One’s self-concept (also called self-construction, self-identity, self-perspective or self-structure) is a collection of beliefs about oneself. Generally, self-concept embodies the answer to “Who am I?“.
Self-concept is made up of one’s self-schemas, and interacts with self-esteem, self-knowledge, and the social self to form the self as whole. It includes the past, present, and future selves, where future selves (or possible selves) represent individuals’ ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, or what they are afraid of becoming. Possible selves may function as incentives for certain behavior.
The perception people have about their past or future selves relates to their perception of their current selves. The temporal self-appraisal theory argues that people have a tendency to maintain a positive self-evaluation by distancing themselves from their negative self and paying more attention to their positive one. In addition, people have a tendency to perceive the past self less favorably (e.g. “I’m better than I used to be”) and the future self more positively (e.g. “I will be better than I am now“).
Psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow had major influence in popularizing the idea of self-concept in the west. According to Rogers, everyone strives to reach an “ideal self”. Rogers also hypothesized that psychologically healthy people actively move away from roles created by others’ expectations, and instead look within themselves for validation. On the other hand, neurotic people have “self-concepts that do not match their experiences. They are afraid to accept their own experiences as valid, so they distort them, either to protect themselves or to win approval from others.”
The self-categorization theory developed by John Turner states that the self-concept consists of at least two “levels”: a personal identity and a social one. In other words, one’s self-evaluation relies on self-perceptions and how others perceive them. Self-concept can alternate rapidly between the personal and social identity. Children and adolescents begin integrating social identity into their own self-concept in elementary school by assessing their position among peers. By age 5, acceptance from peers significantly affects children’s self-concept, affecting their behavior and academic success.
The self-concept is an internal model that uses self-assessments in order to define one’s self-schemas. Features such as personality, skills and abilities, occupation and hobbies, physical characteristics, etc. are assessed and applied to self-schemas, which are ideas of oneself in a particular dimension (e.g., someone that considers themselves a geek will associate “geek-like” qualities to themselves). A collection of self-schemas make up one’s overall self-concept. For example, the statement “I am lazy” is a self-assessment that contributes to self-concept. Statements such as “I am tired”, however, would not be part of someone’s self-concept, since being tired is a temporary state and therefore cannot become a part of a self-schema. A person’s self-concept may change with time as reassessment occurs, which in extreme cases can lead to identity crises.
According to Carl Rogers, the self-concept has three different components:
- The view you have of yourself (Self image)
- How much value you place on yourself (Self esteem or self-worth)
- What you wish you were really like (Ideal self)
Researchers debate over when self-concept development begins. Some assert that gender stereotypes and expectations set by parents for their children affect children’s understanding of themselves by approximately age 3. However, at this developmental stage, children have a very broad sense of self, typically, they use words such as big or nice to describe themselves to others. While this represents the beginnings of self-concept, others suggest that self-concept develops later, around age 7 or 8. At this point, children are developmentally prepared to interpret their own feelings and abilities, as well as receive and consider feedback from peers, teachers, and family. In adolescence, the self-concept undergoes a significant time of change. Generally, self-concept changes more gradually, and instead, existing concepts are refined and solidified. However, the development of self-concept during adolescence shows a “U”-shaped curve, in which general self-concept decreases in early adolescence, followed by an increase in later adolescence.
Additionally, teens begin to evaluate their abilities on a continuum, as opposed to the “yes/no” evaluation of children. For example, while children might evaluate themselves “smart”, teens might evaluate themselves as “not the smartest, but smarter than average.” Despite differing opinions about the onset of self-concept development, researchers agree on the importance of one’s self-concept, which influences people’s behaviors and cognitive and emotional outcomes including (but not limited to) academic achievement, levels of happiness, anxiety, social integration, self-esteem, and life-satisfaction.
Academic self-concept refers to the personal beliefs about their academic abilities or skills. Some research suggests that it begins developing from ages 3 to 5 due to influence from parents and early educators. By age 10 or 11, children assess their academic abilities by comparing themselves to their peers. These social comparisons are also referred to as self-estimates. Self-estimates of cognitive ability are most accurate when evaluating subjects that deal with numbers, such as math. Self-estimates were more likely to be poor in other areas, such as reasoning speed.
Some researchers suggest that, to raise academic self-concept, parents and teachers need to provide children with specific feedback that focuses on their particular skills or abilities. Others also state that learning opportunities should be conducted in groups (both mixed-ability and like-ability) that downplay social comparison, as too much of either type of grouping can have adverse effects on children’s academic self-concept and the way they view themselves in relation to their peers.
Physical self-concept is the individual’s perception of themselves in areas of physical ability and appearance. Physical ability includes concepts such as physical strength and endurance, while appearance refers to attractiveness. Adolescents experience significant changes in general physical self-concept at the on-set of puberty, about 11 years old for girls and about 15 years old for boys. The bodily changes during puberty, in conjunction with the various psychological of this period, makes adolescence especially significant for the development of physical self-concept. An important factor of physical self-concept development is participation in physical activities. It has even been suggested that adolescent involvement in competitive sports increases physical self-concept.
