity is the extent to which one’s self-concept is clearly and consistently defined (Campbell, 1990). Theoretically, the concepts of complexity and clarity are independent of each other—a person could have either a more or less complex self-concept that is either well defined and consistent, or ill defined and inconsistent. However, in reality, they each have similar relationships to many indices of well-being.

For example, as has been found with self-complexity, higher self-concept clarity is positively related to self-esteem (Campbell et al., 1996). Why might this be? Perhaps people with higher self-esteem tend to have a more well-defined and stable view of their positive qualities, whereas those with lower self-esteem show more inconsistency and instability in their self-concept, which is then more vulnerable to being negatively affected by challenging situations. Consistent with this assertion, self-concept clarity appears to mediate the relationship between stress and well-being (Ritchie et al., 2011).

Also, having a clear and stable view of ourselves can help us in our relationships. Lewandowski, Nardine, and Raines (2010) found a positive correlation between clarity and relationship satisfaction, as well as a significant increase in reported satisfaction following an experimental manipulation of participants’ self-concept clarity. Greater clarity may promote relationship satisfaction in a number of ways. As Lewandowski and colleagues (2010) argue, when we have a clear self-concept, we may be better able to consistently communicate who we are and what we want to our partner, which will promote greater understanding and satisfaction. Also, perhaps when we feel clearer about who we are, then we feel less of a threat to our self-concept and autonomy when we find ourselves having to make compromises in our close relationships.

Thinking back to the cultural differences we discussed earlier in this section in the context of people’s self-concepts, it could be that self-concept clarity is generally higher in individuals from individualistic cultures, as their self-concept is based more on internal characteristics that are held to be stable across situations, than on external social facets of the self that may be more changeable. This is indeed what the research suggests. Not only do members of more collectivistic cultures tend to have lower self-concept clarity, that clarity is also less strongly related to their self-esteem compared with those from more individualistic cultures (Campbell et al., 1996). As we shall see when our attention turns to perceiving others in Chapter 5, our cultural background not only affects the clarity and consistency of how we see ourselves, but also how consistently we view other people and their behavior.

Self-Awareness

Like any other schema, the self-concept can vary in its current cognitive accessibility. Self-awareness refers to the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept . When our self-concept becomes highly accessible because of our concerns about being observed and potentially judged by others, we experience the publicly induced self-awareness known as self-consciousness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Rochat, 2009).

Perhaps you can remember times when your self-awareness was increased and you became self-conscious—for instance, when you were giving a presentation and you were perhaps painfully aware that everyone was looking at you, or when you did something in public that embarrassed you. Emotions such as anxiety and embarrassment occur in large part because the self-concept becomes highly accessible, and they serve as a signal to monitor and perhaps change our behavior.

Not all aspects of our self-concept are equally accessible at all times, and these long-term differences in the accessibility of the different self-schemas help create individual differences in terms of, for instance, our current concerns and interests. You may know some people for whom the physical appearance component of the self-concept is highly accessible. They check their hair every time they see a mirror, worry whether their clothes are making them look good, and do a lot of shopping—for themselves, of course. Other people are more focused on their social group memberships—they tend to think about things in terms of their role as Muslims or Christians, for example, or as members of the local tennis or soccer team.

In addition to variation in long-term accessibility, the self and its various components may also be made temporarily more accessible through priming. We become more self-aware when we are in front of a mirror, when a TV camera is focused on us, when we are speaking in front of an audience, or when we are listening to our own tape-recorded voice (Kernis & Grannemann, 1988). When the knowledge contained in the self-schema becomes more accessible, it also becomes more likely to be used in information processing and to influence our behavior.

Beaman, Klentz, Diener, and Svanum (1979) conducted a field experiment to see if self-awareness would influence children’s honesty. The researchers expected that most children viewed stealing as wrong but that they would be more likely to act on this belief when they were more self-aware. They conducted this experiment on Halloween in homes within the city of Seattle, Washington. At particular houses, children who were trick-or-treating were greeted by one of the experimenters, shown a large bowl of candy, and were told to take only one piece each. The researchers unobtrusively watched each child to see how many pieces he or she actually took. In some of the houses there was a large mirror behind the candy bowl; in other houses, there was no mirror. Out of the 363 children who were observed in the study, 19% disobeyed instructions and took more than one piece of candy. However, the children who were in front of a mirror were significantly less likely to steal (14.4%) than were those who did not see a mirror (28.5%).

These results suggest that the mirror activated the children’s self-awareness, which reminded them of their belief about the importance of being honest. Other research has shown that being self-aware has a powerful influence on other behaviors as well. For instance, people are more likely to stay on a diet, eat better food, and act more morally overall when they are self-aware (Baumeister, Zell, & Tice, 2007; Heatherton, Polivy, Herman, & Baumeister, 1993). What this means is that when you are trying to stick to a diet, study harder, or engage in other difficult behaviors, you should try to focus on yourself and the importance of the goals you have set.

Social psychologists are interested in studying self-awareness because it has such an important influence on behavior. People become more likely to violate acceptable, mainstream social norms when, for example, they put on a Halloween mask or engage in other behaviors that hide their identities. For example, the members of the militant White supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan wear white robes and hats when they meet and when they engage in their racist behavior. And when people are in large crowds, such as in a mass demonstration or a riot, they may become so much a part of the group that they experience deindividuation — the loss of individual self-awareness and individual accountability in groups (Festinger, Pepitone, & Newcomb, 1952; Zimbardo, 1969) and become more attuned to themselves as group members and to the specific social norms of the particular situation (Reicher & Stott, 2011).

self representation skills definition

Social Psychology in the Public Interest

Deindividuation and rioting.

Rioting occurs when civilians engage in violent public disturbances. The targets of these disturbances can be people in authority, other civilians, or property. The triggers for riots are varied, including everything from the aftermath of sporting events, to the killing of a civilian by law enforcement officers, to commodity shortages, to political oppression. Both civilians and law enforcement personnel are frequently seriously injured or killed during riots, and the damage to public property can be considerable.

Social psychologists, like many other academics, have long been interested in the forces that shape rioting behavior. One of the earliest and most influential perspectives on rioting was offered by French sociologist, Gustav Le Bon (1841–1931). In his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, Le Bon (1895) described the transformation of the individual in the crowd. According to Le Bon, the forces of anonymity, suggestibility, and contagion combine to change a collection of individuals into a “psychological crowd.” Under this view, the individuals then become submerged in the crowd, lose self-control, and engage in antisocial behaviors.

Some of the early social psychological accounts of rioting focused in particular on the concept of deindividuation as a way of trying to account for the forces that Le Bon described. Festinger et al. (1952), for instance, argued that members of large groups do not pay attention to other people as individuals and do not feel that their own behavior is being scrutinized. Under this view, being unidentified and thereby unaccountable has the psychological consequence of reducing inner restraints and increasing behavior that is usually repressed, such as that often seen in riots.

Extending these ideas, Zimbardo (1969) argued that deindividuation involved feelings of reduced self-observation, which then bring about antinormative and disinhibited behavior. In support of this position, he found that participants engaged in more antisocial behavior when their identity was made anonymous by wearing Ku Klux Klan uniforms. However, in the context of rioting, these perspectives, which focus on behaviors that are antinormative (e.g., aggressive behavior is typically antinormative), neglect the possibility that they might actually be normative in the particular situation. For example, during some riots, antisocial behavior can be viewed as a normative response to injustice or oppression. Consistent with this assertion, Johnson and Downing (1979) found that when participants were able to mask their identities by wearing nurses uniforms, their deindividuated state actually led them to show more prosocial behavior than when their identities were visible to others. In other words, if the group situation is associated with more prosocial norms, deindividuation can actually increase these behaviors, and therefore does not inevitably lead to antisocial conduct.

Building on these findings, researchers have developed more contemporary accounts of deindividuation and rioting. One particularly important approach has been the social identity model of deindividuation effects (or SIDE model), developed by Reicher, Spears, and Postmes (1995). This perspective argues that being in a deindividuated state can actually reinforce group salience and conformity to specific group norms in the current situation. According to this model, deindividuation does not, then, lead to a loss of identity per se . Instead, people take on a more collective identity. Seen in this way, rioting behavior is more about the conscious adoption of behaviors reflecting collective identity than the abdication of personal identity and responsibility outlined in the earlier perspectives on deindividuation.

In support of the SIDE model, although crowd behavior during riots might seem mindless, antinormative, and disinhibited to the outside observer, to those taking part it is often perceived as rational, normative, and subject to well-defined limits (Reicher, 1987). For instance, when law enforcement officers are the target of rioters, then any targeting of other civilians by rioters is often condemned and policed by the group members themselves (Reicher & Stott, 2011). Indeed, as Fogelson (1971) concluded in his analysis of rioting in the United States in the 1960s, restraint and selectivity, as opposed to mindless and indiscriminate violence, were among the most crucial features of the riots.

Seeing rioting in this way, as a rational, normative response, Reicher and Stott (2011) describe it as being caused by a number of interlocking factors, including a sense of illegitimacy or grievance, a lack of alternatives to confrontation, the formation of a shared identity, and a sense of confidence in collective power. Viewing deindividuation as a force that causes people to increase their sense of collective identity and then to express that identity in meaningful ways leads to some important recommendations for controlling rioting more effectively, including that:

  • Labeling rioters as “mindless,” “thugs,” and so on will not address the underlying causes of riots.
  • Indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force by police will often lead to an escalation of rioting behavior.
  • Law enforcement personnel should allow legitimate and legal protest behaviors to occur during riots, and only illegal and inappropriate behaviors should be targeted.
  • Police officers should communicate their intentions to crowds before using force.

Two aspects of individual differences in self-awareness have been found to be important, and they relate to self-concern and other-concern, respectively (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975; Lalwani, Shrum, & Chiu, 2009).   Private self-consciousness refers to the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings . People who are high in private self-consciousness tend to think about themselves a lot and agree with statements such as “I’m always trying to figure myself out” and “I am generally attentive to my inner feelings.” People who are high on private self-consciousness are likely to base their behavior on their own inner beliefs and values—they let their inner thoughts and feelings guide their actions—and they may be particularly likely to strive to succeed on dimensions that allow them to demonstrate their own personal accomplishments (Lalwani et al., 2009).

Public self-consciousness, in contrast, refers to the tendency to focus on our outer public image and to be particularly aware of the extent to which we are meeting the standards set by others . Those high in public self-consciousness agree with statements such as “I’m concerned about what other people think of me,” “Before I leave my house, I check how I look,” and “I care a lot about how I present myself to others.” These are the people who check their hair in a mirror they pass and spend a lot of time getting ready in the morning; they are more likely to let the opinions of others (rather than their own opinions) guide their behaviors and are particularly concerned with making good impressions on others.

Research has found cultural differences in public self-consciousness, with people from East Asian, collectivistic cultures having higher public self-consciousness than people from Western, individualistic cultures. Steve Heine and colleagues (2008) found that when college students from Canada (a Western culture) completed questionnaires in front of a large mirror, they subsequently became more self-critical and were less likely to cheat (much like the trick-or-treaters discussed earlier) than were Canadian students who were not in front of a mirror. However, the presence of the mirror had no effect on college students from Japan. This person-situation interaction is consistent with the idea that people from East Asian cultures are normally already high in public self-consciousness compared with people from Western cultures, and thus manipulations designed to increase public self-consciousness influence them less.

So we see that there are clearly individual and cultural differences in the degree to and manner in which we tend to be aware of ourselves. In general, though, we all experience heightened moments of self-awareness from time to time. According to self-awareness theory (Duval & Wicklund, 1972), when we focus our attention on ourselves, we tend to compare our current behavior against our internal standards . Sometimes when we make these comparisons, we realize that we are not currently measuring up. In these cases,  self-discrepancy theory  states that when we   perceive a discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves, this is distressing to us  (Higgins, Klein, & Strauman, 1987). In contrast, on the occasions when self-awareness leads us to comparisons where we feel that we  are  being congruent with our standards, then self-awareness can produce positive affect (Greenberg & Musham, 1981). Tying these ideas from the two theories together, Philips and Silvia (2005) found that people felt significantly more distressed when exposed to self-discrepancies while sitting in front of a mirror. In contrast, those not sitting in front of a mirror, and presumably experiencing lower self-awareness, were not significantly emotionally affected by perceived self-discrepancies. Simply put, the more self-aware we are in a given situation, the more pain we feel when we are not living up to our ideals.

In part, the stress arising from perceived self-discrepancy relates to a sense of  cognitive dissonance,  which is the discomfort that occurs when we respond in ways that we see as inconsistent . In these cases, we may realign our current state to be closer to our ideals, or shift our ideals to be closer to our current state, both of which will help reduce our sense of dissonance. Another potential response to feelings of self-discrepancy is to try to reduce the state of self-awareness that gave rise to these feelings by focusing on other things. For example, Moskalenko and Heine (2002) found that people who are given false negative feedback about their performance on an intelligence test, which presumably lead them to feel discrepant from their internal performance standards about such tasks, subsequently focused significantly more on a video playing in a room than those given positive feedback.

There are certain situations, however, where these common dissonance-reduction strategies may not be realistic options to pursue. For example, if someone who has generally negative attitudes toward drug use nevertheless becomes addicted to a particular substance, it will often not be easy to quit the habit, to reframe the evidence regarding the drug’s negative effects, or to reduce self-awareness. In such cases,  self-affirmation theory suggests that people will try to reduce the threat to their self-concept posed by feelings of self-discrepancy by focusing on and affirming their worth in another domain, unrelated to the issue at hand . For instance, the person who has become addicted to an illegal substance may choose to focus on healthy eating and exercise regimes instead as a way of reducing the dissonance created by the drug use.

Although self-affirmation can often help people feel more comfortable by reducing their sense of dissonance, it can also have have some negative effects. For example, Munro and Stansbury (2009) tested people’s social cognitive responses to hypotheses that were either threatening or non-threatening to their self-concepts, following exposure to either a self-affirming or non-affirming activity. The key findings were that those who had engaged in the self-affirmation condition and were then exposed to a threatening hypothesis showed greater tendencies than those in the non-affirming group to seek out evidence confirming their own views, and to detect illusory correlations in support of these positions. One possible interpretation of these results is that self-affirmation elevates people’s mood and they then become more likely to engage in heuristic processing, as discussed in Chapter 2.

