The Social Self Research Paper

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It is difficult to think about the self without referring to other people. Although the very concept of the self seems to denote individualism, the self is nevertheless incomplete without acknowledging our interactions with others. People often describe themselves in terms of relationships (husband, son, mother) or as a member of a profession (and thus as a member of a social group). Even personality traits are usually conceptualized in comparison to other people (one is not extraverted per se, but extraverted compared to others). Self-esteem reflects what others think (Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995). Attempts at self-control can benefit or harm others (e.g., smoking and drinking; Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). People’s behavior can be radically affected by social rejection or exclusion (Twenge, Baumeister, Tice, & Stucke, 2001; K. D. Williams, Cheung, & Choi, 2000). Selves do not develop and flourish in isolation. People learn who and what they are from other people, and they always have identities as members of social groups. By the same token, close personal relationships are potent and probably crucial to the development of selfhood. A human being who spent his or her entire life in social isolation would have a stunted and deficient self.

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In addition, the self is inherently interpersonal because relating to others is part of what the self is for. The self is constructed, used, altered, and maintained as a way of connecting the individual organism to other members of its species. By this we are not positing a mysterious homunculus that creates the self to serve its own purposes. Instead, we begin by acknowledging that the need to belong is a fundamental human need that serves the innate biological goals of survival and reproduction (see Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and so psychological mechanisms such as the self are likely to be shaped to foster interpersonal connection. The biological evolution of the species presumably established the cognitive and motivational basis of self, and the experiences of the individual within an immediate social context builds on these bases to shape the self in ways that lead to establishing and maintaining some important social bonds. If no one likes you, the odds are that you will start asking “What’s wrong with me?”—and making changes to the self when you reach some answers. In this research paper, we will explore how individual selves affect others and how others affect individual selves.

The interpersonal self is one of three major facets of the self (Baumeister, 1998). The other two main aspects are the experience of reflexive consciousness, which involves being aware of oneself and constructing knowledge structures (including self-concept and self-esteem) about the self, and the executive function, which controls the decisions and actions of the self. As argued previously, the social self provides a crucial piece of this puzzle.

Belongingness, Social Exclusion, and Ostracism

Theoretical Background

Meaningful human relationships are a crucial part of the self. Baumeister and Leary (1995) have proposed that the need to belong is one of the most fundamental human motivations, underlying many emotions, actions, and decisions throughout life. Belongingness theory predicts that people seek to have close and meaningful relationships with others, perhaps because such relationships increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction (Shaver, Hazan, & Bradshaw, 1988). Social exclusion may have hampered reproductive success; it is difficult to find a mate when one is isolated from others or devalued by others. Likewise, social exclusion probably lowered chances of survival during hunter-gatherer times due to lack of food sharing, the difficulty of hunting alone, and lack of protection from animal and human enemies (e.g., Ainsworth, 1989; Hogan, Jones, & Cheek, 1985; Moreland, 1987).

Several motivational and cognitive patterns support the view that people are innately oriented toward interpersonal belongingness (see Baumeister & Leary, 1995, for review). People form relationships readily and with minimal external impetus. They are reluctant to break off a relationship even when its practical purpose has ended. They also seem to categorize others based on their relationships. In general, humans are social animals, and people seek relationships with others as a fundamental need. What happens, however, when this need is not met—when people feel disconnected from social groups and lonely from a lack of close relationships? That is, how does the lack or loss of interpersonal relationships affect the self and behavior?

Previous research suggests that social exclusion is correlated with a variety of negative circumstances, including poor physical and mental health (Bloom, White, & Asher, 1979; D. R. Williams, Takeuchi, & Adair, 1992), crime and antisocial behavior (Sampson & Laub, 1993), alcohol and drug abuse (D. R. Williams et al., 1992), and even reckless driving (Harano, Peck, & McBride, 1975; Harrington & McBride, 1970;Richman,1985).Peoplewhoareostracizedbyothersreport negative emotions and a feeling of losing control (K. D. Williams et al., 2000). In general, social exclusion leads to negative emotional experiences such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, and feelings of isolation (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Baumeister & Tice, 1990; Gardner, Pickett, & Brewer, 2000). Leary et al. (1995) showed that social rejection leads to considerable decreases in feelings of self-esteem. Their sociometer theory posits that self-esteem is primarily a measure of the health of social relationships. That is, high self-esteem comesfrombelievingthatotherpeoplewillwanttospendtime with you and maintain long-term relationships with you. Low self-esteem arises when people experience rejection or fear that they will end up alone in life.

Conversely, fulfilled belongingness needs seem to serve as an inoculation against negative outcomes and a predictor of positive ones. An influential review by Cohen and Wills (1985) concluded that high social support is correlated with lower self-reports of anxiety and depression. Baumeister (1991) and Myers (1992) both reviewed the empirical literature on happiness and concluded that the strongest predictor of happiness was social connectedness. People who are relatively alone in the world are much less happy than people who have close connections with others. All other objective predictors of happiness, including money, education, health, and place of residence, are only weakly correlated with happiness. The importance of social ties for positive life outcomes suggests that social connection carries considerable explanatory power. Social exclusion may be connected to many of the personal and social problems that trouble modern citizens, including aggression and lack of prosocial behavior. In addition, it may be linked to many self-defeating behaviors (such as overeating and taking excessive risks). Last, social exclusion may cause cognitive impairment.

Aggressive Behavior and Prosocial Behavior

During the late 1990s, a series of shootings occurred at American schools, leading to the deaths of a number of young people and the serious injury of many others. In almost every case, the perpetrators were boys who felt rejected by their peers (Leary, 2000). Apparently these young men responded to this rejection with violence, walking into their schools with guns and shooting their fellow students. These tragedies were consistent with several broader patterns of correlation between antisocial, violent behavior and lack of social connections. Garbarino’s (1999) studies confirmed that many perpetrators of violence are young men who feel rejected from family and peer groups (see also Leary, 2000; Walsh, Beyer, & Petee, 1987).

Prior research provides partial support for a connection between social exclusion and aggressive behavior. Rejected children are more physically aggressive and more disruptive, and issue more verbal threats than other children (Coie, 1990; Newcomb, Bukowski, & Pattee, 1993). Compared to married men, single men are more likely to speed and drive recklessly, two antisocial behaviors that can lead to injury and death (Harano et al., 1975; Harrington & McBride, 1970). Marital status also correlates with criminal behavior. Stable relationships in adulthood (especially good marriages) are connected to lower incidence of crime and delinquency (Sampson & Laub, 1990, 1993). On the other hand, Wright and Wright (1992) found no link between criminality and marital status in itself. Apparently only a happy (or reasonably happy) marriage is incompatible with criminal behavior.

However, these findings are correlational, so the direction of causation is not clear. For example, men with criminal tendencies may be less likely to find someone to marry. Children who are aggressive are not likely to keep friends. Even thirdvariable causal explanations are plausible. For example, perhaps lack of money makes poor men both more prone to criminal activity and less desirable as potential husbands.

