Personality And Self-Concept Research Paper

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A central aspect of personality involves the ways in which people perceive and think about themselves. Unlike most nonhuman animals, human beings possess a capacity for self-reflexive thinking that allows them to think consciously about themselves in complex and abstract ways. People differ in the degree to which they self-reflect, the content and organization of their self-conceptions, the positivity of their self-evaluations, and the selves they desire and fear to become in the future. These differences in how people think about, characterize, and evaluate themselves underlie many of the characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior that comprise the human personality.

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1. Self-Attention

People differ in the amount of time that they spend attending to and thinking about themselves. Individual differences in self-attention have been studied most extensively in terms of the trait of self-consciousness. (As used in this context, self-consciousness refers only to the tendency to attend to oneself and does not involve the anxiety and awkwardness that everyday use of the term connotes.) People who are high in private self-consciousness—the tendency to think about inner, private aspects of oneself (such as one’s motives, goals, attitudes, and feelings)—tend to behave more consistently with their attitudes, values, and goals than people who are low in private self-consciousness, presumably because self-attention increases people’s adherence to their personal standards. Because their behavior is strongly influenced by their personal standards, people high in private self-consciousness display greater consistency in their behavior across different situations than those who are low in private self-consciousness (Carver and Scheier 1981).

Public self-consciousness—the tendency to think about the public, observable aspects of oneself (such as one’s appearance, mannerisms, and image in other people’s eyes)—is associated with the degree to which individuals try to control how they are perceived by other people (e.g., see Impression Management, Psychology of). Because they are more concerned with how they are perceived and evaluated by others, publicly self-conscious people conform more to group pressure, show greater concern for their physical appearance, and tend to be more socially anxious and embarrassable than people who are low in public self-consciousness (Carver and Scheier 1985).

Importantly, whether people are high in private or public self-consciousness has implications for how they perceive themselves. People high in private self-consciousness not only attend more to their private selves but also regard those private aspects of self as more important to who they are. In contrast, people high in public self-consciousness regard the public aspects of self as more salient and important.

2. Self-Concept

The self-concept involves people’s beliefs about their personal characteristics, not only beliefs about their traits, abilities, and physical attributes but also about their values, roles, and personal goals. People differ both in the content of their self-concepts (e.g., who and what they think they are) and in how the various elements of their self-concepts are organized. Again, these differences contribute to variations in personality.

Self-concepts develop through the individual’s direct experience, as well as from the reflected appraisals of other people (e.g., see Self-Development in Childhood; Identity in Childhood and Adolescence). Once formed, people’s self-concepts exert a strong influence on their behavior. Perceiving oneself as a particular kind of person prescribes and proscribes certain actions. Seeing oneself as polite, for example, has implications for the behaviors that a person will and will not perform. As a result, people generally behave in ways that are consistent with the kind of person they think they are.

In addition, people’s self-concepts provide them with information about the likely consequences of certain behaviors. Believing themselves to possess particular attributes leads people to expect certain outcomes to result from their actions. For example, a person whose self-concept included the trait ‘intelligent’ would have different expectations about performance in an academic setting than a person whose self-concept included the trait ‘stupid.’ Thus, the self-concept has implications for a person’s sense of self-efficacy (e.g., see Personality Development in Childhood ). Believing that one possesses particular attributes and abilities affects people’s expectations regarding whether they ought to be capable of particular tasks, thereby influencing their motivation to engage in certain behaviors.

Research has supported James’s (1890) notion that the self-concept is composed of multiple components. People’s self-identities are composed both of personal aspects that characterize them without respect to other people (e.g., personal abilities, values, and goals) as well as social aspects that identify them with respect to their interpersonal roles and relationships (e.g., particular family relationships, friendships, and group memberships). People differ in the importance that they place on the personal versus social aspects of their self-identities (Cheek 1989), and these differences predict their behavioral choices and reactions to events. For example, people who place greater importance on the personal aspects of their identity seek jobs that allow them to fulfill personal goals (e.g., self-fulfillment, personal growth, expression of their values), whereas people who place greater emphasis on the social aspects of their identities seek jobs that provide desired social outcomes (e.g., recognition, an active social life, interpersonal relationships). People with different prevailing aspects of identity also prefer different kinds of recreational activities—solitary activities that promote self-improvement for people who emphasize personal identity, and group activities that promote interpersonal relationships for people who emphasize social identity.

People generally try to maintain consistency among the various aspects of their self-concepts, as well as between their self-concepts and reality. People tend to be troubled by contradictions between two aspects of their self-concepts and when objective information discredits their self-perceptions, possibly because such inconsistencies undermine people’s certainty in their beliefs about themselves and their worlds (e.g., see Cognitive Dissonance). In fact, receiving information that is inconsistent with one’s self-concept may be distressing even if it otherwise reflects positively on the person. As a result, people are generally motivated to behave in ways that are consistent with their self-concepts and prefer interacting with those who see them as they see themselves. Thus, people’s self-concepts tend to steer their behavior in directions that help to maintain and verify their existing self-views (Swann et al. 1987).

Beyond the fact that people hold different ideas of who they are and what they are like, people’s self-concepts also differ in their clarity, complexity, and differentiation. First, people differ in the clarity and certainty of their self-concepts. People whose views of themselves are clear, confident, and certain tend to score higher in self-esteem and positive affect, and lower in depression and anxiety, than people who have unclear, unstable views of themselves (Campbell et al. 1996). People whose self-concepts are unclear or uncertain are also more easily persuaded than those with clearer and more certain self-concepts, and uncertain self-concepts are more likely to change due to experience or social feedback.