Still another option to pursue when we feel that our current self is not matching up to our ideal self is to seek out opportunities to get closer to our ideal selves. One method of doing this can be in online environments. Massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming, for instance, offers people the chance to interact with others in a virtual world, using graphical alter egos, or avatars, to represent themselves. The role of the self-concept in influencing people’s choice of avatars is only just beginning to be researched, but some evidence suggests that gamers design avatars that are closer to their ideal than their actual selves. For example, a study of avatars used in one popular MMO role-play game indicated that players rated their avatars as having more favorable attributes than their own self-ratings, particularly if they had lower self-esteem (Bessiere, Seay, & Keisler, 2007). They also rated their avatars as more similar to their ideal selves than they themselves were. The authors of this study concluded that these online environments allow players to explore their ideal selves, freed from the constraints of the physical world.

There are also emerging findings exploring the role of self-awareness and self-affirmation in relation to behaviors on social networking sites. Gonzales and Hancock (2011) conducted an experiment showing that individuals became more self-aware after viewing and updating their Facebook profiles, and in turn reported higher self-esteem than participants assigned to an offline, control condition. The increased self-awareness that can come from Facebook activity may not always have beneficial effects, however. Chiou and Lee (2013) conducted two experiments indicating that when individuals put personal photos and wall postings onto their Facebook accounts, they show increased self-awareness, but subsequently decreased ability to take other people’s perspectives. Perhaps sometimes we can have too much self-awareness and focus to the detriment of our abilities to understand others. Toma and Hancock (2013) investigated the role of self-affirmation in Facebook usage and found that users viewed their profiles in self-affirming ways, which enhanced their self-worth. They were also more likely to look at their Facebook profiles after receiving threats to their self-concept, doing so in an attempt to use self-affirmation to restore their self-esteem. It seems, then, that the dynamics of self-awareness and affirmation are quite similar in our online and offline behaviors.

Having reviewed some important theories and findings in relation to self-discrepancy and affirmation, we should now turn our attention to diversity. Once again, as with many other aspects of the self-concept, we find that there are important cultural differences. For instance, Heine and Lehman (1997) tested participants from a more individualistic nation (Canada) and a more collectivistic one (Japan) in a situation where they took a personality test and then received bogus positive or negative feedback. They were then asked to rate the desirability of 10 music CDs. Subsequently, they were offered the choice of taking home either their fifth- or sixth-ranked CD, and then required to re-rate the 10 CDs. The critical finding was that the Canadians overall rated their chosen CD higher and their unchosen one lower the second time around, mirroring classic findings on dissonance reduction, whereas the Japanese participants did not. Crucially, though, the Canadian participants who had been given positive feedback about their personalities (in other words, had been given self-affirming evidence in an unrelated domain) did not feel the need to pursue this dissonance reduction strategy. In contrast, the Japanese did not significantly adjust their ratings in response to either positive or negative feedback from the personality test.

Once more, these findings make sense if we consider that the pressure to avoid self-discrepant feelings will tend to be higher in individualistic cultures, where people are expected to be more cross-situationally consistent in their behaviors. Those from collectivistic cultures, however, are more accustomed to shifting their behaviors to fit the needs of the ingroup and the situation, and so are less troubled by such seeming inconsistencies.

Overestimating How Closely and Accurately Others View Us

Although the self-concept is the most important of all our schemas, and although people (particularly those high in self-consciousness) are aware of their self and how they are seen by others, this does not mean that people are always thinking about themselves. In fact, people do not generally focus on their self-concept any more than they focus on the other things and other people in their environments (Csikszentmihalyi & Figurski, 1982).

On the other hand, self-awareness is more powerful for the person experiencing it than it is for others who are looking on, and the fact that self-concept is so highly accessible frequently leads people to overestimate the extent to which other people are focusing on them (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999). Although you may be highly self-conscious about something you’ve done in a particular situation, that does not mean that others are necessarily paying all that much attention to you. Research by Thomas Gilovich and colleagues (Gilovich, Medvec, & Savitsky, 2000) found that people who were interacting with others thought that other people were paying much more attention to them than those other people reported actually doing. This may be welcome news, for example, when we find ourselves wincing over an embarrassing comment we made during a group conversation. It may well be that no one else paid nearly as much attention to it as we did!

There is also some diversity in relation to age. Teenagers are particularly likely to be highly self-conscious, often believing that others are watching them (Goossens, Beyers, Emmen, & van Aken, 2002). Because teens think so much about themselves, they are particularly likely to believe that others must be thinking about them, too (Rycek, Stuhr, McDermott, Benker, & Swartz, 1998). Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that teens can become embarrassed so easily by their parents’ behaviour in public, or by their own physical appearance, for example.

People also often mistakenly believe that their internal states show to others more than they really do. Gilovich, Savitsky, and Medvec (1998) asked groups of five students to work together on a “lie detection” task. One at a time, each student stood up in front of the others and answered a question that the researcher had written on a card (e.g., “I have met David Letterman”). On each round, one person’s card indicated that they were to give a false answer, whereas the other four were told to tell the truth.

After each round, the students who had not been asked to lie indicated which of the students they thought had actually lied in that round, and the liar was asked to estimate the number of other students who would correctly guess who had been the liar. As you can see in Figure 3.7, “The Illusion of Transparency,” the liars overestimated the detectability of their lies: on average, they predicted that over 44% of their fellow players had known that they were the liar, but in fact only about 25% were able to accurately identify them. Gilovich and colleagues called this effect the “illusion of transparency.” This illusion brings home an important final learning point about our self-concepts: although we may feel that our view of ourselves is obvious to others, it may not always be!

self representation skills definition

Key Takeaways

  • The self-concept is a schema that contains knowledge about us. It is primarily made up of physical characteristics, group memberships, and traits.
  • Because the self-concept is so complex, it has extraordinary influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and we can remember information that is related to it well.
  • Self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves, helps people respond more positively to events that they experience.
  • Self-concept clarity, the extent to which individuals have self-concepts that are clearly defined and stable over time, can also help people to respond more positively to challenging situations.
  • Self-awareness refers to the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept. Differences in the accessibility of different self-schemas help create individual differences: for instance, in terms of our current concerns and interests.
  • People who are experiencing high self-awareness may notice self-discrepancies between their actual and ideal selves. This can, in turn, lead them to engage in self-affirmation as a way of resolving these discrepancies.
  • When people lose their self-awareness, they experience deindividuation.
  • Private self-consciousness refers to the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings; public self-consciousness refers to the tendency to focus on our outer public image and the standards set by others.
  • There are cultural differences in self-consciousness: public self-consciousness may be higher in Eastern than in Western cultures.
  • People frequently overestimate the extent to which others are paying attention to them and accurately understand their true intentions in public situations.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  • What are the most important aspects of your self-concept, and how do they influence your self-esteem and social behavior?
  • Consider people you know who vary in terms of their self-complexity and self-concept clarity. What effects do these differences seem to have on their self-esteem and behavior?
  • Describe a situation where you experienced a feeling of self-discrepancy between your actual and ideal selves. How well does self-affirmation theory help to explain how you responded to these feelings of discrepancy?
  • Try to identify some situations where you have been influenced by your private and public self-consciousness. What did this lead you to do? What have you learned about yourself from these experiences?
  • Describe some situations where you overestimated the extent to which people were paying attention to you in public. Why do you think that you did this and what were the consequences?

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A knowledge representation that contains knowledge about us, including our beliefs about our personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles, as well as the knowledge that we exist as individuals.

A variety of different cognitive aspects of the self.

Information that is processed in relationship to the self is particularly well remembered.

The specific and stable personality characteristics that describe an individual (“I am friendly,” “I am shy,” “I am persistent”).

The sense of our self that involves our memberships in social groups.

The extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves.

The extent to which one's self-concept is clearly and consistently defined.

The extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept.

When our self-concept becomes highly accessible because of our concerns about being observed and potentially judged by others.

The loss of individual self-awareness and individual accountability in groups.

The tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings.

The tendency to focus on our outer public image and to be particularly aware of the extent to which we are meeting the standards set by others.

When we focus our attention on ourselves, we tend to compare our current behavior against our internal standards.

When we perceive a discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves, this is distressing to us.

The discomfort that occurs when we respond in ways that we see as inconsistent.

People will try to reduce the threat to their self-concept posed by feelings of self-discrepancy by focusing on and affirming their worth in another domain, unrelated to the issue at hand.

Principles of Social Psychology - 1st International H5P Edition Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani and Dr. Hammond Tarry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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self representation skills definition

Self-Concept in Psychology: Definition & Examples

Saul Mcleod, PhD

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Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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The self-concept is a general term for how someone thinks about, evaluates, or perceives themselves. To be aware of oneself is to have a concept of oneself.

It’s formed through experiences, interactions, and reflections, and plays a pivotal role in influencing behavior, emotions, and interpersonal relationships. A healthy self-concept promotes well-being, while a negative one can lead to emotional and social challenges.

Baumeister (1999) provides the following self-concept definition: “The individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.”

The self-concept is an important term for both social and humanistic psychology . Lewis (1990) suggests that the development of a concept of self has two aspects:

(1) The Existential Self

This is “the most basic part of the self-scheme or self-concept; the sense of being separate and distinct from others and the awareness of the constancy of the self” (Bee, 1992).

The existential self is a concept within developmental psychology, particularly in the study of infant development. It refers to the basic and most fundamental understanding that an individual exists as a separate and distinct entity from others.

This realization typically begins in infancy, as early as a few months old, when a baby recognizes its existence apart from the external world.

The child realizes that they exist as a separate entity from others and continue to exist over time and space.

The existential self is the foundation upon which more complex aspects of self-concept, like the categorical self (understanding oneself in terms of categorical memberships like gender, skills, and age), are built.

According to Lewis (1990), awareness of the existential self begins as young as two to three months old and arises in part due to the child’s relationship with the world. For example, the child smiles, and someone smiles back, or the child touches a mobile and sees it move.

(2) The Categorical Self

Having realized that he or she exists as a separate experiencing being, the child becomes aware that he or she is also an object in the world.

The categorical self involves the understanding that one can be categorized into various groups based on traits, roles, and attributes.

Just as other objects, including people, have properties that can be experienced (big, small, red, smooth, and so on), so the child is becoming aware of himself or herself as an object which can be experienced and which has properties.

The self, too, can be put into categories such as age, gender, size, or skill. Two of the first categories to be applied are age (“I am 3”) and gender (“I am a girl”).

In early childhood, the categories children apply to themselves are very concrete (e.g., hair color, height, and favorite things). Later, self-description also begins to include reference to internal psychological traits, comparative evaluations, and how others see them.

For instance, a child might identify as being a “big boy” or “big girl,” differentiate themselves by saying they have “brown hair,” or later recognize they are “good at drawing.” The categorical self lays the foundation for more intricate self-identifications as one matures.

Self-image refers to the mental representation or picture that individuals have of themselves, encompassing both physical appearance and personal traits.

It’s how people perceive themselves and believe others perceive them. Personal experiences, interactions with others, societal standards, and media influences, can shape this perception.

self image

This does not necessarily have to reflect reality. Indeed, a person with anorexia who is thin may have a self-image in which the person believes they are fat.

A person’s self-image is affected by many factors, such as parental influences, friends, the media, etc.

Self-image is a significant component of one’s overall self-concept and is crucial to self-esteem and confidence. It can influence behavior, choices, relationships, and overall mental well-being. Over time, a person’s self-image can change based on experiences, feedback, achievements, and personal reflections.

The Twenty Statements Test

Kuhn (1960) investigated the self-image by using The Twenty Statements Test .

He asked people to answer “Who am I?” in 20 different ways.

He found that the responses could be divided into two major groups. These were social roles (external or objective aspects of oneself such as son, teacher, friend) and personality traits (internal or affective aspects of oneself such as gregarious, impatient, humorous).

The list of answers to the question “Who Am I?” probably includes examples of each of the following four types of responses:
  • Physical Description : I’m tall, have blue eyes…etc.
  • Social Roles : We are all social beings whose behavior is shaped to some extent by the roles we play. Such roles as student, housewife, or member of the football team not only help others to recognize us but also help us to know what is expected of us in various situations.
  • Personal Traits : These are the third dimension of our self-descriptions. “I’m impulsive…I’m generous…I tend to worry a lot,”…etc.
  • Existential Statements (abstract ones): These can range from “I’m a child of the universe” to “I’m a human being” to “I’m a spiritual being, “…etc.

Typically, young people describe themselves more in terms of personal traits, whereas older people feel defined to a greater extent by their social roles.

Actual Self

The actual self is how individuals currently see themselves based on their self-awareness and introspection. It represents the attributes, roles, competencies, and characteristics that a person believes they genuinely possess at the present moment.

While “actual self” and “self-image” are closely related and often used interchangeably in casual discussions, they are distinct concepts within the realm of psychology. Here’s a breakdown of the differences:

  • Represents an individual’s current perception of themselves based on attributes, roles, and abilities they believe they genuinely possess.
  • Serves as a baseline for comparison with other self-representations, like the ideal self or ought self.
  • Refers to the mental representation or picture an individual has of themselves.
  • It encompasses both physical appearance and perceived personal traits.
  • Self-image is about how people perceive themselves and how they believe they are seen by others.

In essence, the “actual self” is a broader construct that might include one’s self-image as a component.

The actual self covers the entirety of an individual’s current self-perception, while the self-image focuses more on the visual or representational aspect and perceived traits.

Both, however, are integral parts of an individual’s overall self-concept.

Self-Esteem

Self-esteem (also known as self-worth) refers to the extent to which we like, accept, or approve of ourselves or how much we value ourselves.

Self-esteem always involves a degree of evaluation, and we may have either a positive or a negative view of ourselves.

Factors influencing self-esteem include:
  • Childhood experiences
  • Feedback from others
  • Comparisons with peers
  • Societal standards and cultural influences
  • Personal achievements or failures

High Self-Esteem : Individuals with high self-esteem generally believe that they have good qualities and value themselves positively. They often handle life challenges better, are more resilient, and have a positive outlook on life.