In order to determine the direction of causation between social exclusion and aggressive behavior, we performed a series of experimental studies (Twenge, Baumeister, et al., 2001). We manipulated social exclusion either by false feedback on a personality test (in the crucial condition, participants heard they would end up alone later in life) or by peer rejection (participants heard either that everyone or no one in a group of their peers chose them as a desirable partner for further interaction). Consistent across several studies, rejected participants were more aggressive toward other people. First, rejected participants issued negative written evaluations of a target when the target had insulted them. Rejected participants also chose to blast the target with higher levels of stressful, aversive noise during a reaction time game after a target issued an insult. In the last study, however, the participant had no interaction (positive or negative) with the target. Even under these conditions, rejected participants were more aggressive toward the target. Thus rejected participants were willing to aggress more even against an innocent third party.

In another series of studies, we examined the effect of social exclusion on prosocial behavior (Twenge, Ciarocco, & Baumeister, 2001). Across five studies, socially excluded people were less prosocial than others. They donated less money to a student fund, were less willing to volunteer for more experiments, were less helpful to the experimenter after a mishap, and were less cooperative in a prisoner’s dilemma game. This effect held regardless of whether the prosocial behavior involved a cost to the self, no cost or benefit to the self, or even a benefit to the self. Combined with the aggression studies, the implication of these findings is that social exclusion leads to a reduction in prosocial behavior and an increase in antisocial behavior.

Self-reports of mood consistently failed to mediate the relationship between social exclusion and aggressive or prosocial behavior. In addition, the effects were not due to simply hearing bad news. Amisfortune control group heard that they would be accident prone in the future. This group demonstrated significantly less aggressive behavior and more prosocial behavior compared to the social exclusion group. These manipulations of social exclusion are weak compared to reallife experiences such as romantic breakups or ostracism by friends. This makes it less surprising that rejections outside the laboratory can sometimes lead to lethally violent reactions.

These results linking exclusion to more antisocial behavior and less prosocial behavior are especially interesting given some previous studies. A recent paper (K. D. Williams et al., 2000) examined ostracism (being ignored by others) during an Internet ball-tossing game. Participants who were ostracized were subsequently more likely to conform to others’ judgments in a line-judging task. The authors suggest that the ostracized participants were thus more willing to make amends and conform in exchange for social acceptance. A previous study also found that female participants who were ostracized socially compensated by working harder on a group task (K. D. Williams & Sommer, 1997). One interpretation of these results is that social exclusion leads to prosocial behavior—thus the opposite results to the Twenge et al. studies. However, there are several explanations for this discrepancy. First, the ostracized participants in the K. D. Williams et al. (2000) studies may have conformed out of passivity rather than out of a desire to rejoin the group. Another difference lies in motivation: the participants in the K. D. Williams et al. (2000) study and the Williams and Sommer (1997) study might have felt more confident that they could regain the favor of the group members in further interaction. In our studies, rejected participants were interacting with someone they did not expect to meet in person. This may have reduced their desire to act prosocially and encouraged them to indulge their antisocial, aggressive impulses. In other words, they might have felt that there was no clear route back to social acceptance.

Could it be that socially rejected people simply lose interest in connecting with others? There is some evidence against this view. Gardner et al. (2000) presented participants with acceptance and rejection experiences. Rejected participants later demonstrated better memory for the social aspects and events in a diary they had read earlier. Thus the experience of rejection seems to make people focus on social events to a greater extent.

Self-Defeating Behavior

Psychologists have often been fascinated with self-defeating behavior because of its fundamental and paradoxical nature (for reviews, see Baumeister, 1997; Baumeister & Scher, 1988). It seems irrational for people to act in ways that are ultimately self-defeating. Why do people do things that bring them suffering, failure, and other misfortunes?Abroad range of social problems (e.g., drug addiction, overeating, underachievement, excessive risk-taking) can be regarded as selfdefeating acts. Many of these problems are caused by failures of self-control or self-regulation (Baumeister, Heatherton, et al., 1994), which occur when people find it difficult to resist tempting impulses. In addition, a loss of self-control can lead to taking self-defeating risks (Leith & Baumeister, 1996), which in turn may cause undesirable outcomes such as poor health, drug and alcohol abuse, and harmful accidents.

Self-control loss is also detrimental for relationships. Living together with other people requires some degree of accommodation and compromise, because the self-interest oftheindividualissometimesinconflictwiththebestinterests of the group. Sharing, showing humility, respecting the rights andpropertyofothers,andothersociallydesirableactsrequire some degree of self-control. Few people want to live with someone who continually exploits others, breaks promises, abuses drugs, lashes out in anger, and takes stupid risks. Hence people must use their self-control to curb these impulses, if they want to maintain good interpersonal relationships.

Evidence from the sociological literature suggests that marriage (which is one important form of belongingness) inoculates against many self-defeating behaviors. When compared to unmarried or divorced individuals, married people are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs (D. R. Williams et al., 1992). As mentioned earlier, married men are less likely to be arrested for speeding or reckless driving (Harrington & McBride, 1970) and are less likely to be involved in car accidents (Harano et al., 1975), especially in those related to alcohol (Richman, 1985). In one of the first works of modern sociology, Durkheim (1897/1951) found that suicide— perhaps the ultimate self-defeating behavior—was more common among people who were unmarried or otherwise socially unconnected. These correlational studies suggest a relationship between belongingness and self-defeating behaviors, including loss of self-control and risk taking. As noted previously, however, these studies are limited due to their correlational design and their exclusive focus on marriage.

In addition, married people are often mentally and physically healthier than single, divorced or widowed individuals. The correlation between marital status and health may have several causes. First, it is possible that spouses provide practical support for health behaviors, such as by reminding their partners to keep physicians’ appointments, eat well, and exercise regularly. The social interaction of a marital relationship may also directly increase mental health, which may increase physical health in turn. Third, and most relevant here, not being involved in a close relationship may encourage risky, self-defeating behaviors. Just as single and divorced people are more likely to take risks while driving, they may also take more risks with their health. We have already established that unmarried people are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. The same risk-taking, self-defeating tendency may also lead the unmarried to neglect their health by missing appointments, declining to seek health information, and taking a passive role toward health maintenance. It seems that many people feel that life is not worth living (or not as worth living) without close relationships. However, the causation may work the other way; it is certainly plausible that unhealthy people are not as likely to marry or have as many close social relationships.

Like the previous evidence on antisocial behavior, the evidence on social exclusion and self-defeating acts is primarily correlational. We performed a series of experiments to determine the causal path between social exclusion and selfdefeating behavior (Twenge, Catanese, & Baumeister, 2001). We manipulated social exclusion using the same methods employed in the research on aggressive and prosocial behaviors (future prediction of a life devoid of social relationships, or rejection by peers). These experiments found that excluded participants consistently displayed more selfdefeating behavior. Compared to the other groups, excluded participants procrastinated longer, took irrational risks in a lottery choice, and made more unhealthy choices. These effects were not mediated by mood, no matter how mood was measured (we used three different mood measures). The misfortune control group, who heard that they would be accident prone later in life, did not show significant increases in selfdefeating behavior. Thus it appears to be specifically social exclusion that makes people self-destructive.

Cognitive Impairment

If mood does not mediate the relationship between social exclusion and negative outcomes, what does? One possibility is cognitive impairment. Social exclusion may impair the ability to reason effectively, and this in turn could lead to self-defeating behavior (which is usually a failure to rationally consider the outcomes of one’s actions: Leith & Baumeister, 1996). Cognitive impairment could also lead to antisocial behavior, as socially excluded individuals may give in to aggressive impulses without considering the consequences. This decrease in the ability to reason may result from numbness or excessive rumination.