Worldviews about one’s self in relation to others differ across and within cultures. Western cultures place particular importance on personal independence and on the expression of one’s own attributes (i.e. the self is more important than the group). This is not to say those in an independent culture do not identify and support their society or culture, there is simply a different type of relationship. Non-Western cultures favor an interdependent view of the self: Interpersonal relationships are more important than one’s individual accomplishments, and individuals experience a sense of oneness with the group. Such identity fusion can have positive and negative consequences. Identity fusion can give people the sense that their existence is meaningful provided the person feels included within the society (for example, in Japan, the definition of the word for self (jibun) roughly translates to “one’s share of the shared life space”). Identity fusion can also harm one’s self-concept because one’s behaviors and thoughts must be able to change to continue to align with those of the overall group. Non-interdependent self-concepts can also differ between cultural traditions.
Additionally, one’s social norms and cultural identities have a large effect on self-concept and mental well-being. When a person can clearly define their culture’s norms and how those play a part in their life, that person is more likely to have a positive self-identity, leading to better self-concept and psychological welfare. One example of this is in regards to consistency. One of the social norms within a Western, independent culture is consistency, which allows each person to maintain their self-concept over time. The social norm in a non-Western, interdependent culture has a larger focus on one’s ability to be flexible and to change as the group and environment change. If this social norm is not followed in either culture, this can lead to a disconnection with one’s social identity, which affects personality, behavior, and overall self-concept. Buddhists emphasize the impermanence of any self-concept.
A small study carried out in Israel showed that the divide between independent and interdependent self-concepts exists within cultures as well. Researchers compared mid-level merchants in an urban community with those in a kibbutz (collective community). The managers from the urban community followed the independent culture. When asked to describe themselves, they primarily used descriptions of their own personal traits without comparison to others within their group. When the independent, urban managers gave interdependent-type responses, most were focused on work or school, due to these being the two biggest groups identified within an independent culture. The kibbutz managers followed the interdependent culture. They used hobbies and preferences to describe their traits, which is more frequently seen in interdependent cultures as these serve as a means of comparison with others in their society. There was also a large focus on residence, lending to the fact they share resources and living space with the others from the kibbutz. These types of differences were also seen in a study done with Swedish and Japanese adolescents. Typically, these would both be considered non-Western cultures, but the Swedish showed more independent traits, while the Japanese followed the expected interdependent traits.
Along with viewing one’s identity as part of a group, another factor that coincides with self-concept is stereotype threat. Many working names have been used for this term: “stigmatization”, “stigma pressure”, “stigma vulnerability” and “stereotype vulnerability”. The terminology that was settled upon to describe this “situational predicament was ‘stereotype threat.’ This term captures the idea of a situational predicament as a contingency of their [marginalized] group identity, a real threat of judgment or treatment in the person’s environment that went beyond any limitations within.” Steele and Aronson described the idea of stereotype threat in their study of how this socio‐psychological notion affected the intellectual performance of African Americans. Steele and Aronson tested a hypothesis by administering a diagnostic exam between two different groups: African American and White students. For one group a stereotype threat was introduced while the other served as a control. The findings were that academic performance of the African American students was significantly lower than their White counterparts when a stereotype threat was perceived after controlling for intellectual ability. Since the inception of stereotype threat, other research has demonstrated the applicability of this idea to other groups.
When one’s actions could negatively influence general assumptions of a stereotype, those actions are consciously emphasized. Instead of one’s individual characteristics, one’s categorization into a social group is what society views objectively – which could be perceived as a negative stereotype, thus creating a threat. “The notion that stereotypes held about a particular group may create psychologically threatening situations associated with fears of confirming judgment about one’s group, and in turn, inhibit learning and performance.”
The same prejudice that exists in stereotype threat also exists in the education system as it serves its communities, families, and individuals. These discriminatory practices in schools are the center of various educational and psychological researches. The research aims to increase equity in the classroom as well as academic achievement among students in minority groups.
The presence of stereotype threat perpetuates a “hidden curriculum” that further marginalized minority groups. Hidden curriculum refers to a covert expression of prejudice where one standard is accepted as the “set and right way to do things”. More specifically, the hidden curriculum is an unintended transmission of social constructs that operate in the social environment of an educational setting or classroom. In the United States’ educational system, this caters to dominant culture groups in American society. “A primary source of stereotyping is often the teachers education program itself. It is in these programs that teachers learn that poor students and students of color should be expected to achieve less than their ‘mainstream’ counterparts.” These child-deficit assumptions that are built into the program that instructs teachers and lead to inadvertently testing all students on a “mainstream” standard that is not necessarily academic and that does not account for the social values and norms of non-“mainstream” students.