  • Confidence in our own abilities
  • Self-acceptance
  • Not worrying about what others think

Low Self-Esteem: Those with low self-esteem tend to view themselves negatively, doubt their abilities, and are more critical of themselves. They are more susceptible to experiencing feelings of worthlessness, depression, and anxiety.

  • Lack of confidence
  • Want to be/look like someone else
  • Always worrying about what others might think

Having a balanced self-esteem is crucial for mental well-being. While high self-esteem is generally beneficial, overly inflated self-esteem can lead to narcissism . On the other hand, chronically low self-esteem can contribute to a host of psychological issues, including depression and anxiety.

Measurement

There are several ways of measuring self-esteem. For example, Harrill Self-Esteem Inventory is a questionnaire comprising 15 statements about a range of interests.

Another example is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which is a neutral cartoon given to the participant, who then has to devise a story about what’s going on.

Argyle (2008) believes 4 major factors influence self-esteem.

1. The Reaction of Others

If people admire us, flatter us, seek out our company, listen attentively and agree with us, we tend to develop a positive self-image.

If they avoid, neglect, and tell us things about ourselves that we don’t want to hear, we develop a negative self-image.

2. Comparison with Others

If the people we compare ourselves with (our reference group) appear to be more successful, happier, richer, and better looking than ourselves, we tend to develop a negative self-image, BUT if they are less successful than us, our image will be positive.

3. Social Roles

Some social roles carry prestige, e.g., doctor, airline pilot, TV presenter, and premiership footballer, and this promotes self-esteem.

Other roles carry a stigma. E.g., a prisoner, mental hospital patient, refuse collector, or unemployed person.

4. Identification

Roles aren’t just “out there.” They also become part of our personality, i.e., we identify with the positions we occupy, the roles we play, and the groups we belong to.

But just as important as all these factors are the influence of our parents! (See Coopersmith’s research.)

Experiments

Morse and Gergen (1970) showed that our self-esteem might change rapidly in uncertain or anxiety-arousing situations.

Participants were waiting for a job interview in a waiting room. They sat with another candidate (a confederate of the experimenter) in one of two conditions:

A) Mr. Clean – dressed in a smart suit, carrying a briefcase opened to reveal a slide rule and books.

B) Mr. Dirty – dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, slouched over a cheap sex novel.

The self-esteem of participants with Mr. Dirty increased whilst those with Mr. Clean decreased! No mention was made of how this affected the subjects’ performance in the interview.

Self-esteem affects performance at numerous tasks, though (Coopersmith, 1967), so one could expect Mr. Dirty’s subjects to perform better than Mr. Clean.

Even though self-esteem might fluctuate, there are times when we continue to believe good things about ourselves, even when evidence to the contrary exists. This is known as the perseverance effect.

Miller and Ross (1975) showed that people who believed they had socially desirable characteristics continued in this belief even when the experimenters tried to get them to believe the opposite.

Does the same thing happen with bad things if we have low self-esteem?  Maybe not. Perhaps with very low self-esteem, all we believe about ourselves might be bad.

The ideal self refers to the person an individual aspires to become. It embodies one’s goals, ambitions, and dreams, encompassing attributes, behaviors, and traits a person values and wishes to possess. This concept is pivotal in understanding personal development and self-concept.

Key points about the ideal self:

  • Comparison with Real Self: The ideal self stands in contrast to the “real self,” which represents how a person currently sees themselves. The gap between these two concepts can influence self-esteem. A smaller gap can lead to higher self-esteem, while a larger gap can result in feelings of dissatisfaction or inadequacy.
  • Dynamic Nature: The ideal self is not static; it evolves based on life experiences, societal influences, personal aspirations, and changing values.
  • Motivation: The ideal self can serve as a motivational force, pushing individuals to pursue personal growth, learn new skills, and strive for self-improvement.
  • Potential Pitfalls: While the ideal self can be a source of inspiration, an unattainable or overly perfectionistic ideal self can lead to disappointment, low self-esteem, and mental distress.

Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist, emphasized the importance of achieving congruence between the real self and the ideal self for overall psychological well-being.

If there is a mismatch between how you see yourself (e.g., your self-image) and what you’d like to be (e.g., your ideal self), this will likely affect how much you value yourself.

Therefore, there is an intimate relationship between self-image, ego-ideal, and self-esteem. Humanistic psychologists study this using the Q-Sort Method .

A person’s ideal self may not be consistent with what actually happens in the life and experiences of the person. Hence, a difference may exist between a person’s ideal self and actual experience. This is called incongruence.

Where a person’s ideal self and actual experience are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. Rarely, if ever, does a total state of congruence exist; all people experience a certain amount of incongruence.

The development of congruence is dependent on unconditional positive regard . Rogers believed that for a person to achieve self-actualization , they must be in a state of congruence.

Michael Argyle (2008) says there are four major factors that influence its development:

  • The ways in which others (particularly significant others) react to us.
  • How we think we compare to others
  • Our social roles
  • The extent to which we identify with other people

Argyle, M. (2008). Social encounters: Contributions to social interaction . Aldine Transaction

Baumeister, R. F. (Ed.) (1999). The self in social psychology . Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press (Taylor & Francis).

Bee, H. L. (1992). The developing child . London: HarperCollins.

Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem . San Francisco: Freeman.

Kuhn, M. H. (1960). Self-attitudes by age, sex and professional training. Sociological Quarterly , 1, 39-56.

Lewis, M. (1990). Self-knowledge and social development in early life. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality (pp. 277-300). New York: Guilford.

Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82, 213–225

Morse, S. J. & Gergen, K. J. (1970). Social comparison, self-consistency and the concept of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 16, 148-156.

Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context . New York: McGraw Hill.

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self representation skills definition

  • Oct 22, 2023
  • 16 min read

Social Cognition 101: The Self as a Mental Representation

The “Social Cognition 101” series serves as an exemplary model for our endeavor in the realm of social cognition within the field of experimental psychology. This series aspires to delve deeply into the cognitive mechanisms that underpin our perceptions and understanding of individuals in social contexts, encompassing the intricate dynamics of self-awareness. As we explore these mechanisms, we'll gain insights into how these cognitive processes can sometimes lead to stereotyping and, crucially, how to effectively prevent such biases from taking root. Just as the "101" collection imparts invaluable knowledge and practical strategies, our journey through social cognition promises to unlock the transformative potential of knowledge and personal growth in the context of understanding and interacting with others.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

1. The Self as a Mental Representation

2. The Self Provides Information to Guide Self-Regulation

3. The Self Has Varied Motivations for Self-Regulation

4. The Self Serves as a Reference Point: Attribution Processes

5. Attributional Biases

6. Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP)

7. Heuristics & Shortcuts

8. Stereotyping: Cognition & Biases

Over the course of history, numerous scholars and researchers have endeavored to gain insights into the intricacies of the self. William James’s (1907) analysis laid the groundwork for many enduring concerns, and sociologists Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead provided frameworks for understanding the self in social interaction (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). In the past several decades, social cognition researchers have taken up this challenge and enhanced our comprehension of the self (Beer, 2012). "The Self is a mental representation" is a statement that reflects a fundamental concept in the field of social cognition. It suggests that the way individuals perceive and understand themselves is constructed within their minds, and this mental representation of the self plays a crucial role in how they navigate social interactions and make sense of the world around them. This ongoing exploration of the self as a mental representation continues to shed light on the intricate interplay between individual psychology and social dynamics, offering valuable insights into human behavior and cognition.

In this sub-topic, a deeper exploration will be conducted into the elements of this mental representation, such as "Self-Concept," "Self-Schemas," "Self-Esteem," and "Culture and the Self (Independent vs. Interdependent Self)" (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). These components are the building blocks of the self as a mental representation, shaping how individuals perceive themselves and interact with others. This chapter begins with the definition of the self.

Figure 1: From left to right: Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske.

What Is a Self?

The concept of the self is a central question that has intrigued philosophers, psychologists, and everyday individuals alike for centuries. Historically, philosophers like Plato, Kant, and various religious thinkers have posited the existence of an immortal soul as the essence of the self, transcending physical existence. However, contrasting this metaphysical perspective, philosophers such as David Hume challenged the notion of the self, regarding it as a mere collection of perceptions. In contrast to these philosophical debates, psychologists have taken a more empirical and detailed approach to exploring the self. Research in psychology has revealed that one distinctive trait that sets humans apart from many other creatures is our cognitive capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness. This mental representation of "me" plays a pivotal role in shaping our sense of self. Moreover, the development of self-awareness is significantly influenced by language, conversation, play, and pretend play (Lewis, 2011). Interestingly, a portion of the self exhibits a degree of self-awareness, sometimes referred to as implicit consciousness. This concept of implicit consciousness also encompasses the unaware facets of the self, and it is closely linked to the realm of the unconscious mind.

Researchers have delved into topics such as self-identity, self-esteem, self-regulation, and self-improvement. Notably, studies have suggested that the self holds a special place in memory processing, exhibiting superior information processing for self-relevant material (Markus, 1977; Rogers et al., 1977). Moreover, humans possess a unique inclination to attribute human-like characteristics to both living and non-living entities—a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism. This aspect becomes particularly relevant when considering infants and the origins of self-awareness. For the reason that the attributions made, including labeling emotions verbally, can shape a child's emotional development and self-perception ( Lewis , 2012) . Furthermore, what children learn, including cultural aspects such as emotions, interactions, rules, goals, and standards, is greatly influenced by the teachings and guidance they receive from their environment. This underscores the critical role of culture in shaping one's understanding of the self.

More importantly, mental representation of ourselves not only affects one's self-reported self-image but also influences how others socially evaluate them. Research has shown that the valence ratings of self-images by independent observers can predict expert evaluations of psychological adjustment, even when accounting for self-reported self-esteem and extraversion (Kim et al., 2023). This highlights the intricate interplay between self-perception and the perceptions of others in shaping social cognition.

AI generated image of"The Self"

How Do Individuals Gain Self-knowledge?

The development of self-knowledge in adults is a complex concept influenced by brain maturation and socialization throughout life. Different viewpoints exist, with some focusing on "intersubjectivity," emphasizing shared understanding and communication between infants and caregivers. As a result of this interaction during development, individuals can relate to and understand the mental and emotional states of others, as well as share one's own thoughts and emotions with them. Thus, individuals come to develop a sense of self and self-awareness through their interactions with others. Another perspective suggests that infants possess an implicit, basic sense of their own bodies and existence. This implicit embodied self is the foundation upon which self-knowledge is built. It refers to an early awareness of one's own physical presence and the capacity to engage with the environment through sensory experiences and bodily actions. The idea that this implicit embodied self evolves through interactions with others emphasizes the social and relational aspect of self-development. However, there is a debate about its conceptual and evaluative abilities.

Over time, self-representation becomes more complex and encompasses self-referential behavior like gender identity and age awareness, typically developing between 15 and 24 months of age (Lewis, 1990). However, this timeline may differ in cases such as Down's syndrome and autism. Additionally, children's understanding of others' intentions and abilities, known as the theory of mind, emerges around the second year of life and is related to self-recognition (Meltzoff, 1995). The development of a representational self can be measured with personal pronoun usage, mirror self-recognition, and pretend play, which are associated with specific brain regions.

AI created image of a baby discovering "The Self"

Researchers in the field of social cognition have developed two primary categories of cognitive models to understand self-knowledge. These models offer distinct approaches to understanding how individuals come to know and define themselves within the social context. The first category, computational models, emphasizes specific self-related events and behaviors. Computational models are mathematical or computer-based representations of cognitive processes involved in social perception, reasoning, and behavior (Hackel & Amodio, 2018). These models are designed to simulate and explain how people make sense of social information, make decisions, and interact with others. They often involve algorithms and mathematical equations to represent the underlying cognitive processes. The second category, abstraction models, shift their focus towards the creation of summary representations that are abstracted from these very experiences (Linville & Fischer, 1993). These models involve reducing the complexity of social stimuli or situations to their essential components or abstract features. Abstraction models aim to understand how people extract, process, and represent these essential features in their minds. In both computational and abstraction models of social cognition, memory is fundamental for processing and interpreting social information. Together, these two categories provide a comprehensive framework for exploring the complex mechanisms behind self-perception and self-awareness, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of self-knowledge acquisition.

Whether through the mathematical representations of cognitive processes in computational models or the mental constructs and categories in abstraction models, memory systems contribute to how individuals understand and interact with the social world. Research findings have indicated that memory processing gives special attention to the self, demonstrating enhanced information handling for self-related content. However, findings on patients with Alzheimer's Dementia further support the idea that self-knowledge may be functionally independent of traditional memory systems, highlighting six potentially separable components of the self (Hodges & Patterson, 1997; Kazuki et al., 2000). These components include episodic memory, personality trait representations, factual life knowledge, personal continuity, agency, and self-reflection. Studying each component individually may help us understand the concept of the unitary self better.

To sum up, the development of a representational self is a bio-psychosocial process that combines brain maturation and cultural/social influences, which begin to shape it from birth. Moreover, self-knowledge is a multifaceted concept that goes beyond traditional memory systems, and understanding its development involves various cognitive and social factors.

AI-generated image of "self-knowledge"

The Intricacies of the Self; Exploring Mental Representations and Self-awareness

The concept of the self as a mental representation is fundamental to understanding the interconnectedness of social, cognitive, and emotional abilities in humans. It serves as the core of a developmental system that evolves as engaging with others. Throughout the development, this unified system differentiates and specializes, much like branches growing on a tree trunk, allowing for the integration of knowledge while preserving functional independence. At the heart of this process lies the development of consciousness, which acts as the cornerstone. It transforms sensory experiences into a theory of mind, social interactions into meaningful relationships, and basic emotions into self-conscious feelings. Human consciousness enables all of these transformations to occur. This ability emanates from intricate self-system and mental representation of one's self. It empowers to reflect on past, present, and future selves, shaping cognitive, social, and emotional landscape. This facet of the self emerges through the interplay of biological processes in the brain and the influence of the cultural contexts. Recent advances, such as the Reverse Correlation (RC) method, have allowed researchers to visualize these mental representations of the self. Studies have demonstrated the significant connection between one's self-image and how they are perceived by others. Furthermore, these findings reveal that self-images offer insights beyond what individuals report about themselves, underlining the RC method's value in making implicit aspects of self-image explicit (Kim et al., 2023). While some may argue that the link between self-images and social evaluation is rooted in facial appearance, research suggests otherwise. Although facial attractiveness may influence self-images to some extent, the valence of self-images is not solely determined by physical appearance. Importantly, social evaluation was associated with self-images, not facial attractiveness, indicating that self-images reflect multifaceted psychological factors beyond mere physical attributes.