Our research has found that social exclusion does reduce the ability to reason effectively (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2001). Socially excluded participants obtained lower scores on a timed test of intelligence. In a reading comprehension task, social exclusion led to impairments in the ability to retrieve information. Participants read a passage under normal conditions, received the exclusion feedback, and were then asked to recall what they had read. Excluded participants did not answer as many questions correctly as compared with participants in the other conditions. However, their ability to store information was apparently intact. Because the recall questions were difficult, the results could have been due to deficits in either recall or reasoning. We tested pure recall by asking participants to memorize a list of nonsense syllables. They then received the belongingness feedback and were asked to recall the syllables. Social exclusion did not affect the retrieval of simple information; however, we found that it did affect reasoning. Participants were given a timed reasoning test (taken from a Graduate Record Exam analytical section). Those in the excluded condition answered fewer questions correctly than those in the other groups. Thus social exclusion does not affect the storage of information or the retrieval of simple information, but it does affect higher reasoning.

Larger Social Trends in Belongingness and Negative Outcomes

Social exclusion may be important for understanding recent changes in American society. Several authors have argued that the changes of the last 40 years have led to a society in which people lack stable relationships and feel disconnected from each other. Putnam (1995, 2000) found that Americans are now less likely to join community organizations and visit friends than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. The proportion of the population living alone has nearly doubled in recent decades, from 13% in 1960 to 25% in 1997 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998). The substantially increased divorce rate, another indicator of unstable social relations, accounts for a large part of this change. The later age of first marriage has also contributed to the increase in living alone. At the same time, violent crime has skyrocketed, property crime has increased, and people trust and help each other less than they once did (Fukuyama, 1999).

This breakdown in relationships has occurred alongside several negative social trends. Depression rates (Klerman & Weissman, 1989; Lewinsohn, Rohde, Seeley, & Fischer, 1993) and feelings of anxiety (Twenge, 2000) have increased markedly. The increase in anxiety is directly linked to decreases in social connectedness such as divorce rates, levels of trust, and the percentage of people living alone (Twenge). In addition, crime and antisocial behavior have increased; violent crime is more than 4 times as common as it was in 1960 (6 times as common as in 1950). In fact, Lester (1994) found that statistics measuring social integration (divorce, marriage, and birth rates) were almost perfectly correlated with homicide rates when examined in a time-series analysis. Self-defeating behaviors have also escalated in the last few decades (see Baumeister, Heatherton, et al., 1994). Although it is notoriously difficult to prove which causal processes are operating at the macrosocial level in the complex world, we think that the declines in social integration and belongingness have contributed to the rise of negative social indicators and social problems.

The Selfas an Interpersonal Actor

Once people have social relationships, how do these relationships influence their selves, and vice versa? One reason people have selves is to facilitate interactions and relationships with others. For example, it is difficult to go out on a first date if one is in the middle of an identity crisis. Accordingly, Erik Erikson (1950, 1968) famously asserted that identity is a prerequisite for intimacy. People must settle the problems of identity before they are developmentally ready for intimate relations. The sequence may not be that simple, because identity and intimacy seem to develop together, but the link between the two is hard to deny (Orlofksy, Marcia, & Lesser, 1973; Tesch & Whitbourne, 1982).

Identity is also constructed out of social roles. A series of clusteranalysesbyDeaux,Reid,Mizrahi,andEthier(1995)revealed five main types of social identities: relationships (husband, sibling), vocational or avocational role (coin collector, teacher), political affiliation (Republican, feminist), stigmatized identity (homeless person, fat person), and religion or ethnicity (Jewish, Hispanic). As products of the culture and society, roles again reveal the interpersonal dimension of selfhood.To fulfill a relationship-oriented role (such as mother or police officer), one must make the self fit a script that is collectively defined. Each person may interpret a given role in a slightly different way, but the role is nonetheless understood by the social group and is a way of relating to others.

Reflexive consciousness itself may depend partly on interpersonalcontact.Sartre’s(1953)famousanalysisofconsciousness emphasized what he called “the look,” that is, the subjective experience of looking at someone else and knowing that that person is looking at you. The rise in adolescent selfconsciousness and social awkwardness is in part a result of the increased cognitive ability to understand how one appears to others. Teenagers feel self-conscious because they are beginning to fully realize how they are being judged by other people.

How do interpersonal interactions shape the self? The tabula rasa view of human nature holds that selves are the products of interpersonal relations. That is, people start off as blank slates, and experiences gradually produce the unique individuality of the complex adult self. Although such views are elegant and sometimes politically appealing, they may suggest too passive or simple a role of the self. The self plays an active role in how it is influenced by others. The broader issue is how selfhood is maintained in an interpersonal environment. For example, part of the self exists in other people’s minds; other people know about us and what we are like. Selfhood cannot be achieved or constructed in solitude.

Self-Esteem and Interpersonal Relationships

Self-esteem may be defined as a person’s evaluation of self. Thus, self-esteem is a value judgment based on selfknowledge. Because much self-knowledge concerns the person’s relations with others, it is not surprising that selfesteem is heavily influenced by interpersonal relationships.

Sociometer Theory

Leary et al. (1995) proposed that self-esteem is a sociometer: that is, an internal measure of how an individual is succeeding at social inclusion (see also Leary & Baumeister, 2000). In their experimental studies, participants are told that no one has chosen them as a partner for further interaction. This experience causes a decline in state self-esteem. In contrast, being chosen by group members increases state self-esteem. Leary et al. (1995) compare self-esteem to a car’s gas gauge. The gas gauge itself does not affect the mechanical functioning of the car, but it serves a crucial function by showing the driver how much fuel is in the tank. Leary et al. (1995) suggest that human drivers are strongly motivated to keep their automobiles’ gas gauges from reading “empty,” because most people seek out relationships whenever they see the needle moving in that direction. Self-esteem lets people know when they need “refueling” in the form of human interaction.

The sociometer theory is important for an interpersonal view of the self, because it takes one of the best-known and most prominent intrapsychic variables (self-esteem) and recasts it in interpersonal terms. Concern with self-esteem can easily seem like a private, inner matter. It is easy to assume that self-esteem goes up and down in the person’s own inner world with only minimal connection to the environment, and that people accept or reject environmental input according their own choices (e.g., one can either be in denial about a problem, or acknowledge and deal with the problem). Yet the sociometer theory proposes that self-esteem is not purely personal but instead fundamentally relies on interpersonal connection.

There is abundant evidence that people are consistently concerned with the need to form and maintain interpersonal connections (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and so it seems quite likely that there would be a strong set of internal monitors (possibly including self-esteem) to help the person remain oriented toward that goal. The sociometer view can also readily explain why so much emotion is linked to selfesteem, because strong emotional responses are generally associated with interpersonal relationships. In addition, people tend to derive their self-esteem from the same traits that lead to social acceptance (e.g., competence, likability, attractiveness). When people feel socially anxious, however, selfesteem suffers. A review of multiple studies concluded that the average correlation between social anxiety and selfesteem is about .50 (Leary & Kowalski, 1995). That is, there is a substantial and robust link between worrying about social rejection and having low self-esteem.

Why, then, do people need self-esteem to register changes in social connection, when emotion seems to serve the same purpose? Leary and Baumeister (2000) argue that self-esteem registers long-term eligibility for relationships, rather than just responding to current events. Hence someone might have low self-esteem despite being socially connected—if, for example, she believed that she has managed to deceive people about her true self and personality. If people were to find out what she is really like, she thinks, they might abandon her. Conversely, someone might have high self-esteem despite having no close friends at the moment, because he might attribute this dearth of friendships to the situation or to the lack of suitable people. He might believe that he will have plenty of friends as soon as there are enough people around who can appreciate his good qualities.