Second, people differ in self-complexity—the number of discrete ways in which they characterize themselves and in the interrelatedness of the various aspects of their self-concepts. Although initial research suggested that people with greater self-complexity are less strongly affected by negative life experiences (Linville 1987), refinements of the construct show that self-complexity bears a more complex relationship with emotional and behavioral outcomes than was first assumed (Gramzow et al. 2000, Woolfolk et al. 1995).

Third, people differ in self-concept differentiation— the degree to which they see themselves as having different personality characteristics when they are in different social roles (Donahue et al. 1993). People low in self-concept differentiation tend to see themselves as relatively constant across various social roles, whereas highly differentiated people see themselves quite differently in different roles. Although differentiation might seem to be beneficial because it promotes greater behavioral flexibility, research suggests that high differentiation is generally undesirable, reflecting lack of an integrated core sense of self. Compared to people low in self-concept differentiation, highly differentiated people tend to be more depressed and anxious, lower in self-esteem, less agreeable, less satisfied with how they perform in their roles, and lower in self-control.

3. Self-Evaluations

People not only see themselves as being a certain kind of person with particular sorts of attributes, but they also evaluate themselves in positive and negative ways, and experience corresponding positive and negative feelings when they think about who and what they are (e.g., see Self-esteem in Adulthood; Self-evaluative Process, Psychology of ). Whereas self-concept refers to the content of people’s beliefs about themselves, self-esteem refers to people’s evaluations of those beliefs. Although people’s evaluative feelings about themselves change across contexts and over time (i.e., state self-esteem), most research has focused on stable patterns of self-evaluation across situations (i.e., trait self-esteem). Researchers often refer to people having ‘low’ versus ‘high’ trait self-esteem, but, in reality, most people’s trait self-esteem falls in the neutral to positive range, and relatively few individuals evaluate themselves negatively at a global level (Baumeister et al. 1989).

Trait self-esteem has proven to be an important psychological variable that predicts a great variety of emotions and behaviors. Self-esteem is generally correlated, albeit weakly, with indices of positive mental health such as low anxiety, neuroticism, and depression, and with a high sense of personal control and self-efficacy. However, self-esteem is also associated with maladaptive behaviors such as nonproductive persistence, risk-taking (particularly when the person’s ego is threatened), and a tendency to make unrealistically self-serving attributions. Controversy exists regarding why self-esteem is related to behavior, thought, and emotion as it is. Various theories suggest that self-esteem is a marker of social dominance (dominance theory), a gauge of social acceptance (sociometer theory), a buffer against existential anxiety (terror management theory), and a reflection of personal autonomy (self-determination theory) (Hoyle et al. 1999).

People differ in the degree to which their positive and negative self-evaluations are confined to particular aspects of their self-concepts vs. spread across many aspects of the self. For people with highly compartmentalized self-concepts, positive and negative information about the self is confined to different aspects of the self; for people with self-concepts low in compartmentalization, positive and negative information is mixed across many aspects of self. Thus, two people may have an equal number of aspects of self that they evaluate positively versus negatively yet differ in the degree to which these aspects are compartmentalized. Compartmentalization is associated with positive emotions and high self-esteem for people whose positive attributes are more important to them than their negative attributes. However, compartmentalization is associated with negative affect and low self-esteem for people whose negative attributes are more important (Showers 1992).

People differ also in the stability of their self-esteem. For some people, feelings of self-esteem change very little as they move from one situation to another, whereas the self-esteem of other people is quite labile, even over short spans of time. Thus, two individuals with the same general level of self-esteem may differ markedly in the degree to which their self-feelings vacillate. People with unstable self-esteem appear to possess fragile and vulnerable feelings of self-worth that are easily influenced by their experiences. They also tend to be more prone to anger and aggression when their self-esteem is threatened (Kernis and Waschull 1995).

4. Desired And Undesired Selves

People differ not only in how they perceive themselves at the present time but also in how they wish to be in the future. The human capacity for self-reflection allows people to imagine themselves in the future and to adjust their present behavior in ways that move them toward desired selves and away from undesired selves. These mental representations of desired and undesired future selves serve as incentives that motivate action, and as guides that channel behavior in particular directions (Markus and Nurius 1986). Interestingly, the future selves that people fear appear to exert greater power over their behavior than the selves that they desire (Ogilvie 1987).

A great deal of human emotion is a reaction to the fortunes of people’s desired and undesired selves (Leary in press). People compare themselves and their outcomes in life to their desired and undesired selves, and experience various emotions depending on whether they are moving toward or away from their desired selves. Events that have positive implications for future desired selves evoke positive reactions, whereas events that have negative implications for desired selves (or, worse, indicate movement toward undesired future selves) cause emotional upset.

Self-discrepancy theory proposes that people’s emotional reactions are strongly influenced by two particular sets of concepts about the desired self (Higgins 1987). According to the theory, people compare themselves to both an ideal self (how they would like to be) and an ought self (how they think they should be). A discrepancy between one’s actual self and ideal self leads to dejection-related emotions such as sadness and disappointment, whereas a discrepancy between actual and ought selves leads to agitated emotions such as anxiety and guilt. Research has generally supported the notion that self-discrepancies produce emotion, although not always precisely in the manner predicted by self-discrepancy theory.

5. Future Directions

Theorists have long recognized that people’s real, desired, and feared self-conceptions underlie aspects of their personalities, and a great deal of research has investigated various relationships between the self and personality. However, the field lacks an overriding conceptual framework for understanding how different aspects of the self-interrelate and how these aspects relate to personality structures and processes. An impending task for theorists and researchers is to integrate what is known about self-relevant aspects of personality within a single theory.


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