So, what exactly does the self do? The term "self" encompasses a wide range of meanings, from the self-awareness of infants to the multiple selves that adults exhibit. To address these variations, it is helpful to conceptualize the human body and mind as a complex system. Complex systems exhibit key characteristics like self-regulation, distinguishing between self and other, and the ability to perform intricate actions without constant self-awareness. Some self-systems also possess a mental representation, enabling self-awareness and the capacity to understand that one possess self-knowledge. It is important to note that not all information within this complex system is always accessible to self-awareness, suggesting inherent limitations. What sets humans apart from other creatures is the presence of self-awareness and its cognitive elaboration through cultural learning. This self-awareness hinges on a mental representation of "me" that distinguishes humans from non-human animals. Within the realm of emotions, there exist both emotional states, which can be innate or learned, and the mental representation of those states. These facets of the self begin to develop in early childhood. Intentions and actions sometimes appear to arise effortlessly, leading to self-deception and introducing the concept of a multifaceted, modular self-system.

AI-generated image of "Intricacies Of The Self"

Self-concept

One's self-concept is a multifaceted and intricate construct that undergoes changes over the course of a lifetime. Starting in childhood, the manner in which individuals are treated by parents, teachers, and friends, along with their participation in different religious, ethnic, or cultural activities, significantly influences the development of their identity. Individuals initiate the process of recognizing their personal traits and the societal expectations placed upon them. These roles, such as being a student or a partner, become integral to one's identity. Additionally, a private sense of self is upheld while different facets are presented to the world. The intricate combination of beliefs and perceptions regarding the self is termed the self-concept (Fiske & Taylor, 2017).

The mental representations of self exhibit high complexity. At times, the central focus revolves around maintaining self-esteem and a consistent self-image. The need for affiliation and effectiveness also exerts influence on cognition, emotions, and actions. This adaptability gives rise to an ever-changing self-encoding process, largely occurring within the framework of person-situation interactions. Within different contexts, distinct facets of the self are activated, guided by the norms and pressures inherent to each situation. This working self-concept concept highlights the idea that diverse facets of the self can direct social conduct in accordance with the specific context. Rather than a single, unified entity, the self-concept is an amalgamation of various selves that come to the forefront in different settings (Markus & Wurf, 1987). How we perceive ourselves in a social gathering is likely to contrast markedly with our self-perception in an educational setting. This variance in the working self-concept elucidates how self-perception guides behavior across varying circumstances.

AI-generated image of "Self-Concept"

Furthermore, the self-concept is shaped not only by the situational context but also by the connections established with significant others (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). These relationships leave an imprint on the self-concept, with our understanding of these important individuals becoming an integral component of one's identity. Parents, siblings, close friends, and past and current partners all contribute to the self-concept through the knowledge we possess about them. The activation of mental representations of significant others can induce the emergence of specific relational selves, a phenomenon known as transference. Consider the scenario of returning home for the holidays. Even as an independent and grown individual, the relational selves as a daughter and a younger sister can suddenly become active. This can result in behaviors that contradict the typical self-concept, underscoring the influence of these relational selves on molding interactions.

In many social situations, people often interpret themselves in ways that complement others. They might defer when their relational partner assumes a dominant role, and assume a leading position when the partner defers. Within close-knit groups, personal identities may blend with group identities, motivating individuals to make notable self-sacrifices. Relational selves provide both stability, stemming from enduring representations of significant others, and variability, as different social situations activate different facets of our identity. Thus, self-concept is not a static entity but a dynamic and context-dependent mosaic of selves.

AI-generated image of "Self-Concept as dynamic and context-dependent mosaic"

Self-schemas

Self-schemas are cognitive-affective structures representing one's qualities within a specific domain (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). Individuals tend to be more certain about some attributes of themselves while having less clarity about others. These self-schemas primarily pertain to dimensions that hold significance to them. They play a crucial role in organizing how information related to that specific domain is processed. Moreover, possible and feared selves, the envisioned versions of the self we aim to achieve or fear becoming, wield a significant impact on the way self-perception is shaped. These ideas govern thoughts, direct the selection of social roles, and determine the circumstances one can pursue. Importantly, possible selves can evolve in response to external influences, subsequently impacts behavior.

The study from Oyserman, Bybee and Terry (2006) highlights a prominent instance of a short-term intervention, yielding significant and positive outcomes spanning a two-year timeframe. This intervention produced notable enhancements in academic performance, manifesting as augmented test scores and improved grades, along with a notable surge in academic motivation. Concurrently, it engendered reductions in manifestations of depression, instances of school absenteeism, and incidents of misbehavior. The observed transformations were attributed to alterations in the prospective self-concepts that students had assimilated into their overall identity framework. This underscores the pivotal role played by one's self-schemas and the dynamic evolution of potential self-concepts in shaping self-perception and decision-making in life.

How self-schemas, ability, and possible selves interact to regulate performance

Self-esteem

Self-esteem's importance becomes evident in mental self-representation, impacting the evaluation of oneself. It pertains not only to identity but also the assessment of one's attributes. This valuable resource assists in the upkeep of well-being, the establishment of suitable objectives, the enjoyment of positive experiences, and the adept management of demanding circumstances (Christensen, Wood, & Barrett, 2003; Creswell et al., 2005; Sommer & Baumeister, 2002; Wood, Heimpel, & Michela, 2003).

Interestingly, self-esteem has a social dimension as well. The act of sharing oneself with others is naturally enjoyable because it stems from a concern for their opinions (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012). The drive for self-esteem is based on the fundamental need for human connection and the search for external validation (Leary & Baumeister, 2000). In this regard, self-esteem can serve as a sociometer, offering a broad indication of how others perceive us.

AI-generatedAI-generated image of "Self-esteem as a sociometer"

Assessments of self-esteem occur on both explicit and implicit levels. Sometimes, these explicit and implicit evaluations conflict, leading people to spend more time understanding their self-conceptions (Briñol, Petty, & Wheeler, 2006). Those with high explicit but low implicit self-esteem often exhibit defensive behaviors (Jordan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2003). The distinction between implicit and explicit self-esteem highlights that not only do we consciously seek to feel good about ourselves, but our unconscious self-evaluations also significantly influence our judgments and actions. This influence extends to our preferences for people, places, and things that resembles oneself—a phenomenon known as implicit egotism (Pelham, Carvallo, & Jones, 2005). Unconscious self-evaluations aren't limited to the trivial; they can even shape major life decisions.

Self-esteem reflects beliefs about what must be achieved or done to establish worth as individuals (Crocker & Knight, 2005). Beyond general self-esteem, domain-specific self-evaluations influence the overall sense of self-worth. These self-worth contingencies shape selectivity regarding the areas on which self-esteem is built. While pursuing a positive self-image is commendable, an excessive pursuit of high self-esteem can have disadvantages (Crocker & Knight, 2005).

In essence, self-esteem serves as a driving force in life. High self-esteem individuals actively seek opportunities to enhance their self-image, while those with low self-esteem tend to avoid situations that might diminish it. Furthermore, people carefully choose the domains on which they build their self-esteem, recognizing that a balanced approach is often the key to a healthier self-concept.

AI generated image of "Building the Self-Esteem"

Neural Bases of Self-views

The neural bases of self-views play a crucial role in the ability to navigate the world effectively. To function well, one must distinguish between what is "me" and what is "not me." This distinction involves activity in the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex (Kircher et al., 2002; Turk et al., 2002). Subjective sense of self seems to emerge from the functions of a left-hemisphere interpreter, which integrates various self-relevant processes across different brain regions (Gazzaniga, 2000).

In a study conducted by Ochsner et al. (2005), participants had their brains scanned while they rated adjectives describing themselves, a friend, their friend's perception of them, or someone less close to them. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was consistently active during all tasks involving personal evaluations, highlighting its role in social judgment. A broader network, including the posterior cingulate/precuneus and parts of the temporal lobe, was also activated during both self and other evaluations. Notably, evaluations of oneself and close others engaged distinct brain pathways compared to evaluations of less-close individuals. To discern self-ratings from ratings of close others, the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) came into play. Self-appraisals activated both the mPFC and the right rostrolateral PFC. Moreover, Brodmann's area 10 showed activity during self-judgment. Brodmann's area 10, also known as the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, is involved in higher-order cognitive functions and executive processes include complex decision-making, social cognition, prospective memory (remembering to do things in the future), and monitoring and integrating information from various sources for goal-directed behavior. Thus, activation in this area suggests that self-knowledge has a degree of independence from information about close others within the medial prefrontal cortex.

Brain areas implicated in self-views (medial and lateral views)

When it comes to self-views, neuroimaging can distinguish between processing self-schematic information and non-self-schematic information. Contemplating information related to your self-concept triggers specific brain regions responsible for automatic, emotional, and motivational processes. These regions include the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala. As your self-concept solidifies in a particular domain, its neural representation appears to shift toward brain regions associated with affective, motivational, and automatic processing (Lieberman, Jarcho, & Satpute, 2004).

Culture Cognition and Emotion

Culture plays a significant role in shaping cognition and emotions. One fundamental difference lies in the concept of individualism versus collectivism (Fiske & Taylor, 2017; Oyserman & Lee, 2008; Triandis, 2018). In Western societies, individualism is emphasized, focusing on personal goals, independence, and self-expression. In contrast, East Asian societies tend to prioritize collectivism, emphasizing group harmony, interdependence, and meeting community expectations.

The impact of individualism and collectivism extends its influence in human cognition, thus mental representation domains' of the self. This distinction extends to self-perception (Darwish & Huber, 2003). Those with an independent sense of self view themselves as distinct individuals and strive to achieve personal goals. On the other hand, individuals with interdependent self-construals consider their relationships with others and the social context when defining themselves. These cultural differences also impact memory and social inferences (Uleman, 2018). European Americans tend to overlook social context when making inferences, while those with interdependent self-construals pay more attention to relational aspects. Moreover, emotional experiences are influenced by one's sense of self (Hess & Hareli, 2017). People with an independent sense of self often experience ego-focused emotions like pride or frustration over personal achievements or setbacks. In contrast, cultures with interdependent self-conceptions tend to experience other-focused emotions, such as the Japanese concept of "amae" which involves being lovingly pampered by others. Furthermore, the sense of self also affects self-esteem (Chung & Mallery, 1999). Those with an independent sense of self are more likely to endorse self-esteem items, while the importance of self-esteem varies between independent and interdependent cultures. In interdependent cultures, approval from others for adhering to social norms is a better predictor of life satisfaction.

Summary of key differences between an independent and an interdependent perception of self

Situational factors in different cultures also play a role. In the United States, situations encourage self-enhancement, while Japanese situations promote self-criticism. Researchers have questioned the nature of self-esteem across cultures. People from interdependent cultures who score high on Western self-esteem scales exhibit behaviors consistent with high self-esteem in Western cultures. Additionally, even in interdependent cultures, there are tendencies to self-enhance indirectly (Kitayama & Karasawa, 1997).

William James advocated separating structural and content aspects when considering cross-cultural differences. Certain structural aspects may be universal, while content aspects are heavily influenced by culture. One's culture shapes one's self-concept. Independent cultures view the self as unique, autonomous, and distinct from others, while interdependent cultures see the self as part of social relationships, adjusting behavior according to others' thoughts, feelings, and actions. Furthermore, the content of self-awareness differs between Western and non-Western cultures, with the Western idea of a single, independent self contrasting with the "we-self" found in cultures like Japan and India. This highlights the complex interplay between culture, cognition, and emotion in shaping our identities.

Conclusions

The self is not a static entity but a complex and context-dependent mosaic of selves that come into play in different situations and relationships. Self-concept is shaped by the roles individuals assume in society, the influential people in their lives, and their personal assessments of their attributes. Self-schemas are essential for organizing and handling self-related data, while potential selves steer aspirations and fears, influencing decisions and actions. Neuroscientific research has revealed the neural bases of self-views, highlighting the left hemisphere's role in distinguishing between "me" and "not me." Additionally, self-esteem plays a vital role in self-perception, affecting one's well-being, goal-setting, and social interactions. Additionally, culture exerts a substantial influence on the shaping of perceptions about oneself, where individualism and collectivism represent separate cultural models affecting self-construal, emotional responses, and self-esteem. Understanding the interplay between culture, cognition, and emotion is crucial in comprehending the complexities of the self.

In the quest to answer the question "Who are you?" philosophers continue to ponder the nature of the self, while psychologists explore its role in memory, social interactions, and various aspects of human behavior. The self, as a mental representation, remains a captivating subject at the intersection of these intellectual pursuits, inviting continued exploration and inquiry into the essence of the self in social cognition. It is a concept that continues to evolve, offering valuable insights into the intricate interplay between individual psychology and social dynamics, enriching our understanding of human nature and our place in the world.

AI-generated image of "Who are you?"

In conclusion, the concept of the self as a mental representation is a multifaceted and dynamic aspect of human cognition and behavior that has intrigued philosophers, psychologists, and scholars throughout history. From William James's foundational ideas to the frameworks of Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead, the exploration of the self has evolved and deepened over time. Contemporary research in social cognition has contributed significantly to our understanding of the self, shedding light on its various components, such as self-concept, self-schemas, self-esteem, and the influence of culture on the self.

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Culture, Self-Identity, and Work

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2 Cultural Self-Representation Theory

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In the attempt to manage human resources in the most effective and satisfactory manner, noteworthy attention is placed on developing appropriate tools to further understand employee reactions. Although there are various theories that can account for the analysis of organisational behaviour, this chapter concentrates on the cultural self-presentation framework, which is based on the propositions of cognitive knowledge processing. It suggests associations between the macro-level cultural elements and the micro-level behaviours through the idea that the self is an information processor and an endower of meanings that are anchored on mental templates derived from education and socialisation. Differences in orientation can affect the reactions of staff to the policies of corporations.