There are several possible objections to the sociometer view. It does seem that people can have high self-esteem without having any close relationship at that moment. There is also no direct and simple link between one’s immediate social status and self-esteem. Self-esteem seems more stable than social-inclusion status. Shifting the emphasis from current relationships to perceived eligibility for such relationships is one way to address this problem, but more research is needed to verify whether that solution is correct.

Social and Interpersonal Patterns

Self-esteem is also associated with different patterns of social behavior. Indeed, such differences constituted one of the original sources of research interest in self-esteem. Janis (1954) hypothesized that people with low self-esteem are more easily persuaded than people with high self-esteem. One of the most influential and popular measures of self-esteem was developed specifically for use in studies of attitude change (Janis & Field, 1959). This measure, usually known as the Janis-Field Feelings of Inadequacy scale, cemented the view that individuals with low self-esteem feel little self-confidence and are easily swayed by other people’s arguments.

The view that low self-esteem is associated with greater persuasibility was supported in those early studies, and subsequent work built upon those studies to link low selfesteem to a broad range of susceptibility to influence and manipulation. A seminal review article by Brockner (1984) concluded that low self-esteem is marked by what he called “behavioral plasticity”—the idea that people with low selfesteem are broadly malleable and easily influenced by others. For example, anxiety-provoking stimuli produce stronger and more reliable effects in people with low self-esteem; their reactions are more influenced by the anxiety-provoking situation than are those of people with high self-esteem. People with low self-esteem also show stronger responses to expectancy effects and self-focus inductions.

Self-esteem also effects choices between self-enhancement and self-protection. Many self-esteem differences occur more frequently (or only) in interpersonal situations, and selfesteem may be fundamentally tied toward self-presentational patterns (see Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989, for review). In general, people with high self-esteem are oriented toward self-enhancement, whereas people with low self-esteem tend toward self-protection. People with high self-esteem want to capitalize on their strengths and virtues and are willing to take chances in order to stand out in a positive way. On the other hand, people with low self-esteem want to remedy their deficiencies and seek to avoid standing out in a negative way.

High self-esteem people’s tendency toward self-enhancement can sometimes make them less likable to others. After receiving a negative evaluation, people high in selfesteem emphasized their independence and separateness from others, whereas people with low self-esteem emphasized their interdependence and connectedness with others (Vohs & Heatherton, 2001). These self-construals had direct consequences for interpersonal perceptions. Interaction partners saw independent people as less likable and interdependent people as more likable. Given the differences in behavior based on level of self-esteem, this meant that partners saw low self-esteem individuals as more likable than high selfesteem individuals. However, these differences occurred only after the individuals being perceived had received negative evaluations; presumably self-esteem moderates reactions to ego threat.

The evidence reviewed thus far does not paint an entirely consistent picture of people with low self-esteem. On the one hand, people with low self-esteem seem to desire success, acceptance, and approval, but on the other hand they seem skeptical about it and less willing to pursue it openly. Work by Brown (e.g., 1993) has addressed this conflict directly by proposing that people with low self-esteem suffer from a motivational conflict. Brown and McGill (1989) found that positive, pleasant life events had adverse effects on the physical health of people with low self-esteem; such people actually became ill when too many good things happened. In contrast, people with high self-esteem are healthier when life treats them well. It may be that positive events exceed the expectations of people with low self-esteem. This may force them to revise their self-concepts in a positive direction, and these self-concept changes may be sufficiently stressful to make them sick.

Social Identity Theory

Another way that interpersonal relationships influence selfesteem is through group memberships. Social identity theory (e.g., Tajfel, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner, 1982) argues that the self-concept contains both personal and social attributes. Self-esteem usually focuses on personal attributes, but group memberships are also important. A person will experience higher self-esteem when his or her important social groups are valued and compare favorably to other groups (see also Rosenberg, 1979). Empirical research has confirmed this theory; collective self-esteem (feeling that one’s social groups are positive) is correlated with global personal self-esteem (Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992). This is particularly true for members of racial or ethnic minorities (Crocker, Luhtanen, Blaine, & Broadnax, 1994). This most likely occurs because minority group members identify more strongly with their ethnic groups, and these groups are obvious and salient to others. In addition, improving the status of the group tends to increase personal self-esteem. For example, favoring ingroups over out-groups in allocation of points or rewards can enhance self-esteem, even when the self does not personally benefit from those allocations (e.g., Lemyre & Smith, 1985; Oakes & Turner, 1980). Thus self-esteem is not only personal: It also includes a person’s evaluations of the groups to which he or she belongs.

Is High Self-Esteem Always Good

To place the findings about self-esteem in perspective, it is useful to ask how important and beneficial high self-esteem actually is. In America today, many people seem to believe that high self-esteem is extremely beneficial. The strong belief in the benefits of self-esteem is a major reason it remains a popular topic of discussion and research. By one count, there are almost 7,000 books and articles about self-esteem (Mruk, 1995). The belief that high self-esteem is a vital aspect of mental health and good adjustment is strong and widespread (e.g., Bednar, Wells, & Peterson, 1989; Mruk, 1995; Taylor & Brown, 1988). In many studies, in fact, selfesteem is measured as an index of good adjustment, so that even the operational definition of healthy functioning involves self-esteem (e.g., Kahle, Kulka, & Klingel, 1980; Whitley, 1983).

However, there is a “dark side” to high self-esteem, especially concerning interactions with others. In one study, people with high self-esteem were more likely than most people to aggress against others and to be interpersonally violent (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996). Aggression seems to be most common among people who think well of themselves but then interact with someone who disputes their favorable selfappraisal. In particular, inflated, unrealistic, or fluctuating forms of high self-esteem predict outbursts of violence and aggression. This most likely occurs because these types of selfesteem are the most vulnerable to ego threats (e.g., Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Kernis, Granneman, & Barclay, 1989). People appear to lash out at others who criticize them as a way of avoiding any decrease in their self-esteem and the accompanying negative emotion (especially shame; see Tangney, Wagner, Fletcher, & Gramzow, 1992). Normally, people with high self-esteem do not seem defensive, but that may be because they usually think highly of themselves and expect to succeed at most things. When they do fail or are rejected, they are very surprised and thus may respond dramatically.

Inflated self-esteem also predicts social maladjustment. In one study, researchers compared people’s self-descriptions with the descriptions of their friends (Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995). This identified a group of people who thought more highly of themselves than warranted by the opinions of their friends. When followed over time in a longitudinal design, these self-enhancing people displayed poor social skills and decreased psychological adjustment. In a laboratory study, the people in this group tended to express hostility, interrupt others, be socially awkward, irritate others, talk at people instead of talking with them, and perform a variety of other negatively evaluated behaviors. The composite picture is one of a self-centered, conceited person who lacks genuine regard for others. This picture is quite consistent with the literal meaning of high self-esteem, even though it does not fit the popular stereotype.