For example, the model of “teacher as the formal authority” is the orthodox teaching role that has been perpetuated for many years until the 21st-century teaching model landed on the scene. As part of the 5 main teaching style proposed by Anthony Grasha, a cognitive and social psychologist until his death in 2003, the authoritarian style is described as believing that there are “correct, acceptable, and standard ways to do things”. This system has dominated for as long as the educational system in America has, however, believing that there is a “set and acceptable way to do things” has in the past and can now perpetuate a “hidden curriculum” that is a form of institutionalized racism against marginalized groups such as Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, and students with learning disabilities. This opens up a pathway for deficit thinking to rule and where a growth mindset is diminished.
Research from 1997, inspired by the differences in self-concept across cultures, suggested that men tend to be more independent, while women tend to be more interdependent. A study from 1999 showed that, while men and women do not differ in terms of independence or interdependence, they differ in their types of interdependence. Women utilize relational interdependence (identifying more with one-to-one relationships or small cliques), while men utilize collective interdependence (defining themselves within the contexts of large groups). In addition to their view of interdependence, men and women also view themselves differently in regards to several other traits that have to do with self-concept. For instance, in a study conducted in 1987, men were found to consider themselves more achievement and financially oriented as well as more competitive than their female counterparts. In contrast to this, the women were more likely to view themselves as sociable, moral, dependent and less assertive than the men. These differences potentially affect the individual’s subjective well-being.
Gender differences in interdependent environments appear in early childhood: by age 3, boys and girls choose same-sex play partners, maintaining their preferences until late elementary school. Boys and girls become involved in different social interactions and relationships. Girls tend to prefer one-on-one (dyadic) interaction, forming tight, intimate bonds, while boys prefer group activities. One study in particular found that boys performed almost twice as well in groups than in pairs, whereas girls did not show such a difference. In early adolescence, males are more likely to have a positive physical self-concept. During this developmental stage, boys who develop early tend to have a more positive view of themselves as opposed to early developing females who view themselves more negatively. The largest difference during this developmental stage between males and females is the way they view their appearance. It is assumed at this age that a more attractive person has more social power. By the time they reach college-age, females continue to have lower physical self-concepts than males.
Girls are more likely to wait their turn to speak, agree with others, and acknowledge the contributions of others. Boys, on the other hand, build larger group relationships based on shared interests and activities. Boys are more likely to threaten, boast, and call names, suggesting the importance of dominance and hierarchy in groups of male friends. In mixed-sex pairs of children aged 33 months, girls were more likely to passively watch a male partner play, and boys were more likely to be unresponsive to what their female partners were saying. The social characteristics of boys and girls as they develop throughout childhood tend to carry over later in life as they become men and women, although characteristics displayed as younger children are not necessarily entirely reflective of later behavior.
Several studies have shown a difference between men and women based upon their academic self-concept. In general, men are more likely to view their overall academic self-concept higher, especially in the areas of math, science and technology. Women tend to have higher perceived abilities in their language related skills. This differing view of academic abilities has resulted in an academic achievement gap in countries such as Norway. These perceived self-concepts tend to reflect the typical gender stereotypes that are featured prominently in most cultures. In recent years, more women have been entering into the STEM field, working in predominantly math and science related careers. Many factors play a role in females adjusting their self-concept to accommodate more positive views of math and science such as; gender stereotypes, family influence and personal enjoyment of the subject. Females also tend to be more critical of their STEM abilities, leading them to require a higher level of achievement in order to have an equivalent level of self-value as their male counterparts. This leads females to, in general, be less successful in the STEM area as there aren’t as many of the gender compared to males.
Why do people choose one form of media over another? According to the Galileo Model, there are different forms of media spread throughout three-dimensional space. The closer one form of media is to another the more similar the source of media is to each other. The farther away from each form of media is in space, the least similar the source of media is. For example, mobile and cell phone are located closest in space where as newspaper and texting are farthest apart in space. The study further explained the relationship between self-concept and the use of different forms of media. The more hours per day an individual uses a form of media, the closer that form of media is to their self-concept.
Self-concept is related to the form of media most used. If you consider yourself tech savvy, then you will use mobile phones more often than you would use a newspaper. If you consider yourself old fashioned, then you will use a magazine more often than you would instant message.
In this day and age, social media is where people experience most of their communication. With developing a sense of self on a psychological level, feeling as part of a greater body such as social, emotional, political bodies can effect how one feels about themselves. If a person is included or excluded from a group, that can affect how they form their identities. Growing social media is a place for not only expressing an already formed identity, but to explore and experiment with developing identities. In the United Kingdom, a study about changing identities revealed that some people believe that partaking in online social media is the first time they have felt like themselves, and they have achieved their true identities. They also revealed that these online identities transferred to their offline identities.
A 2007 study was done on adolescents aged 12 to 18 to view the ways in which social media affects the formation of an identity. The study found that it affected the formation in three different ways: risk taking, communication of personal views, and perceptions of influences. In this particular study, risk taking behavior was engaging with strangers. When it came to communication about personal views, half of the participants reported that it was easier to express these opinions online, because they felt an enhanced ability to be creative and meaningful. When it came to other’s opinions, one subject reported finding out more about themselves, like openness to experience, because of receiving differing opinions on things such as relationships.
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