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Eighty phenomena about the self: representation, evaluation, regulation, and change

Paul thagard.

1 Department of Philosophy, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

Joanne V. Wood

2 Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada

We propose a new approach for examining self-related aspects and phenomena. The approach includes (1) a taxonomy and (2) an emphasis on multiple levels of mechanisms. The taxonomy categorizes approximately eighty self-related phenomena according to three primary functions involving the self: representing, effecting, and changing. The representing self encompasses the ways in which people depict themselves, either to themselves or to others (e.g., self-concepts, self-presentation). The effecting self concerns ways in which people facilitate or limit their own traits and behaviors (e.g., self-enhancement, self-regulation). The changing self is less time-limited than the effecting self; it concerns phenomena that involve lasting alterations in how people represent and control themselves (e.g., self-expansion, self-development). Each self-related phenomenon within these three categories may be examined at four levels of interacting mechanisms (social, individual, neural, and molecular). We illustrate our approach by focusing on seven self-related phenomena.

Introduction

Social and clinical psychologists frequently use the concept of the self in their discussions of a wide range of phenomena (e.g., Baumeister, 1999 ; Sedikides and Brewer, 2001 ; Leary and Tangney, 2003 ; Alicke et al., 2005 ; Sedikides and Spencer, 2007 ). However, there is no general, unified psychological theory of the self that can account for these phenomena. Thagard (2014) has proposed a view of the self as a multilevel system consisting of social, individual, neural, and molecular mechanisms. Like James (1890) and Mead (1967) , this view accommodates social, cognitive, and physiological aspects of the self, but provides far more detail about the nature of the relevant mechanisms. Our aim in the current paper is to show the applicability of the multilevel system account of the self to a large range of phenomena.

We will present a new taxonomy that categorizes approximately eighty self-related phenomena according to three primary aspects of the self: representing, effecting, and changing. The representing self encompasses the ways in which people depict themselves, either to themselves or to others (e.g., self-concepts, self-presentation). The effecting self concerns ways in which people facilitate or limit their own traits and behaviors (e.g., self-enhancement, self-regulation). The changing self is less time-limited than the effecting self; it concerns phenomena that involve lasting alterations in how people represent and control themselves (e.g., self-expansion, self-development). After presenting this taxonomy, we will describe how four levels of mechanisms—social, individual, neural, and molecular—are relevant to understanding these phenomena about the self. It would be premature to offer a full theory of the self, because not enough is known about the nature of these mechanisms and how they produce the relevant phenomena. But we hope our taxonomy and outline of relevant mechanisms provides a new and useful framework for theorizing about the self.

A Taxonomy of Self-Phenomena

There are more than eighty frequently discussed topics that we call the self-phenomena. More accurately, each of these topics should be understood as a group of phenomena. For example, there are many empirical findings about self-esteem that should count as distinctive phenomena to be explained, so there are potentially hundreds of findings for which a scientific theory of the self should be able to account.

Fortunately, the task of accounting for all of the self-phenomena, through causal explanations of the large number of empirical findings about them, can be managed by grouping the phenomena according to three primary aspects of the self: representing, effecting, and changing. All of the self-phenomena fall primarily under one of these functional groups, although a few are related to more than one group. Figure ​ Figure1 1 summarizes the proposed organization of self-phenomena that we now discuss in more detail.

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Grouping of many self-phenomena into six main classes: self-representing (with three sub-categories), self-effecting (with two sub-categories), and self-changing. Source: Thagard (2014) .

The Representing Self

A representation is a structure or activity that stands for something, and many of the self-phenomena listed in Figure ​ Figure1 1 concern ways in which people represent themselves. The representing self can roughly be divided into three subgroups concerned with (1) depicting oneself to oneself, (2) depicting oneself to others, and (3) evaluating oneself according to one’s own standards.

The most general terms for depicting oneself to oneself are self-knowledge and self-understanding, which seem roughly equivalent. Self-concepts and self-schemata are both mental ingredients of self-knowledge, serving as cognitive structures to represent different aspects of the self. (Later we provide a more detailed account of self-concepts.) Self-interest consists in the collection of one’s personal goals, conscious or unconscious. Self-identity and self-image are also ways in which one represents oneself to oneself, although they may also contribute to how one represents oneself to others. Self-discovery and self-projection are processes that involve self-representation.

Several aspects of depicting oneself to oneself assume conscious experience, as in self-awareness and other phenomena listed in Figure ​ Figure1. 1 . Such experience is not purely cognitive, as it can also involve prominent affective components such as moods and emotions. Another set of phenomena that involve depicting oneself to oneself includes self-deception and self-delusion, in which the representation of self is false. The second division within the group of self-representing phenomena involves depicting and communicating oneself to others.

The third sub-group of self-phenomena in the representing category concerns the evaluation of the self, either as on ongoing process or as the product that results from the evaluation. Phenomena concerned with the process of evaluation include self-appraisal. There are many products that result from this process, including both general assessments such as self-confidence and particular emotional reactions such as self-pity.

The Effecting Self

The self does more than just represent itself; it also does things to itself, including facilitating its own functioning in desirable ways and limiting its functioning to prevent undesirable consequences. Self-phenomena that have a facilitating effect include self-actualization. Self-evaluation can also produce the self-knowledge that unconstrained actions may have undesirable consequences, as in excessive eating, drinking, drug use, and dangerous liaisons. Accordingly, there is a set of important phenomena concerning limits that people put on their own behavior, including self-control. All of these self-effecting phenomena involve people encouraging or discouraging their own behaviors, but they do not bring about fundamental, longer lasting changes in the self, which is the third and probably rarest aspect of the self.

The Changing Self

Over a lifetime, people change as the result of aging and experiences such as major life events. Some self-phenomena such as self-development concern processes of change. The changes can involve alterations in self-representing, when people come to apply different concepts to themselves, and also self-effecting, if people manage to change the degree to which they are capable of either facilitating desired behaviors or limiting undesired ones. Whereas short-term psychotherapy is aimed at dealing with small-scale problems in self-representing and self-efficacy, long-term psychotherapy may aim at larger alterations in the underlying nature of the self.

The proposed grouping of self-phenomena summarized in Figure ​ Figure1 1 is not meant to be exhaustive, as there are aspects of self that are described by words without the “self” prefix, such as agency, autonomy, personhood, and resilience, as well as more esoteric terms that do use the prefix. But the diagram serves to provide an idea of the large range of phenomena concerning the self. Our goal is to show the applicability of the multilevel account of the self to this range of phenomena, by selecting phenomena from each of the six main classes in Figure ​ Figure1. 1 . It would be tedious to apply the multilevel theory to more than eighty phenomena, so we take a representative sampling that includes: self-concepts, self-presentation, self-esteem, self-enhancement, self-regulation, self-expansion, and self-development. Each of these has aspects that need to be understood by considering the self as a system that operates at social, individual, neural, and molecular levels.

Figure ​ Figure2 2 displays the relevant levels and their interconnections. We understand a mechanism to be a system of parts whose interactions produce regular changes ( Bechtel, 2008 ; Thagard, 2012 ). The social level consists of people who communicate with each other. The individual level consists of mental representations and computational procedures that operate on them. The neural level consists of neurons that excite and inhibit each other. Finally, the molecular level consists of genes, proteins, neurotransmitters, and hormones that affect neural operation. For defense of this account of levels of mechanisms, and the occurrence of causal links between social and molecular levels, see Thagard (2014) .

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Diagram of the self as a multilevel system. Lines with arrows indicate causality. Thick lines indicate composition. Source: Thagard (2014) .

We do not mean to suggest that there are three separate selves capable of representing, effecting, and changing, any more than we implied that there are separate social, individual, neural, and molecular selves. We especially want to avoid the ridiculous suggestion that a person might consist of twelve different selves combining three different aspects at four different levels. Our goal is to display the unity of the self, not just its amazing diversity. Unification arises first from seeing the interconnections of the four levels described earlier, and second from recognizing how the interconnected mechanisms produce all three of the self’s functions.

The scientific value of understanding the self as a multilevel system depends on its fruitfulness in generating explanations of important empirical findings concerning the various self-phenomena. We will attempt to show the relevance of multiple mechanisms for understanding three phenomena that are involved in representational aspects of the self: self-concepts, self-presentation, and self-esteem. Respectively, these involve representing oneself to oneself, representing oneself to others, and evaluating oneself.

Self-Concepts (Representing Oneself to Oneself)

Self researchers distinguish between self-concept, which involves content —one’s thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge about the self—and self-esteem, which involves evaluation —evaluation of oneself as good, bad, worthy, unworthy, and so forth. Here we focus on self-concepts, considering them at individual, social, neural, and molecular levels. Psychologists studying the self no longer think of people as possessing a single, unified self-concept, but as possessing self-views in many domains ( Baumeister, 1999 ). People have various concepts that they apply to characterize themselves with respect to features such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, occupation, hobbies, personality, and physical characteristics. For example, a man might think of himself as an intellectual, Canadian, and aging father. Moreover, not all content of those various self-views can be held in mind at once. The part of self-concept that is present in awareness at a given time has been called the “working self-concept” ( Markus and Kunda, 1986 ). What is the nature of the concepts that people apply to themselves, and what are the mechanisms underlying these applications?

The individual level of mental representations is clearly highly relevant to understanding concepts including ones about the self. What kind of mental representations are concepts? Unfortunately, there is no single currently available psychological theory of concepts that can be applied to self-concepts. Debate is ongoing about whether concepts should be understood as prototypes, collections of exemplars, or theoretical explanations ( Murphy, 2002 ; Machery, 2009 ), and all of these aspects are relevant to self-concepts ( Kunda, 1999 , Ch. 2). For example, the concept of extravert carries with it prototypical conditions such as enjoying social interactions, exemplars such as Bill Clinton, and explanations such as people going to parties because they are extraverted. Below we will suggest how all of these aspects of concepts can be integrated at the neural level.

Psychological mechanisms such as priming carried out by spreading activation between concepts explain how different concepts get applied in different situations. For example, people at parties may be especially prone to think of themselves as extraverted. Such explanations require also taking into account social mechanisms such as communication and other forms of interaction. Then the causes of applying the concept extraverted to oneself include social mechanisms as well as the individual mechanism of spreading activation among concepts.

The vast literature on self-concepts points to the interplay of the individual and social levels in a myriad of ways. First is research on social comparison, which shows that one’s working self-concept depends on the other people present ( Wood, 1989 ). Ads with skinny models can make one feel fat, and unkempt people can make one feel well-groomed. When asked to describe themselves, people tend to list characteristics that make them distinctive in their immediate social setting. A woman in a group of men is especially likely to list her gender, and a white man in a group of African–American men is especially likely to list his race (e.g., McGuire et al., 1978 ).

More permanent aspects of one’s social surround can have more consequential effects on self-concept. For example, college graduates’ career aspirations depend on their standing relative to their peers at their own college, regardless of the college’s standing relative to other institutions ( Davis, 1966 ). A student who earns high grades at institutions where grading is easier tends to have higher career aspirations than an equally qualified student at a more competitive college. This phenomenon has been called “the campus as a frog pond”; for the frog in a shallow pond aims his [or her] sights higher than an equally talented frog in a deep pond ( Pettigrew, 1967 , p. 257). According to social identity theory, one psychological basis of group discrimination is that people identify with some groups and contrast themselves with other groups that are viewed less favorably ( Tajfel, 1974 ).

Self-concepts are also influenced by the culture in which one lives. Markus and Kitayama (1991) proposed that whereas Westerners have more “independent self-construals,” in which the self is autonomous and guided by internal thoughts and feelings, Asians have more “interdependent self-construals,” in which the self is connected with others and guided, at least in part, by others’ thoughts and feelings.

Another way that the individual and social levels intersect with respect to self-concept involves the “looking-glass self” or “reflected appraisals”—the idea that people come to see themselves as others see them. This idea has been prominent in social science for some time (e.g., Mead, 1967 ), but research in social psychology in the last few decades leads to a different conclusion: People do not see very clearly how others, especially strangers, see them, and instead believe that others see them as they see themselves (see Tice and Wallace, 2003 , for a review). Instead of others’ views influencing one’s self-view, then, one’s self-view determines how one thinks others view oneself. It is possible, however, that within close relationships, the reflected self plays a greater role in shaping the self-concept ( Tice and Wallace, 2003 ).

Feedback from others can also affect self-concepts, and not just in the way one might expect. For example, although people may think of themselves as more attractive when they have been told they are attractive, people sometimes resist others’ feedback in various ways ( Swann and Schroeder, 1995 ). For example, when people with high self-esteem (HSEs) learn they have failed in one domain, they recruit positive self-conceptions in other domains (e.g., Dodgson and Wood, 1998 ). People are more likely to incorporate others’ feedback into their self-views if that feedback is close to their pre-existing self-view than if it is too discrepant ( Shrauger and Rosenberg, 1970 ).

Self-concepts also change with one’s relationships. Two longitudinal studies showed that people’s self-descriptions increased in diversity after they fell in love; people appear to adopt some of their beloved’s characteristics as their own ( Aron et al., 1995 ). Several studies also indicate that cognitive representations of one’s romantic partner become part of one’s own self-representation (as reviewed by Aron, 2003 ). Andersen and Chen (2002) describe a “relational self” in which knowledge about the self is linked with knowledge about significant others.

Interactions with other people also affect the self-concept through a process called “behavioral confirmation,” whereby people act to confirm other people’s expectations ( Darley and Fazio, 1980 ). For example, when male participants were led to believe that a woman they were speaking to over an intercom was physically attractive, that woman ended up behaving in a more appealing way than when the man thought she was unattractive ( Snyder et al., 1977 ). Presumably, a man’s expectation that a woman is attractive leads him to act especially warmly toward her, which in turn brings to the fore a working self-concept for her that is especially friendly and warm. Evidence suggests that when people believe that others will accept them, they behave warmly, which in turn leads those others to accept them; when they expect rejection, they behave coldly, which leads to less acceptance ( Stinson et al., 2009 ). More consequential results of behavioral confirmation are evident in a classic study of the “Pygmalion” effect, in which teachers were led to have high expectations for certain students (randomly determined), who then improved in academic performance ( Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968 ).