Narcissism and Interpersonal Relationships

Another individual difference likely to affect interpersonal relationships is narcissism, usually defined as an exaggerated view of one’s importance, influence, and entitlements. People high in self-esteem are more likely to be high in narcissism, although the correlation is low to moderate rather than high. The imperfect correlation probably reflects the fact that high self-esteem is a very heterogeneous category, including plenty of arrogant, narcissistic people as well as others who simply accept themselves without assuming they are superior to others. Put another way, narcissism is a subcategory of high self-esteem; very few people score high in narcissism but low in self-esteem.

Generally, narcissists tend not only to feel good about themselves, but also to expect deference and recognition from others.Thus, in some ways narcissism is more interpersonally relevant than self-esteem. Campbell (1999) found that narcissists were more interpersonally attracted to highly positive and highly admiring individuals. Narcissists were less attracted to people who offered greater amounts of emotional intimacy. This occurred because narcissists preferred partners who were more self-oriented rather than other-oriented, as part of a strategy to enhance self-esteem. Thus, narcissists found it more important to be with someone who made them look good rather than to be with someone who truly cared for them. This overall strategy for self-enhancement is linked to a noncaring, nonintimate experience of interpersonal relationships in general. Compared to non-narcissists, narcissists report lower levels of empathy (Watson, Grisham, Trotter, & Biderman, 1984), intimacy (Carroll, 1987), communion (Bradlee & Emmons, 1992), caring (Campbell, 1999), and selflessness (Campbell, Foster, & Finkel, 2000). It seems that a narcissist’s first question in a relationship is “What can you do for me?

Narcissists also tend to react badly when they are criticized or challenged by others. In laboratory experiments, Bushman and Baumeister (1998) found that narcissists were considerably more aggressive toward someone who had insulted them, as compared to non-narcissists. When the researchers controlled for narcissism statistically, self-esteem did not predict aggressive behavior. Thus it appears that narcissism is the better predictor of interpersonal hostility. This fits the view that aggression comes from only a subset of people with high self-esteem, while other people with high self-esteem are not aggressive.

Other research has found that narcissists are willing to derogate others after receiving threatening feedback (e.g., Kernis & Sun, 1994). They react with hostility, denigration, and aggression when they feel threatened (Rhodewalt & Morf, 1998). In fact, a recent study found that men incarcerated in prisons scored significantly higher in narcissism than samples of male college students (Bushman, Baumeister, Phillips, & Gilligan, 2001). Levels of self-esteem, however, did not differ between the two groups. Thus narcissists tend to be more personally sensitive to criticism, but insensitive to how their behavior affects others. Like the research on selfesteem presented earlier, these results suggest that inflated self-views can often lead to poor consequences for interpersonal relationships.

Reflected Appraisals

The reflected appraisals model suggests that people learn about themselves by interacting with others. People find out what other people think of them and then internalize these opinions into their self-views. In addition, information about the self often is meaningful only in comparison to others, as social comparison theory emphasizes. One is only fat or thin, intelligent or stupid, friendly or hostile in comparison to other people. In these cases and many others, self-knowledge can grow only when people make these implicit comparisons. Much of reflected appraisals theory stems from symbolic interactionism (e.g., Mead, 1934). Mead’s theory argues that most self-knowledge comes from social interactions. The process of reflected appraisals (i.e., how other people’s appraisals of you shape your self-understanding) is often described with Cooley’s (1902) term the looking-glass self. Using an antiquated term for a mirror, the looking-glass self posits that other people provide the mirror through which individuals see and understand themselves.

Cooley (1902) argued that the self-concept consists of “the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification” (p. 184). Thus our self-esteem is also heavily influenced by what others think of us. Mead (1934) elaborated on this notion by suggesting that the self is also shaped by our vision of how a generalized other perceives us. The generalized other is basically the person’s whole sociocultural environment. If a society has a negative view of children at a given time, for example, children are likely to internalize this negative view of the generalized other.

An influential literature review by Shrauger and Schoeneman (1979) concluded that symbolic interactionism was partially supported by data. The review gathered data comparing self-concepts with the views of others. Although these correlations were positive, they were rather small. Subsequent studies have confirmed that symbolic interaction effects are significant but small (Edwards & Klockars, 1981; Malloy & Albright, 1990). Even some of these weak links can be questioned on methodological grounds, as noted by Felson (1989).

On the other hand, Shrauger and Shoeneman (1979) found that self-concepts were highly correlated with how people believed that others perceived them (and subsequent work has replicated this conclusion). Therefore, there is a meaningful link between self-perceptions and other-perceptions (although the causal direction is unclear and probably bidirectional). The discrepancy arises between how people actually perceive Bob and how Bob thinks other people perceive him—but Bob’s view of himself is quite similar to how he thinks others see him. Thus others do shape self-views, even though people are not always accurate about how others perceive them.

There seem to be two major reasons for these inaccuracies (see Felson, 1989). First, people do not generally tell someone precisely what they think of him or her. The exchange of interpersonal evaluations is highly distorted. People do not want to offend or distress someone by an honest, negative evaluation, and they are often afraid that the person they criticize will no longer like them. (This is a legitimate fear; most humans tend to like people who like them, and distrust those who criticize them.) When refusing a date, for example, people tend to give false and misleading explanations, often resulting in their being unable to discourage further invitations from the same person (e.g., Folkes, 1982—although some of these explanations have become so popular that they are now more easily understood as a genuine brush-off: “It’s not you, it’s me.” Translated: “It’s totally you. You are the big problem. I’m fine.”). Even when people are engaging in deliberate self-presentation, they are not very accurate at estimating the impression they actually make on others (e.g., DePaulo, Kenny, Hoover, Webb, & Oliver, 1987). Given the dearth of honest and precise negative feedback from others, it is not surprising that people’s self-views remain blissfully unaffected by those concealed opinions and appraisals.

The other source of distortion is self-deception. Often, people do not accept information directly into their views of themselves. Instead, they filter it, bias it, and adapt it to fit in with what they already believe and what they prefer to believe. Hence, even if others do tell Bob exactly what they think of him, he may discount or ignore the unwelcome parts of the message. Some authors have argued that a degree of optimistic self-deception is necessary for psychological adjustment (Taylor & Brown, 1988).

Influence of Others’ Expectancies

As discussed in the previous subsection, it seems that people do not directly internalize other’s opinions of them. However, people might still change their behavior and beliefs according to other people’s expectations. For example, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) provided a demonstration of the effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy in a study that has become a classic. Teachers were told that certain students were about to experience a leap forward in intelligence and academic success. Although this expectancy was not true (in fact, the supposedly newly intelligent students were chosen at random), the chosen students nevertheless showed increases in academic performance. With new faith in these students’ abilities, the teachers presumably provided more encouragement of the students and expected more of them. These expectancies were enough to produce results, even though they originated from outside the students.

Do self-concepts change in response to others’ expectancies? Darley and Fazio (1980) argued that a self-fulfilling prophecy can produce three different types of change: change in the perceiver’s final belief, in the target’s actual behavior, or in the target’s self-appraisal. Out of the three, the evidence for the last (the target’s self-appraisal) was the weakest. Thus, perceivers see that the target changes his or her behavior and believe that their expectancies are confirmed. However, targets do not usually come to share the perceivers’ initially false belief about themselves.

