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Theories of the self in a social world

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1982 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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What shapes your self-concept of who you are? Discuss in relation to theories of the self in a social world.

The question of what actually shapes the self-concept of a person is one of the most complex topics in Psychology. The self and the development of the self-concept can be broken down in a series of explanations, which also depend on a number of characteristics such as social norms, gender roles, culture and many more. The essay will comprehend a number of explanations of how theories try to analyze the driving force or reasons behind the formation of the self-concept.

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According to Murphy (1947) the self is “the individual known to the individual”. The perceptions and attitudes one holds towards oneself is what would define the self-concept. Psychologists have proposed various explanations of what the self-concept in fact is and what forms it. Higgins (1987) put forward the self-discrepancy theory which states that the difference between the actual, ideal and ought self forms the self. The actual self is the current self we are at present, whereas the ideal self strives to achieve the goals we think of as ideal and the ought self represents the self of how others would like us to be. The aim is to make ourselves feel good about us by erasing the differences between the actual self and our ideal/ought self (Dunning and Hayes, 1996). Higgins (1998) also suggested that the ought self also acts as a prevention of what not to do, therefore not expected by others. Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy (1984) showed that other’s expectations can indeed change our behaviour, supporting the idea of the ought self. It is also supported by research out by Steele and Aronson (1995) who found that African-American students actually reduce effort and did not perform as well as they could have, because of less academic expectations put into them. Stainton Rogers (2003) presented a similar theory to Higgins (1987) but suggested that the self can be divided into three parts which mainly are: the personal self (an individual’s own conscious of oneself), the social self (classified by the social background the individual is in) and the relation self which relates to the relationships others have with the individual.

On the other hand, the explanation of possible selves by Markus and Nurius (1986) state that self consists of 2 parts: the vision of the self you dream of becoming i.e. the rich, successful etc. and the one you fear of i.e. the unemployed, the poor etc. This helps in having a specific goal to motivate us and to work towards to in order to achieve it. Lockwood and Kunda (1999) carried the idea further and found that models can inspire us to choose who we would like to be but also one should make sure that the model representing is indeed achievable. The image of a future model can also motivate us to make changes to one self e.g. quit smoking. However, Baumeister (1991) feared that not succeeding in who we want to be can have a negative effect on oneself, such as high levels of alcohol consumption.

Introspection is also put forward as an explanation to learn about oneself in which one privately thinks of who they are. Nisbett and Nilson (1977) emphasized on the fact that in reality we do not know why we act in a particular way in a specific situation but after the deed, we create logical theories explaining why we acted that way. It is misleading as Wilson and Kraft (1993) found that by creating reasons for their actions changed their behaviour, to match their stated reasons. As when introspecting we do not focus on the main driving force for the actions so it is likely to mislead our predictions about our actions in future.

Another distinctive theory put forward by Festinger (1954) relates the formation of the self-concept to something more complex rather than the theories explained so far. The social comparison theory proposes that in order to form one’s self-concept, individuals self-evaluate their behaviour by comparing their own behaviour to either a similar or dissimilar individual or to one’s own behaviour in the past, which in turn helps feeling affirmative about their own behaviour therefore reinforcing it. The temporal comparison describes the comparison of one’s present condition to the past. In social comparison, on the other hand, the individual compares their behaviour to others, referred to as the reference group. People mostly compare themselves to similar people to get approval for their own behaviour and to protect and boost one’s self esteem (Leary, 2001). It consists of two parts: downwards comparison and upwards comparisons (Bunk and Oldersma, 2001). Downwards comparison happens when one compares oneself to someone who is not doing as well as the individual, which as a result makes the individual feel better oneself. Upwards comparisons though occurs when the reference group is someone who is doing better, but also making the individual feel better, in a way to try and improve their own situation. However, Taylor and Lobel (1989) goes against this as they said that the individual will feel depressed and anxious if the reference group will always have someone more successful, rich, clever etc. in it.

Social identification theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1979) proposing that the membership of social groups affects our behaviour and relates to who we are contradicts the social comparison theory as it states that we are mainly representing our social group of how we interact and identify ourselves rather than relating each other to individuals on a one-to-one basis. Furthermore, Tajfel et al. (1979) state that identifying oneself with a social group gives one positive self-esteem. Self-esteem also plays an important part in forming the self-concept, discussed in following research.