So far we have considered social effects on the self-concept. In turn, one’s self-concept influences one’s judgments of others in many ways. In his review of this large literature, Dunning (2003) grouped such effects into three main categories. First, in the absence of information about others, people assume that others are similar to themselves. Second, in their impressions of another person, people emphasize the domains in which they themselves are strong or proficient. Third, when judging others on some dimension, such as physical fitness, people tend to use themselves as a benchmark. Given a man who takes a daily 20-min walk, athletes will judge him to be unfit, whereas couch potatoes will judge him to be highly fit.

Finally, researchers have examined not only the content of self-concepts, but their clarity. People with clearer self-concepts respond to questions about themselves more quickly, extremely, and confidently, and their self-concepts are more stable over time ( Campbell, 1990 ). Recent research has pointed to social influences on self-concept clarity. For example, clarity of self-concepts regarding particular traits depends in part on how observable those traits are to others ( Stinson et al., 2008b ). And when people with low self-esteem (LSEs) receive more social acceptance than they are accustomed to, they become less clear in their self-concepts; the same is true when people with high self-esteem encounter social rejection ( Stinson et al., 2010 ). In sum, social factors are as relevant to understanding the operation of self-concepts as are factors involving the operation of mental representations in individual minds.

Moving to the level of neural mechanisms provides a way of seeing how concepts can function in all the ways that psychologists have investigated—as prototypes, exemplars, and theories, if concepts are understood as patterns of neural activity ( Thagard, 2010 , p. 78),

Simulations with artificial neural networks enable us to see how concepts can have properties associated with sets of exemplars and prototypes. When a neural network is trained with multiple examples, it forms connections between its neurons that enable it to store the features of those examples implicitly. These same connections also enable the population of connected neurons to behave like a prototype, recognizing instances of a concept in accord with their ability to match various typical features rather than having to satisfy a strict set of conditions. Thus even simulated populations of artificial neurons much simpler than real ones in the brain can capture the exemplar and prototype aspects of concepts.

It is trickier to show how neural networks can be used in causal explanations, but current research is investigating how neural patterns can be used for explanatory purposes ( Thagard and Litt, 2008 ). Blouw et al. (forthcoming) present a detailed model of how neural populations can function as exemplars, prototypes, and rule-based explanations.

Another advantage of moving down to the neural level is that it becomes easier to apply multimodal concepts such as ones concerned with physical appearance. People who think of themselves as thin or fat, young or old, and quiet or loud, are applying to themselves representations that are not just verbal but also involve other modalities such as vision and sound. Because much is known about the neural basis of sensory systems, the neural level of analysis makes it easier to see how human concepts can involve representations tied to sensory systems, not only for objects such as cars with associated visual and auditory images, but also for kinds of people ( Barsalou, 2008 ).

Brain scanning experiments reveal important neural aspects of self-concepts. Tasks that involve reflecting on one’s own personality traits, feelings, physical attributes, attitudes, or preferences produce preferential activation in the medial prefrontal cortex ( Northoff and Bermpohl, 2004 ; Mitchell, 2009 ; Jenkins and Mitchell, 2011 ). Neural correlates of culturally different self-construals have also have been demonstrated. When East Asian participants were primed with an independent self-construal, right ventrolateral PFC (prefrontal cortex) activity was more active for their own face relative to a coworker’s face, whereas when primed with an interdependent self-construal, this region was activated for both faces ( Sui and Han, 2007 ).

Once concepts are understood partly in neural terms, the relevance of molecular mechanisms becomes evident too, because of the important role of affect and emotion in self-concepts. For most people, thinking of themselves as young and thin carries positive affect, whereas thinking of themselves as old and fat carries negative valence. When such valences are interpreted neurologically, molecular mechanisms involving neurotransmitters and hormones can be applied. For example, the pleasurable feelings associated with young, thin , and other concepts that people enjoy applying to themselves plausibly result from activity in neural regions rich in the neurotransmitter dopamine, such as the nucleus accumbens. On the negative side, negative feelings such as anxiety are associated with activity in the amygdala, whose neurons have receptors for the stress hormone cortisol as well as various neurotransmitters. Hence if we want to understand why people much prefer to apply some concepts to themselves and different concepts to others, it is helpful to consider the molecular mechanisms that underlie emotion as well as social, individual, and neural mechanisms. Of course, merely knowing about physiological correlates does not provide causal explanations, which requires mechanisms that link physiology to behavior.

Self-concepts illustrate complex interactions among multiple levels, belying oversimplified reductionist views that see causality as only emanating from lower to higher levels. For example, a social interaction such as a job interview can have the psychological effects of applications of particular concepts (e.g., nervous or competent ) to oneself. Activation of these concepts consists of instantiation of patterns of firing in neural populations, attended by increases and decreases in levels of various chemicals such as cortisol and dopamine. Changes in chemical levels can in turn lead to social changes, as when high cortisol makes a person socially awkward, producing counterproductive social interactions that then lead to self-application of negative concepts. Under such circumstances, the four levels can provide an amplifying feedback loop, from the social to the neuromolecular and back again.

Self-Presentation (Representing Oneself to Others)

The modes of self-representing discussed so far largely concern how one thinks about oneself, although some aspects of self-image and self-identity also sometimes concern how one wants others to think about oneself. Self-presentation is the central phenomenon for representing oneself to others. It has been discussed extensively by sociologists such as Goffman (1959) and by social psychologists ( Leary and Kowalski, 1990 ). We want to show that self-presentation involves multilevel interacting mechanisms.

Thirty years of research by social psychologists highlight the interplay of the individual and social levels in self-presentation ( Schlenker, 2003 ). One’s goals, at the individual level, affect the social level. People have a basic need for relatedness, for belonging to groups of people that they care about ( Baumeister and Leary, 1995 ; Deci and Ryan, 2000 ). People know that they are more likely to be accepted by others who have a positive impression of them, so it is natural that people typically want to create a favorable impression. However, people’s goals sometimes lead them to present themselves in socially undesirable ways (for references, see Schlenker, 2003 ). They may self-deprecate to lower others’ expectations, or try to appear intimidating to generate fear.

The social level also affects the individual level. One’s audience influences one’s self-presentation goals. For example, people tend to be more self-aggrandizing with strangers and more modest with friends ( Tice et al., 1995 ). Particularly striking evidence of the social level affecting the individual level comes from studies indicating that one’s self-presentation to others can influence one’s private self-concept (see Schlenker, 2003 ; Tice and Wallace, 2003 ). For example, in one study, participants who had been randomly assigned to present themselves as extraverted were more likely than those who had presented themselves as introverted to later rate themselves as extraverted, and even to behave in a more outgoing fashion, by sitting closer and talking more to others ( Fazio et al., 1981 ). Such self-concept change does not seem to occur unless one’s actions are observed by others ( Tice and Wallace, 2003 ), which again emphasizes the social level. In reviewing the self-presentation literature, Baumeister (1998 , p. 705) stated:

People use self-presentation to construct an identity for themselves. Most people have a certain ideal image of the person they would like to be. It is not enough merely to act like that person or to convince oneself that one resembles that person. Identity requires social validation.

Self-presentation is also dependent on neural mechanisms. People naturally fear not being accepted by others, and a variety of studies have found that the social pain of rejection involves some of the same brain areas as physical pain, such as the periaqueductal gray ( MacDonald and Leary, 2005 ). On the other hand, being accepted by others produces pleasure, which involves activation of brain areas such as the nucleus accumbens ( Ikemoto and Panksepp, 1999 ). Izuma et al. (2009) found that the prospect of social approval activates the ventral striatum, which includes the nucleus accumbens. Of course, these neural processes are also molecular ones, with dopamine and opioids associated with positive social experiences, and stress hormones like cortisol associated with negative ones. For example, when people have to give a public speech, often a painful instance of self-presentation, their cortisol levels increase, which may even produce behaviors that undermine the effectiveness of their attempts to produce a good impression ( Al’Absi et al., 1997 ).

Another substance at the molecular level that is likely to be involved in self-presentation is oxytocin, a neuropeptide that has been linked to various social behaviors (e.g., Carter, 1998 ). Oxytocin is implicated when successful self-presentation requires accurately “reading” other people to understand what would impress or please them, because oxytocin has been linked with social recognition ( Kavaliers and Choleris, 2011 ), empathic accuracy ( Rodrigues et al., 2009 ; Bartz et al., 2010 ), the processing of positive social cues ( Unkelbach et al., 2008 ), and discerning whether others are trustworthy and should be approached or not ( Mikolajczak et al., 2010 ). Thus, self-presentation involves the complex interaction of social, individual, neural, and molecular mechanisms.

Self-Esteem (Evaluating Oneself)

The third major kind of self-representing is self-evaluation, which can involve processes such as self-appraisal and self-monitoring, and result in products that range from self-love to self-loathing. We discuss self-esteem as a sample product.

Self-esteem refers to one’s overall evaluation of and liking for oneself. People differ from each other in their characteristic levels of self-esteem, which remain quite stable over time, yet people also fluctuate in their self-esteem around their own average levels. “State self-esteem” refers to one’s feelings about oneself at the moment. Measures of explicit self-esteem obtained by surveys may differ from measures of implicit self-esteem, which are thought to be based associations that are unconscious, or at least less cognitively accessible ( Zeigler-Hill and Jordan, 2011 ).

At the individual level, self-esteem involves the application of self-concepts with positive or negative emotional valence, for example thinking of oneself as a success or failure in important pursuits such as love, work, and play. When people focus on positive aspects of themselves, their state self-esteem increases (e.g., McGuire and McGuire, 1996 ).

Considerable evidence indicates that social experiences are central to both trait and state self-esteem. According to attachment theory, people begin to learn about their self-worth as infants, in their interactions with caregivers. If the caregiver is loving and responsive to the infant’s needs, the infant develops a model of the self that is worthy of love and responsiveness. If not, the child will develop negative self-models and be anxious in relationships (e.g., Holmes et al., 2005 ). We have already discussed how social comparisons can influence one’s self-concept; comparisons with other people also can boost or deflate one’s self-esteem ( Wood, 1989 ).

Social acceptance may be the chief determinant of self-esteem. Leary’s sociometer theory proposed that the very existence of self-esteem is due to the need to monitor the degree to which one is accepted and included by other people ( Leary and Baumeister, 2000 ). Indeed, the more people feel included by other people in general, as well as accepted and loved by specific people in their lives, the higher their trait self-esteem ( Leary and Baumeister, 2000 ). Numerous experimental studies indicate that rejection leads to drops in state self-esteem (e.g., Wood et al., 2009a ). Interpersonal stressors in the everyday lives of university students are associated with declines in state self-esteem ( Stinson et al., 2008a ). In contrast, being in a long-term relationship with a loving partner can raise the self-esteem of people with low self-esteem ( Murray et al., 1996 ).

The connection between the individual and social levels of self is also evident in research on how individuals’ self-esteem-related goals influence their social lives. A vast social psychological literature reveals that motivations to maintain, protect, or improve self-esteem can, for example, guide how people present themselves to others (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1989 ), lead people to compare themselves with others who are less fortunate so as to boost their own spirits ( Wood et al., 1985 ), and lead them to stereotype other people in order to feel better about themselves ( Fein and Spencer, 1997 ; Sinclair and Kunda, 2000 ).

We have repeatedly described the neural and molecular underpinnings of self-representations involving emotions, and the account of self-concepts as patterns of neural activity associated with particular kinds of neurochemical activity applies directly to self-esteem. Self-esteem is connected with depression, which has been examined at the neural level. Depression and self-esteem are substantially inversely correlated (e.g., with r s reaching –0.60 and –0.70 s; Watson et al., 2002 ); low self-esteem is even one of the symptoms of depression. Depression is well known to have neurotransmitter correlates and to be associated with brain changes.

Evidence is mounting that social acceptance and rejection are accompanied by changes at the neural level (e.g., Eisenberger et al., 2003 , 2007 ; Way et al., 2009 ). For example, in one study, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they viewed words (e.g., boring, interesting) that they believed to be feedback from another person. The rejection-induced drops in self-esteem that we described earlier were accompanied by greater activity in rejection-related neural regions (dorsal ACC, anterior insula; Eisenberger et al., 2011 ). Neuroimaging studies suggest that the social pain caused by rejection involve the same brain areas as does physical pain (namely, dorsal ACC activity), whereas signs of social acceptance have been associated with subgenual ACC activity ( Somerville et al., 2006 ), and ventral striatum activity ( Izuma et al., 2008 ), neural regions associated with reward (see Lieberman, 2010 ).

Social threats not only lead to changes in the neural level, but also elicit a host of physiological responses, which point to the links between the social and molecular level. Dickerson et al. (2011) reviewed evidence of cardiovascular (e.g., blood pressure, heart rate), neuroendocrine (e.g., cortisol reactivity), and immune (e.g., inflammatory activity) changes, as well as ways in which social threats “influence the regulation of these systems” (p. 799).

Connections between the social level (rejection and acceptance by others) and the neural level (anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex) have also been associated with the individual level (self-esteem). People who were low in self-esteem differed in their neural responses from those high in self-esteem when others evaluated them ( Somerville et al., 2010 ) or others excluded them ( Onoda et al., 2010 ).

Similarly, individual differences in traits that have been associated with trait self-esteem, rejection sensitivity and attachment styles, have also been linked with differences in neural responses to rejection. Burklund et al. (2007) found that rejection-sensitive people had increased dorsal anterior cingulate activity in response to disapproving facial expressions. Zayas et al. (2009) found that women who differed in attachment styles (which are associated with self-esteem) differed in their neural responses to partner rejection, as reflected in event-related potentials. There is some evidence that the causes of low self-esteem may be genetic as well as social ( Roy et al., 1995 ; Neiss et al., 2002 ), which provides another reason for moving down to the molecular level in order to consider how genes affecting neural processing might be involved in self-esteem. The operation of the molecular level also may underlie self-esteem differences in responses to stress. Taylor et al. (2003) found that people who had positive self-appraisals had lower cardiovascular responses to stress, more rapid cardiovascular recovery, and lower baseline cortisol levels than people with negative self-appraisals. Furthermore, additional research by Taylor et al. (2008) links these findings with the neural level. Participants with greater psychosocial resources, including higher self-esteem along with other characteristics such as optimism and extraversion, exhibited lower amygdala activity during threat regulation, which appeared to account for their lower cortisol reactivity ( Taylor et al., 2008 ). These psychosocial resources appear to be linked with the oxytocin receptor gene ( Saphire-Bernstein et al., 2011 ).