One of the most widely cited studies of self-fulfilling prophecies was performed by Snyder, Tanke, and Berscheid (1977). In their study, male subjects each saw a bogus photograph of a female interaction partner and then had a telephone conversation with a woman they believed was the woman in the photograph they saw; actually, the photographs were varied randomly. The men who saw a photograph of an attractive woman perceived their telephone partner as more attractive and socially charming than those who saw a photograph of an unattractive woman. These expectancies were confirmed when the women’s responses varied depending on how the men interacted with them. However, the women did not accept the way the men treated them when it was unfavorable. When the man thought the woman was unattractive and treated her accordingly, she tended to reject and to discount as inaccurate his view of her.

In another study, Snyder and Swann (1978) created the expectation that an interaction partner would be hostile. These expectancies were confirmed in the interaction that followed; theperceiverexpectedhostilityandthetargetdeliveredbyacting in a hostile way. The next question was, would the target (who had been perceived as hostile) go on to be hostile with a new interaction partner? That is, would the treatment the target experienced in one interaction carry over to another? Snyder and Swann found a carryover effect only when targets were encouraged to attribute their behavior during the first interaction to their own personalities. The hostile behavior did not carry over without this experimental manipulation; people did not naturally attribute their hostile behavior to themselves. These results again suggest that it is not easy to alter a person’s self-appraisal.


The most obvious and proactive way that the self participates in social life is through self-presentation. Self-presentation is defined as people’s attempts to convey information about themselves to others. Some authors have emphasized self-presentation to such an extent that they see life as an ongoing series of roles, played out as if by an actor on stage (Goffman, 1959).

People seem to be inherently and pervasively concerned with self-presentation. Baumeister (1982) showed that many of social psychology’s effects occurred because of selfpresentation. For example, subjects in the Asch line-judging study conformed to others’ judgments more strongly when these other people were watching (see especially Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). When judgments were anonymous, the conformity effect was substantially weaker. Cognitive and intrapsychic theories that explained many effects seemed to be missing something, because the effects depended on interpersonal contexts. Thus, aggression, helping, attitude change, emotion, attributional patterns, and other responses seemed to change when the individual’s acts would be seen by others. Leary (1995) has furnished an even longer and more impressive list, showing effects of self-presentation in contexts ranging from sports teams to business meetings to the beach to mental hospitals.

Favorability of Self-Presentation

In general, people want to present themselves favorably. However, people are sometimes torn between selfenhancement and being seen as likable. The basic question is this: How favorably should one present oneself? People’s answers appear to depend on several factors. In Schlenker’s (1980, 1986) terms, self-presentation is often the result of a trade-off between the opposing forces of favorability and believability. People often make positive claims about themselves in order to make a good impression. However, excessively positive claims might not be believed, and they could even be discredited. (For example, you could try to make a good impression by saying you are a good basketball player. Someone might not believe you, or worse, you might later play basketball and perform poorly). Boasting about one’s abilities and being proven wrong leaves a bad impression.

In one of the earliest and most often cited experiments on self-presentation, Schlenker (1975) gave participants moderately negative feedback about their abilities on a novel task prior to a session in which group members would perform the task. Participants were then asked to describe themselves to the group members. Schlenker wanted to see if participants would self-present in positive terms or incorporate the negative feedback they had just received. As it turned out, the favorability of self-presentation depended on whether the upcoming group performance was expected to be public or private. If it would be private, so that no one would know anyone else’s performance, then participants presented themselves in rather favorable terms. If they thought other people would be able to see how well they did, however, they refrained from boasting. Thus, people seemed to present themselves as favorably as they could get away with: They boasted when it was safe to do so but remained modest when it seemed likely that the truth would be found out.

The possibility of future discreditation is not the only constraint on the favorability of self-presentation. It is also limited by past actions and other socially available information. After all, people do not simply form wholly new impressions of others with every single interaction. New information is added to old information. The self-presenter must anticipate this and know that whatever he or she does now will be combined, in the observer’s mind, with what the observer already knows.

An early study of the effects of prior knowledge on selfpresentation was conducted by Baumeister and Jones (1978). Subjects were told that their interaction partners would read their personality profiles. As in Schlenker’s (1975) study, people felt constrained to be consistent with independent information. In this case, they altered their self-presentations to fit the randomly assigned feedback. This occurred even when the personality profiles were unfavorable. Yet they did not leave the matter at that: They sought to compensate for the unfavorable image of themselves by presenting themselves extra-favorably on other, unrelated dimensions. Thus, people felt constrained to be consistent with what the observer already knew about them, but they tried to compensate for a bad impression by balancing it with unrelated, highly favorable information.

The general trend toward favorable self-presentation may therefore have significant limits. An additional and quite important limit was identified by Tice, Butler, Muraven, and Stillwell (1995). These authors pointed out that nearly all self-presentation research had been done on first meetings between strangers. However, the vast majority of actual social interactions take place between people who already know each other. The studies they performed showed that people tend to be positive and self-enhancing when interacting with strangers, but they more modest and neutral when presenting themselves to friends. This occurs in part because of differences in the perceivers’ knowledge. Strangers know nothing about you, and so it is necessary to convey one’s good traits in order to make a favorable impression on them. In addition, a stranger will not be able to dispute an overly favorable self-presentation. On the other hand, friends already have substantial information about you, and so it is not necessary to name all of your good traits. Meanwhile, friends will know when you are exaggerating. Even if you are being honest, friends will probably not respond well to bragging and self-aggrandizement.

Cognition and Self-Presentation

Do people know what impressions they convey to others? DePaulo et al. (1987) investigated that question by having subjects interact in a round-robin pattern. Each subject interacted with three others, one at a time, in interactions structured around different tasks (e.g., a teaching task vs. a competition). After each interaction, both subjects reported their impressions of the partner and the impressions they thought they had made on the partner. The researchers were then able to determine whether there were discrepancies in perceived versus actual impressions. The answers were mixed. There was indeed significant accuracy, although most of the correlations were rather low. People could tell in a general way how the other persons’impressions of them changed over time. They were not, however, very effective at guessing which partner liked them the most or perceived them as most competent. In other words, people cannot often tell who likes them the most. In another analysis, the authors found that people believed that they had made similar impressions on everyone in the group; in fact, different partners reported very different impressions of the same person. People seem to think that they come across the same way to everyone, but they do not.

Baumeister, Hutton, and Tice (1989) studied the cognitive processes behind self-presentation. In this study, subjects were interviewed in pairs. An experimenter instructed one member of each pair to self-present in either a modest or a self-enhancing fashion. After the interview, subjects were given surprise recall tests for both their own and their partners’selfpresentations, as well as for their impressions of their partners. Subjects who had been instructed to be modest and self-effacing showed impaired memory for the interaction. Apparently, acting modestly (which is an unusual way to act with strangers) causes greater cognitive load and interferes with the memory storage process during the interaction. In addition, subjects seemed unaware of the influence they had on others (see Gilbert & Jones, 1986). Thus, for example, if John presents himself by saying highly favorable things about himself, Bill may also begin to boast. This might lead John to conclude that Bill must be rather conceited (or at least very self-confident). In fact, Bill’s self-promotion was merely a response to John’s.

The increase in cognitive load caused by effortful selfpresentation may explain some of the findings of DePaulo et al. (1987). When one is concentrating on trying to make a certain impression, he or she may not be fully able to attend to how the other person is responding. After a series of interactions, people may remember merely that they tried to make roughly the same good impression on each interaction partner. However, they might not remember that the partners responded to them differently. Thus, self-presentation is not always successful because it is difficult cognitive work. Making a good impression consumes so many resources that people find it hard to attend to other people’s responses and adjust that impression.