Higgins (1987) found that people with low self-esteem often give up quickly and are more likely to be depressed if they fall short of their hopes. Also, people are more likely to be anxious if they feel they fell short of what they ought to be. Similarly, low and high self esteem can be linked to low and high self-efficiency, respectively. The self-efficiency theory (Bandura, 1989) states that it is not only determined by past interactions of what we are able to accomplish but also current interactions to the environment and people. This idea is supported by Collins (1982) as he looked at children with varying mathematical skills and either were low or high self efficient. He asked them to do a mathematical task and found that those who had a high level of self-efficiency performed better and did not give up if stuck, whereas this was less true for the children with low self-efficiency levels as they gave up quickly and were slower in solving the problem regarding their skills they had.

Furthermore, Weinberg et al. (1979) carried out a study in which they raised or lowered participants’ self-efficiency beliefs by giving them fake feedback on how well they performed on competitive tasks. They found that in following physical endurance tasks, those with a higher feedback did clearly better and tried to succeed even if problems aroused, whereas in the other group participants gave up much quicker and were not so enthusiastic about succeeding. This supports the self-efficiency theory and also supporting the belief that the levels of self-efficiency we have can give us a mental image of what we are and how we will act or perform.

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Nevertheless, the self-perception theory (Bem, 1972) suggests that we learn about ourselves by observing how we act and that self-concept is developed through social impact behaviour. If there is no force to choose a particular behaviour and one does it with their own consent, one draws conclusions that this is what we are like and therefore the behaviour reflects us. However, Markus (1977) said that it is the reflection of past experiences, which form through the self-schema model, that are useful in processing information relevant to the self. It also proposed that information learned from the treatment of people towards us, makes us perceive specific behaviour about ourselves, e.g. being funny because people laughed wherever I go. This process is called reflected appraisal. Cooley (1902) put forward the looking glass theory suggesting for developing oneself it is crucial to get feedback from others. Also, Mead (1934) called this process the ‘reflexive self’, as one observes, reacts to and plans subsequent behaviour.

An important part of how we perceive ourselves also relates to gender differences, which none of the theories above mentioned. Guimond et al. (2007) stated that gender is not only important for differentiating between genders but gender also plays an important part in determining for we respond, interact and most importantly perceive ourselves. In addition, Cross and Madson (1977) noted that one of the most basic gender differences relating to self-concept is that women are more likely to develop as being interdependent, whereas men are more likely to develop independence. However, a weakness of this model is that it does not state a specific reason to why men and women differ in self-construal.

Last but not least, one could argue that behaviour vary mostly among cultures so theories or explanations for the self described so far are not taking culture into account so it cannot represent everyone. As Marsella et al. (1994) argues that “despite much the psychological research into the self, it is still irrelevant to a large part of the world.” G.H. Mead (1934) expressed the importance of social interaction in developing the self as he belies that social interaction does form the self-concept, however, it is not only the interaction that helps, but also the social norms, personal beliefs and cultural patterns.

Moreover, research carried out by Simpsons (2000) found that 85% of people believe that it is possible to be whoever one wants to be in American culture. American culture which is an individualistic society gives more value to independence and freedom, which gives it more freedom to choose how you want to see yourself. But this is less true for a collectivist society as in Korea, people rate tradition and shared practices as being more important in contrast to developing a unique self-concept (Choi and Choi, 2002), supporting the belief of how cultural differences can affect the formation of one’s self-concept.

Likewise, Markus (2001) supported the idea as well, as Korean ads are more likely to feature people together rather than giving importance on a personal choice or uniqueness of oneself. Also emphasizing the differences, Boneva and Frieze (2001) found that people from individualistic culture value work and achievement more, thereby giving more importance to forming a self-identity and uniqueness, when resettling in a new country rather than being interested for relationships and family. In addition, self-esteem, which leads to the formation of one’s self-concept, does also vary among different cultures. Gray-Little and Hafdahl (2000) carried out comparisons of 261 studies of more than half a million of people and found that black people had higher self-esteem scores than for people. However, high levels of self-esteem can also cause problems. Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger and Vohs (2003) emphasized on the fact that low self-esteem can lead to aggression and negativity towards others whereas, however high self esteem can lead to bullying, narcissism etc. (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger and Vohs (2005). Such behaviour triggered by the levels of self-esteem can result in what we are and how we perceive ourselves, thus forming our self-concept.


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