The interplay of three levels—social, individual, and molecular—is suggested by research by Stinson et al. (2008a) . Two studies of university students yielded evidence consistent with their prediction that low self-esteem (individual level) led to interpersonal problems (social level), which in turn resulted in health problems (e.g., missed classes due to illness and visits to the physician). Health problems indicate changes at the molecular level as they imply physiological changes. Dickerson et al. (2011) have made a compelling case that the physiological responses brought about by social threats can worsen physical health.

Considering self-esteem at the neural and molecular levels may provide explanations for why self-esteem in some individuals is less influenced by life experience than learning theories would explain. For example, not all successful people have high self-esteem (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2003a ), and it is possible that the exceptions may arise from underlying neural and molecular differences that the individual level does not capture.

In addition to the dozens of self-phenomena concerned with self-representation, there are many phenomena concerned with the self attempting to modify its own states and behavior. These self-effecting phenomena fall into two groups, self-facilitating cases in which one attempts to foster positive aspects of oneself, and self-limiting cases in which one attempts to prevent the behavioral expression of negative aspects of oneself. We will discuss self-enhancement as an important kind of self-facilitation, and self-regulation as an important kind of self-limitation.

Self-Enhancement

Self-enhancement, the motive to develop and maintain a positive self-view, has been a dominant topic in the social psychological literature for decades. Self-enhancement has been seen as a motivation guiding much of human behavior, with some researchers concluding that it is the paramount self-related motive, overriding other goals such as self-accuracy and self-consistency (e.g., Baumeister, 1998 ; but see Kwang and Swann, 2010 ). However, a wealth of self-verification studies have provided compelling evidence that people also want to confirm their self-views and to get others to see them as they see themselves ( Swann, 2012 ). Hence self-verification can sometimes be self-limiting and sometimes self-facilitating.

Research has identified many strategies of self-enhancement. To cope with failure, for example, people may attribute the failure externally (e.g., say the test is unfair), minimize the failure, focus on other positive aspects of themselves, derogate other people, or make downward comparisons—that is, compare themselves with others who are inferior (e.g., Blaine and Crocker, 1993 ; Dodgson and Wood, 1998 ). Over and over again, research has found that the people who engage in such self-enhancement strategies are dispositionally high in self-esteem, rather than low in self-esteem (e.g., Blaine and Crocker, 1993 ). This self-esteem difference may occur because people with high self-esteem are more motivated than people with low self-esteem to repair unhappy moods ( Heimpel et al., 2002 ); or because HSEs are more motivated than LSEs to feel good about themselves (e.g., Baumeister et al., 1989 ); or because LSEs are equally motivated to self-enhance, but cannot as readily claim or defend a positive view of themselves (e.g., Blaine and Crocker, 1993 ).

One self-enhancement strategy deserves mention because it is a mainstay of self-help books and the popular press: positive self-statements. People facing a stressor, cancer patients, and people chronically low in self-esteem are encouraged to say to themselves such things as, “I am a beautiful person” and “I can do this!” Despite the popularity of positive self-statements and the widespread assumption that they work, their effectiveness was not subjected to scientific scrutiny until recently. Wood et al. (2009b) found that repeating the statement, “I am a lovable person” improved people’s moods only for those who already had high self-esteem. For people with low self-esteem, the statement actually backfired, worsening their moods and their feelings about themselves.

A strikingly different self-enhancement strategy is “self-affirmation” ( Steele, 1988 ). As studied by social psychologists, self-affirmation does not refer to saying positive things to oneself, but to much more subtle methods involving the expression of one’s values. Self-affirmation strategies have included writing a paragraph concerning a value one cherishes (e.g., politics, social connections), or even merely completing a scale highlighting such values. Such strategies seem to be self-enhancing in that they reduce defensiveness (e.g., Crocker et al., 2008 ), reduce stereotyping ( Fein and Spencer, 1997 ), make people more open to self-evaluation ( Spencer et al., 2001 ), and can substitute for other methods of self-enhancement (e.g., Wood et al., 1999 ).

Although self-enhancement may seem to be a private matter, operating at the individual level, the social level is clearly influential. Most threats to self-esteem arise in social contexts when feedback from others or others’ behavior leads people to doubt their preferred view of themselves, or to feel devalued or rejected. Hence self-enhancement results from the process of self-evaluation, whose social causes and context we have already discussed. In addition, self-enhancement processes may enlist the social level. Some of the self-enhancement strategies identified above, such as downward comparisons and derogating other people, involve using the social realm to boost oneself at the individual level. Another example comes from research on the triggers of stereotyping. Fein and Spencer (1997) showed that after they fail, people were especially likely to seize on a stereotype of Jewish women. Similarly, after receiving negative feedback, people derogated the person who delivered the feedback, if that person was a woman rather than a man ( Sinclair and Kunda, 2000 ). Other social strategies of self-enhancement can include being boastful and overconfident (e.g., Colvin et al., 1995 ), helping others (e.g., Brown and Smart, 1991 ), and aggressing against others ( Twenge and Campbell, 2003 ). People may also enhance themselves through their group memberships and social identities ( Banaji and Prentice, 1994 ). Self-enhancement research, then, reveals links between the individual and social levels of self because the social world often elicits the need for self-enhancement, and certain self-enhancement strategies involve the interpersonal realm. In addition, because self-enhancement can encourage or diminish stereotyping, aggression, and prosocial behavior, self-enhancement clearly has many potential social consequences.

That self-enhancement also operates at the molecular level is shown by a study of self-affirmation. Participants who engaged in a values-affirmation task before they faced a stressor had lower cortisol responses to stress than did participants who had not engaged in values-affirmation ( Creswell et al., 2005 ).

Self-enhancement also operates at the neural level as it involves applications of concepts such as loveable which, as we argued earlier, can be understood as patterns of activation in populations of neurons. The study by Wood et al. (2009a) showed that self-statements can alter positive and negative moods, which plausibly involves alteration of activities of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Better understanding of the neural and genetic determinants of low self-esteem could provide the basis for explaining why positive self-statements can have negative effects on people with low self-esteem.

Self-Regulation

Although self researchers were long preoccupied with the topics of self-concept and self-esteem, they have come to appreciate that “self-regulation is one of the most important functions of the self” ( Gailliot et al., 2008 , p. 474). Self-regulation concerns how people pursue their goals or try to control their own behavior, thoughts, or feelings. An idea discussed earlier in the section on self-evaluation—that people continually compare themselves with standards—is central to many theories of self-regulation (e.g., Carver and Scheier, 1990 ). Such theories posit that when people experience a discrepancy between a standard and their own standing (behavior, thoughts, or feelings) on the relevant dimension, they deliberately or even automatically attempt to reduce that discrepancy, in one of three ways. They can try to adjust their behavior (or thoughts or feelings) so that it meets the standard, change their standards, or exit the situation. Self-regulation is successful when the discrepancy is eliminated or reduced (e.g., Carver and Scheier, 1990 ).

The biological aspects of the self are most obvious in the self-limiting phenomena aimed at controlling or managing excessive desires for food, alcohol, drugs, sex, or inactivity. Such desires are all rooted in neural and molecular mechanisms that must be counteracted in order to overcome self-destructive behaviors such as overeating. We will not attempt a comprehensive account of all the phenomena concerned with limiting the self, but discuss three main foci of self-regulation research in recent years: goal pursuit, emotion regulation, and ego-depletion—how exercising self-control in one domain diminishes one’s capacity to do so in a second domain.

Research on social comparison establishes a basic connection between the individual and social levels. To meet such goals as self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement, individuals compare themselves with other people ( Wood, 1989 ). In this case, other people serve as the standards for meeting one’s goal progress.

Other people can even influence which goals we adopt. Fitzsimons and her colleagues have found that observing a stranger’s goal-directed behavior can lead people to pursue the same goals themselves, or to synchronize their goal pursuits with others, with interesting consequences. For example, people who observe others fail work harder, and people who observe others succeed take it easy ( McCullough et al., 2010 ). Even being in the presence of someone who was a stranger a few minutes before, but who shares similarities such as tastes in movies, can lead one to adopt the other’s goals as one’s own ( Walton et al., 2012 ). Such effects can even occur subconsciously. For example, when participants who had a goal to achieve to please their mother were primed with their mother, they outperformed control participants on an achievement task ( Fitzsimons and Bargh, 2003 ).

One’s own goals also affect one’s relationships with others. People draw closer to others who are instrumental in helping them to progress toward their goals, and distance themselves from others who do not promote such progress ( Fitzsimons and Shah, 2008 ). People seem to cultivate a social environment for themselves that promotes their goals, especially when their progress toward their goals is poor ( Fitzsimons and Fishbach, 2010 ).

Regulation of emotions is an important topic in clinical, social, and cross-cultural psychology ( Vandekerckhove et al., 2008 ). Research on emotion regulation—which concerns how people try to manage their emotional states—has amply demonstrated the interplay between the individual and social levels. For example, people try to adjust their moods in preparation for an upcoming social interaction, according to the social requirements expected ( Erber and Erber, 2000 ). In addition, social events affect one’s emotion regulation: Rejection experiences appear to lead people with low self-esteem to feel less deserving of a good mood, which in turn dampens their motivation to improve a sad mood ( Wood et al., 2009a ).

A specific example of emotion regulation, anger management, shows the need for multilevel explanations. The strategies for anger management recommended by the American Psychological Association ( APA, 2012 ) operate at all four levels: social, individual, neural, and molecular. Social strategies including expressing concerns with a sympathetic person and moderately communicating with the sources of anger. Humor involving pleasant social interactions can be a potent way of defusing anger. Temporary or permanent removal from anger-provoking social environments can also be helpful.

Psychological strategies for managing anger include the revisions of beliefs, goals, and attitudes. Cognitive therapy aims to help people by changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotion. Dysfunctional aspects of anger can be addressed by examining whether the beliefs and goals that underlie angry reactions are inaccurate and modifiable. According to the theory of emotions as cognitive appraisals, anger is a judgment that someone or something is thwarting one’s goals, so that anger should be reduced by realization either that the goals are not so important or by revision of beliefs about whatever is thought to be responsible for goal blocking.

Emotions such as anger, however, are not merely cognitive judgments, but also simultaneously involve brain perception of physiological states ( Thagard, 2006 ; Thagard and Aubie, 2008 ). Hence it is not surprising that anger management techniques include various methods for reducing physiological arousal, such as exercise and relaxation through deep breathing, mediation, and muscle tensing and release. Reducing physiological arousal reduces perception of body states performed by the insula and other brain areas, thereby reducing the overall brain activity that constitutes anger. Similarly, when oxytocin is administered to couples discussing a conflict, their positive verbal and non-verbal behaviors increase ( Ditzen et al., 2009 ).

In severe cases of anger, pharmaceutical treatments may be useful, including anti-depressants such as Prozac that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin, anti-anxiety drugs that affect the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), and sometimes even anti-psychotics that affect various other neurotransmitters. The onset of anger can also be exacerbated by recreational use of drugs such as alcohol whose effects on brain chemistry are well known. Hence anger management is an aspect of self-regulation that operates at the molecular level as well as the higher ones.

Ego-depletion studies demonstrate that when people override their emotions, thoughts, impulses, or automatic or habitual behaviors, they have trouble doing so a second time ( Baumeister et al., 2007 ). For example, in one study, research participants had to resist freshly-baked chocolate-chip cookies; they were allowed to eat only radishes instead. When they then faced an impossible puzzle, they gave up more rapidly than participants who had not been required to resist the tempting cookies ( Baumeister et al., 1998 ). In another study, participants who were asked to suppress certain thoughts subsequently had more trouble resisting free beer than did control participants, even when they expected to take a driving test ( Muraven et al., 2002 ).

Ego-depletion research has shown connections between the individual and social levels in two ways. First, difficult social interactions can deplete one’s self-regulatory resources ( Vohs et al., 2005 ). Interracial interactions, for example, can be taxing if one tries not to appear prejudiced. Richeson and Shelton (2003) found that after prejudiced white participants interacted with a black participant, they performed more poorly on a cognitive control task, compared to participants who interacted with a white participant or participants scoring low in prejudice. Social interactions also can be depleting if one is required to engage in atypical self-presentation, such as being boastful to strangers ( Vohs et al., 2005 ). And in yet another example of the harmful consequences of social rejection, studies have indicated that it too can impair self-regulation (see Gailliot et al., 2008 , for references).

Second, ego-depletion makes it difficult to navigate social interactions. Participants who had engaged in previous acts of unrelated effortful self-regulation later were more egotistical in their self-descriptions and less able to choose topics for discussion with a stranger that were appropriate in their level of intimacy ( Vohs et al., 2005 ). Self-regulatory depletion also may encourage sexual infidelity and acts of discrimination ( Gailliot et al., 2008 ). Successful self-regulation, then, may smooth one’s interpersonal interactions and make one’s close relationships more harmonious. It is unclear, however, whether ego-depletion is the result of fundamental neural mechanisms of will, or rather individual mechanisms of self-representation: Job et al. (2010) report studies that support the view that reduced self-control after a depleting task or during demanding periods may reflect people’s beliefs about the availability of willpower rather than true resource depletion.

People who have sustained damage to the prefrontal cortex exhibit various self-regulatory deficits, such as impulsivity and poor judgment (see Gailliot et al., 2008 , for references). The anterior cingulate is involved in tasks that deplete self-regulatory resources via the coordination of divided attention, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex affects the activation, maintenance, and modification of goal-directed responses ( Baumeister et al., 2003b ). Attempts at self-control recruit a network of brain regions including the lateral and posterior dorsomedial prefrontal cortex ( MacDonald et al., 2000 ). The consensus across thirty neuroimaging studies of emotion regulation in particular is that right ventrolateral PFC and left ventrolateral PFC activity are involved. Other areas also are implicated, including the presupplementary motor area, the posterior dorsomedial PFC, left dorsolateral PFC, and rostral ACC, and their involvement appears to depend on whether the emotion regulation is intentional or incidental to the participants’ task (see Lieberman, 2010 , for a review).