Harmful Aspects of Self-Presentation

Through various means, self-presentation can lead to health risks (Leary, Tchividjian, & Kraxberger, 1994). For example, concern about the impression one is making can lead to risky and harmful behaviors; at times, the drive to impress others can outweigh self-preservation. How does this occur? Appearance concerns are a relevant example. On the one hand, people believe that having a suntan is attractive; on the other, most people have heard the warnings about skin cancer. Leary and Jones (1993) showed that the risky behaviors of sunbathing were mainly linked to concern over physical appearance and to the lack of concern about health. People sunbathe to make themselves attractive, often ignoring the physical danger involved. High-heeled and platform shoes are another example: many women wear them because they think it makes them look attractive despite the pain, back problems, and lack of coordination that such shoes often cause. Risky sexual behavior is also influenced by selfpresentation. Condoms are generally regarded as the safest method for having intercourse outside of stable, monogamous relationships, but many people do not use them. People often cite self-presentational concerns when explaining their lack of protection, such as embarrassment when buying them and the fear of making a bad impression on an anticipated sexual partner (Leary, 1995). Other risks reviewed by Leary et al. (1994) include hazardous dieting and eating patterns, use of alcohol and illegal drugs, cigarette smoking, steroid use, not wearing safety equipment and other behaviors that may cause accidental injury and even death, and submitting to cosmetic surgery and risk of its subsequent complications. Taken together, these provide strong evidence that self-presentational concerns often take precedence over concerns with maintaining health and even protecting life.

Interpersonal Consequences of Self-Views

Clearly, characteristics of the self exert an influence on interpersonal relations. One of the best-known findings in social psychology is the link between similarity and attraction (Byrne, 1971; Smeaton, Byrne, & Murnen, 1989); that is, people like those who resemble them (or at least, they avoid and dislike people who are different from them; Rosenbaum, 1986). Similarities on important, heritable traits are especially potent bases for liking and disliking others (Crelia & Tesser, 1996; Tesser, 1993).

Self-Views Alter Person Perception

Evidence suggests that self-views affect how people understand others. Markus, Smith, and Moreland (1985; see also Fong & Markus, 1982) examined the role of self-schemas in person perception. They proposed that someone who has a self-schema in a particular domain will behave like an expert in that domain. For example, schematic people will spot domain-relevant information faster, integrate it into existing information better, and fill in gaps in information more thoroughly. In Markus et al.’s research, people who were schematic for masculinity tended to group more items together when judging the masculinity-relevant behavior of a stimulus person. They also saw the stimulus person as more masculine and more like themselves than did aschematic individuals.

Thus, aspects of self-concept can influence the perception of others (however, it is also possible that greater interest in the area relevant to the self leads to the expertise). The key point appears to be that a particularly well developed aspect of self-knowledge makes one act like an expert in that sphere. If your view of yourself emphasizes loyalty, for example, you will probably be more sensitive to loyalty or disloyalty in others.

One mechanism driving the link between self-views and person perception is the self-image bias (Lewicki, 1983, 1984). According to this bias, people tend to judge others on the basis of traits in their own areas of strength. Thus there is a correlation between the favorability and the centrality of self-ratings (Lewicki, 1983). That is, people’s most favorable traits are also those that are most central and important for their judgments of others—people judge others by a standard that favors them (the perceiver). For example, students who did well in a computer science course tended to place more emphasis on computer skills when judging others than did students who did not perform well in the computer course (Hill, Smith, & Lewicki, 1989). Lewicki (1984) showed that the self-image bias serves a defensive function: When people receive negative feedback, the effect of self-image bias on perception of others is increased. Along these lines, Dunning, Perie, and Story (1991) found that people construct prototypes of social categories such as intelligence, creativity, and leadership in ways that emphasize their own traits. Thus, inquisitive people think inquisitiveness is a valuable aid to creativity, but noninquisitive people do not believe that inquisitiveness has any far-reaching implications for other outcomes. These prototypes thus influence how people evaluate others.

Rejecting a view of self through a defensive process also affects person perception. Newman, Duff, and Baumeister (1997) proposed a new model of the Freudian defense mechanism of projection (basically, seeing one’s faults in other people rather than in oneself). This model builds on evidence that suggests that when people try not to think about something, it instead becomes highly accessible in memory (Wegner & Erber, 1992). Newman et al. showed that when people tried to suppress thoughts about a bad trait that had been attributed to them, they then interpreted other people’s behavior in terms of that bad trait. Thus, person perception can be shaped by the traits you are trying to deny in yourself, just as much as by the traits that you do see in yourself.

All of these effects can be explained by accessibility. The attributes the self emphasizes, and those the self seeks to deny, operate as highly accessible categories for interpreting others’ behavior (Higgins, King, & Mavin, 1982). Social perception thus tends to be self-centered and self-biased. Still, these effects appear to be specific and limited; not all interpersonal perception is wildly distorted by self-appraisals. In particular, these effects seem to be limited to situations in which information about the target person is ambiguous (Lambert & Wedell, 1991; Sedikides & Skowronski, 1993).

Self-Evaluation Maintenance

Several important links between self-esteem and interpersonal relations have been elaborated in Tesser’s (1988) self-evaluation maintenance theory. Among other consequences, this theory explains how people may become closer to or more distant from relationship partners as a result of pressures to maintain self-esteem. According to Tesser, two main processes link self-views to interpersonal outcomes. First is the process of reflection; one can gain esteem when a close other achieves something. One’s self-esteem may get a boost simply from having an uncle who is a Congressman or a child who is quarterback of the football team; from sleeping with a movie star, or from learning one’s college basketball team has won a championship. Cialdini and his colleagues have shown how people bask in reflected glory of institutions, for example, by wearing school colors more frequently following a team victory than following a defeat (Cialdini & Richardson, 1980).

The other process is one of comparison (see Festinger, 1954; Wills, 1981); this process can instead lead to a decrease in self-esteem. People may compare themselves with others close to them and feel bad if the other person is outperforming them. If your sibling gets better grades than you, if your dimwit brother-in-law earns double your salary, or if your friend wins a scholarship or a job you wanted, you may lose esteem.

Thus, the processes of reflection and comparison with close others produce opposite effects on self-esteem. Tesser’s work has therefore gone on to look for factors that determine which process will operate in a given situation. One factor is the relevance of the accomplishment to one’s self-concept. Thus, a friend’s football victory may bring you esteem, as the reflection process predicts—but only if your own footballplaying ability is not highly relevant to your own self-esteem. If you played in the same football game and performed terribly, your friend’s success would make you look that much worse by comparison. For this reason, people sometimes prefer to see strangers succeed rather than close friends, because the stranger’s success does not invite comparison and is less humiliating. Tesser and Smith (1980) showed that people will do more to help a stranger than a friend to succeed at a task that is relevant to the person’s own self-esteem.

Meanwhile, the closer the relationship, the greater the effect. You gain (or lose) more esteem if your spouse wins a major award than if your hairdresser wins it. Thus the comparison process may be especially disruptive to close relationships. If a romantic partner succeeds on something irrelevant to your self-esteem, you may feel closer to that partner. If he or she succeeds at something highly relevant to your own goals, then you may feel jealous or threatened, and the intimate relationship may be damaged (Beach, 1992). When the comparison process makes you look bad, the only way to limit the damage may be to reduce closeness. Research confirms that people distance themselves from someone who performs too well on something that is highly relevant to their own self-concepts (Pleban & Tesser, 1981).