Research by Richeson et al. (2003) elegantly links the neural, individual, and social levels of self-regulation. They found that for White participants who held especially negative unconscious attitudes toward Blacks, interacting with a Black person led them to perform poorly on a subsequent self-regulatory task. This effect was mediated by the extent to which these White participants’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was activated while they viewed Black faces (in a separate session).

Molecular mechanisms are also undoubtedly involved in self-regulation, although few have been identified. Blood glucose has been thought to underlie ego-depletion phenomena ( Gailliot et al., 2008 ), but recent evidence has challenged that idea (e.g., Molden et al., 2012 ). Oxytocin may well promote self-regulation in the interpersonal sphere. It appears to lead mothers to tend to their offspring ( Taylor, 2002 ; Feldman et al., 2007 ), lead people in general to seek and provide social support in stressful circumstances ( Taylor, 2002 ), and to promote helping behavior ( Brown and Brown, 2006 ).

In sum, self-effecting phenomena such as self-enhancement and self-regulation are best understood at multiple mechanistic levels.

Self-effecting phenomena involve local changes and behavior, but there is a final group of phenomena that involve more permanent changes to the self ( Brinthaupt and Lipka, 1994 ). We cover two change phenomena: self-expansion and self-development.

Self-Expansion

According to Aron’s self-expansion theory, human beings have a central desire to expand the self—to acquire resources, perspectives, and identities that enhance their ability to accomplish goals. Self expansion is a motivation to enhance potential efficacy ( Aron et al., 2004 , p. 105).

This motivation to self-expand at the individual level influences the social level: Aron et al. (2004) argue that self-expansion motives lead people to enter and maintain close relationships with others. In close relationships, each partner includes the other in the self, meaning that each takes on the other’s resources, perspectives, and identities to some extent. Evidence for such processes is illustrated by findings of a study by Aron et al. (1995) , who asked university students to respond to the open-ended question “Who are you today?” every 2 weeks for 10 weeks. When respondents had fallen in love during the preceding 2 weeks, their answers to this question revealed increases in the diversity of their self-concept, compared to periods when they had not fallen in love and compared to other respondents who had not fallen in love. They also showed increased self-efficacy and self-esteem. These results remained significant even after mood changes were controlled statistically.

Falling in love also seems to be accompanied by changes in the brain. fMRI studies show that when people who have recently fallen intensely in love look at a photo of or think about their beloved, they have increased activity in the caudate nucleus, which is a central part of the brain’s reward system, as well as in the right ventral tegmental area, a region associated with the production and distribution of dopamine to other brain regions ( Aron et al., 2005 ). Even subliminal priming with a beloved’s name has similar effects ( Ortigue et al., 2007 ). These results suggest that passionate romantic love is associated with dopamine pathways in the reward system of the brain. These dopaminergic pathways are rich in oxytocin receptors ( Bartels and Zeki, 2004 ; Fisher et al., 2006 ). When women talk about a love experience, oxytocin release is associated with the extent to which they display affiliation cues such as smiles and head nods ( Gonzaga et al., 2006 ).

Recent research offers exciting evidence of possible brain changes with self-expansion. Ortigue and Bianchi-Demicheli (2010) found that when people were primed with their romantic partner’s name (and not a friend’s), they showed more intense activation of the left angular gyrus, the same region that is activated when people think of themselves.

Self-Development

Self-development refers to the changes that people naturally undergo over the course of their lives. Major developmental periods include early years when infants and toddlers begin to acquire identities ( Bloom, 2004 ; Rochat, 2009 ), adolescence when teenagers establish increasing independence from parents ( Sylwester, 2007 ), and old age when physical decline imposes new limitations on the self. Each of these periods involves extensive social, individual, neural, and molecular changes, but we will focus on old age, drawing on Breytspraak (1984) and Johnson (2005) .

Social relations and the aspects of the self dependent on them change dramatically as people get older. Major changes can include the completion of child-rearing, retirement from employment, diminishing social contacts resulting from physical disabilities, and loss of friends and family to death or infirmity. These changes can all affect the quantity and quality of social interactions that are causally associated with a person’s behaviors and representations.

At the individual level, there are changes in processes, representations, and emotions. Cognitive functioning measured by processing speed and short-term memory capability declines steadily from people’s thirties, and more precipitously in their sixties and later ( Salthouse, 2004 ). Self-conceptions may be stable in some respects, but often alter in others, as people define themselves increasingly in terms of health and physical functioning rather than work roles. People in early stages of old age tend to be happier than those in middle age, but infirmities can bring substantial difficulties ( Stone et al., 2010 ).

Neural causes of changes in the self are most evident in extreme cases like Alzheimer’s disease, when brain degeneration progressively eliminates anything but a minimal sense of self. There are also age-related disorders such as fronto-temporal dementia that can drastically diminish self-effecting phenomena such as self-control ( Eslinger et al., 2005 ). Aging also brings about molecular changes, for example in reduction of levels of hormones such as testosterone and estrogen that affect neural processing. Hence for a combination of social, individual, neural, and molecular reasons, self-development takes on important directions in old age. Similar observations could be made about other crucial stages of personal development such as adolescence. The changing self, like the representing and effecting self, operates through multilevel interacting mechanisms.

We have shown the relevance of social, individual, neural, and molecular levels to seven important phenomena: self-concepts, self-presentation, self-esteem, self-enhancement, self-regulation, self-expansion, and self-development. These seven are representative of three general classes (self-representing, self-effecting, and self-changing) that cover more than eighty self-phenomena important in psychological discussions of the self.

A full theory of the self will need to specify much more about the nature of the mechanisms at each level, and equally importantly, will need to specify much more about the relations between the levels. Thagard (2014) argued against the common reductionist assumption that causation runs only upward from molecular to neural to individual to social mechanisms. A social interaction such as one person complimenting another has effects on individuals’ mental representations, on neural firing, and on molecular processes such as ones involving dopamine and oxytocin. Fuller explanation of the more than eighty self-phenomena that we have classified in this paper will require elucidation of how they each result from multilevel interactions.

Explanations of complex systems often identify emergent properties, which belong to wholes but not to their parts because they result from the interactions of their parts ( Findlay and Thagard, 2012 ). This basic idea of emergence concerns only the connections of two levels, where the properties of wholes at the higher level (e.g., consciousness) emerge from interactions of parts at the lower levels (neurons). Thinking of the self as resulting from multiple interacting mechanisms points to a more complicated kind of emergence that has gone unrecognized. Multilevel emergence occurs when the property of a whole such as the self results from interactions in mechanisms at several different levels, in this case molecular and social as well as neural and cognitive. What you are as a self depends on your genes and your social influences as well as on your semantic pointers and mental representations. Major changes in the self such as religious conversions, dramatic career shifts, and recovery from mental illness are critical transitions that result from interactions among multiple levels. For example, recovery from severe depression often requires (1) changes in neurotransmitters through medication operating at the molecular and neural levels and (2) changes in beliefs and goals through psychotherapy operating at the mental and social levels. Future theoretical work on the self will benefit from more detailed accounts of the interactions of individual, social, neural, and molecular mechanisms.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

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self - rep re sen ta tion

Definition of self-representation.

Note: In legal terminology, a person who engages in self-representation can be said to be acting pro se or in propria persona .

Examples of self-representation in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'self-representation.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

1696, in the meaning defined above

Dictionary Entries Near self-representation

self-report

self-representation

self-repression

Cite this Entry

“Self-representation.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-representation. Accessed 30 May. 2024.

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COMMENTS

  1. The self presentation theory and how to present your best self

    Ask a trusted friend or mentor to share what you can improve. Asking for feedback about specific experiences, like a recent project or presentation, will make their suggestions more relevant and easier to implement. 2. Study people who have been successful in your role. Look at how they interact with other people.

  2. Self-representation

    Self-Concept: Self-representation is intertwined with an individual's self-concept, which encompasses their beliefs about their abilities, values, and overall worth. For instance, someone with a strong self-concept may represent themselves as confident and capable.

  3. Self-representation

    SELF-REPRESENTATION. Self representation is the image the subject has of him or herself based on his or her own interpretation. It is one of the factors of the ego and its representation as termed "an individual, differentiated, real, and permanent entity" (Racamier) particularized by a distinctive history and modes of feeling, thinking, and doing.

  4. 2.3: Self-Presentation

    Self-presentation is the process of strategically concealing or revealing personal information in order to influence others' perceptions. 1 We engage in this process daily and for different reasons. Although people occasionally intentionally deceive others in the process of self-presentation, in general we try to make a good impression while ...

  5. Self-Presentation Theory: Self-Construction and Audience Pleasing

    Self-presentation is behavior that attempts to convey some information about oneself or some image of oneself to other people. It denotes a class of motivations in human behavior. These motivations are in part stable dispositions of individuals but they depend on situational factors to elicit them. Specifically, self-presentational motivations ...

  6. What Is Self-Presentation and How Do You Improve It?

    People often use self-presentation as a way to build their own identity. Many people adopt values, behaviours, and beliefs for which they want others to recognize them. For example, a person might adopt a specific set of religious ideals and want to be identified as a practitioner of that religion. You may present yourself as a firm believer of ...

  7. Self-Presentation in the Digital World

    Self-presentational tactics are techniques for constructing or manipulating others' impressions of the individual and ultimately help to develop that person's identity in the eyes of the world.

  8. 13 Selfhood as self-representation

    The self is rather a thing prior to and independent of the self-representations that that very self both deploys and answers (or fails to answer) to in its episodes of self-representation. From this perspective, denying that there exists a metaphysically antecedent self may seem rather like trying to build a house without first laying its ...

  9. Self-Presentation

    Self-Presentation Definition Self-presentation refers to how people attempt to present themselves to control or shape how others (called the audience) view them. It involves expressing oneself and behaving in ways that create a desired impression. Self-presentation is part of a broader set of behaviors called impression management. Impression management refers to the controlled presentation of

  10. Frontiers

    The Representing Self. A representation is a structure or activity that stands for something, and many of the self-phenomena listed in Figure 1 concern ways in which people represent themselves. The representing self can roughly be divided into three subgroups concerned with (1) depicting oneself to oneself, (2) depicting oneself to others, and (3) evaluating oneself according to one's own ...

  11. Authentic Self-Representation

    Thus, if we were to define authentic self-representation, it is the successful replication of a standard that appeals to an intended and defined audience while simultaneously embodying a facet of the user's ideal mode of identity performance. Those standards are defined by cultural factors, but embodied by the creator and it is the individual ...

  12. Self and Identity

    Self-knowledge may overlap more or less with others' views of the self. Furthermore, mental representations of the self vary whether they are positive or negative, important, certain, and stable. The origins of the self are also manifold and can be considered from developmental, biological, intrapsychic, and interpersonal perspectives.

  13. 3.1 The Cognitive Self: The Self-Concept

    The self-concept is a knowledge representation that contains knowledge about us, ... their appearance, their skills at sports and other activities, and many other aspects. In turn, these self-schemas direct and inform their processing of self-relevant information (Harter, 1999), much as we saw schemas in general affecting our social cognition ...

  14. Full article: Self-(re)presentation now

    Conclusions: The self and digital culture. In keeping with the rich interdisciplinary contribution to the study of self-presentation and self-representation in digital culture, particularly from science and technology studies and media and communication studies, taken together the authors collected here address both the social technical aspects of self-presentation and the representational ...

  15. Self-Concept in Psychology: Definition & Examples

    Self-concept in psychology refers to an individual's self-perceived knowledge, beliefs, and feelings about themselves, encompassing elements like self-worth, self-image, and self-esteem. It's formed through experiences, interactions, and reflections, and plays a pivotal role in influencing behavior, emotions, and interpersonal relationships. A healthy self-concept promotes well-being, while a ...

  16. Social Cognition 101: The Self as a Mental Representation

    Foreword. The "Social Cognition 101" series serves as an exemplary model for our endeavor in the realm of social cognition within the field of experimental psychology. This series aspires to delve deeply into the cognitive mechanisms that underpin our perceptions and understanding of individuals in social contexts, encompassing the ...

  17. Self-Presentation and Social Influence: Evidence for an Automatic

    In his classic work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman (1959) popularized the concept of self-presentation, describing social life as a series of behavioral performances that symbolically communicate information about the self to others. Since the publication of this seminal work, research on self-presentation has bourgeoned, emerging as a fundamental topic in social ...

  18. The Self in the Mind's Eye: Revealing How We Truly See Ourselves

    An important yet understudied constituent of the physical self is the mental representation of our body's perceptual appearance (Pitron et al., 2018), including our size, shape, and facial characteristics (Carruthers, 2008).These are likely to be stored and retrieved in a pictorial, depictive format (Chang et al., 2017), essentially a mental picture of the self.

  19. Cultural Self-Representation Theory

    The self seems to be the link between culture and employees' work behavior. On the one hand, it is shaped by cultural values and norms; on the other, it directs employees' behavior toward self-enhancement. Therefore it captures the cultural characteristics which are most relevant for work behavior.

  20. Am I who I say I am? Unobtrusive self-representation and personality

    However, in contrast to the work by Van Dijck , we define self-representation as distinct from the concept of identity contingencies , where self-representation is the presentation of a scenario-based idealized self and identity contingencies is the staging of a social identity marker (e.g., being a computer scientist, being from the United ...

  21. Self-Representation: The Perils of Pro Se

    The term "pro se" is Latin, meaning "for oneself" or "on behalf of oneself." It is a practice where individuals represent themselves in pending legal proceedings before administrative bodies or courts. Pro se representation is Constitutionally protected but frowned upon in most courts. An example of pro se representation is representing ...

  22. Eighty phenomena about the self: representation, evaluation, regulation

    The Representing Self. A representation is a structure or activity that stands for something, and many of the self-phenomena listed in Figure Figure1 1 concern ways in which people represent themselves. The representing self can roughly be divided into three subgroups concerned with (1) depicting oneself to oneself, (2) depicting oneself to others, and (3) evaluating oneself according to one ...

  23. Self-representation Definition & Meaning

    How to use self-representation in a sentence. the act or an instance of representing oneself: such as; an artistic likeness or image of oneself… See the full definition