Snyder (1974, 1987) proposed an early and influential theory about individual differences in how the self structures interpersonal processes. He was first interested in cross-situational consistency, stimulated by Bem andAllen’s (1974) suggestion that some people are more consistent in their traits than others. Snyder introduced the concept of self-monitoring as an individual difference, distinguishing between high self-monitors and low self-monitors. A high self-monitor looks to others for cues, modifying his or her behavior to fit the situation and the people in it. A low self-monitor, on the other hand, is more consistent and does not try to alter behavior very much across situations. Subsequent research (Snyder & Swann, 1976) showed that low self-monitors had high attitude-behavior consistency: Their attitudes predicted their verdicts in a simulated jury case. In contrast, high self-monitors’ attitudes did not predict their behavior very well, probably because they modified their statements on the jury case to fit the immediate situational demands and cues. It seems that high self-monitors do not see any necessary relation between their private beliefs and their public actions, and so discrepancies do not bother them (Snyder, 1987).Thus, there is a basic difference in how these two types of people regard themselves. Low selfmonitors believe that they have strong principles, and they consistently strive to uphold them. High self-monitors see themselves as pragmatic and flexible rather than principled. They respond to the situation and do what they regard as appropriate, which often includes altering their own selfpresentations.

Further research addressed the interaction patterns associated with the different levels of self-monitoring. Low selfmonitors base friendships on emotional bonds, and they prefer to spend most of their time with the people they like best. In contrast, high self-monitors base friendships on shared activities. Thus they spend time with the people who are best suited to the relevant activity. For example, the low self-monitor would prefer to play tennis with his or her best friend, regardless of how well the friend plays. The high selfmonitor would rather play tennis with the best tennis player among his or her acquaintances (or the one best matched to his or her own abilities). Consequently, the social worlds of high self-monitors are very compartmentalized, with different friends and partners linked to specific activities. On the other hand, the social worlds of low self-monitors are relatively uncategorized by activities, with friends chosen instead on the basis of emotional bonds.

These interpersonal patterns carry over into romantic relationships (Snyder & Simpson, 1984; Snyder, 1987). For example, high self-monitoring males choose dating patterns based mainly on physical appearance, whereas low selfmonitors place more emphasis on personality and other inner qualities. High self-monitors tend to have more romantic and sexual partners than lows. When it comes to marriage, high self-monitors again look for shared activities and interests, whereas low self-monitors emphasize mainly the pleasures and satisfactions of simply being together.

Partner Views of Self

Swann (1996) advanced a simpler theory of how interpersonal relationships are shaped by self-views. Extending selfverification theory, Swann argued that people prefer romantic partners who see them as they see themselves. People are sometimes torn between a desire to see themselves favorably and a desire to confirm what they already think of themselves (as we discussed earlier). If love is truly blind, a person in love would see the beloved partner in an idealized way. Would that be helpful or harmful?

Swann and his colleagues (Swann, Hixon, & De La Ronde, 1992) have examined such dilemmas in various relationships, ranging from roommates to spouses. On a variety of measures, they found that people would rather be with someone who confirms their self-views (as opposed to someone who saw them favorably). People choose, like, and retain partners who see them accurately. This research might explain why some people have partner after partner who treats them badly: They somehow feel that they do not deserve to be treated well. In this view, the idealizing effects of love are dangerous and harmful to the relationship. Apparently people want their friends and lovers to see all their faults.

However, a large independent investigation found that favorability is more important than consistency with selfviews. Murray, Holmes, and Griffin (1996a) found that favorable views of one’s partner were associated with better relationships. Idealization was associated with greater satisfaction and happiness about the relationship. A follow-up study (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996b) found that favorable views of one’s partner predicted greater stability and durability of the relationship. This research suggests that perhaps love should be blind (or at least nearsighted enough to wear rose-colored glasses when looking at the loved one). The authors argue that idealized love is not blind, but instead farsighted; partners who idealized each other created the relationships they wanted. Idealization and positive illusions about one’s partner seem to strengthen the relationship, making it more pleasant and more likely to last. Seeing the real person beneath the facade is not always the beginning of real intimacy: Sometimes it is the beginning of the end.

These somewhat discrepant results do at least agree that it is quite important for people to believe that their friends and lovers appreciate their good points. It is less clear whether people want their partners to also see their faults and flaws. One possible explanation for the discrepant results of the two authors is that most of Swann’s self-consistency work has emphasized traits that the person is highly certain of and committed to having. On the other hand, Murray’s favorability effects tend to emphasize a broader spectrum of less certain traits. People might want their close relationship partners to recognize one or two favorite faults but otherwise maintain a highly favorable view of them.

There is also intriguing but preliminary evidence that relationship partners can help sustain consistency. Swann and Predmore (1985) gave people feedback that was discrepant from their self-views and watched how they and their romantic partners responded. When the subject and his or her partner agreed that the feedback was wrong, the pair then joined forces to reject it: They discussed its flaws and decided how best to refute or dismiss it. In contrast, when the partner’s view of the subject differed from the subject’s self-view, the discrepant feedback led to further disagreements between the subject and partner. It may be that one vital function of close relationship partners is to help maintain and defend one’s self-concept against the attacks of the outer world (see also De La Ronde & Swann, 1998).

Sedikides, Campbell, Reeder, and Elliott (1998) explored another important link between self-deception and the interpersonal self. They examined the self-serving bias, a classic pattern of self-deception that occurs when people take credit for success but deny blame for failure. When people work in groups, the self-serving bias produces the tendency to claim all the credit for success at joint tasks but to dump the blame for failure on the other group members. However, the authors found that self-serving bias is mitigated when the group members feel a close interpersonal bond with each other. Thus, people will flatter themselves at their partner’s expense—but only when they do not care much about the partner. The interpersonal context dictates whether people will display the self-serving bias.


When someone self-handicaps, he or she tries to explain away failure (or even possible failure) by attributing it to external causes (often external causes of his or her own making). Self-handicapping is usually studied within the context of individual performance, but it has a strong interpersonal aspect as well. One study manipulated whether several crucial aspects of the situation were public (known to others) or private (known only to the subject; Kolditz & Arkin, 1982). Self-handicapping emerged mainly in the public conditions, when the subject’s handicap and subsequent performance would be seen by others. In contrast, subjects did not self-handicap when the experimenter was unaware of the handicap. Apparently, self-handicapping is primarily a self-presentational strategy used to control the impression one makes on other people. Self-handicapping rarely occurs when people are concerned only with their private self-views.

Emotions and the Interpersonal Self

Emotions often reflect value judgments relevant to the self. Recent work has increasingly emphasized interpersonal determinants and processes of emotion (Tangney & Fischer, 1995).

Shame and Guilt

Both shame and guilt have strong interpersonal components. The two terms were used in varying ways for decades, but in recent decades a consensus has emerged about how to define the two. The distinction was first proposed in the theoretical work by Lewis (1971), based on clinical observations, and it received considerable elaboration and further support from factor analytic and scale-development studies by researchers such as Tangney (1992, 1995). The difference between the two lies in how much of the self is affected: Guilt denounces a specific action by the self, whereas shame condemns the entire self.

Shame is usually the more destructive of the two emotions. Because shame signifies that the entire self is bad, simple reparations or constructive responses seem pointless. This absence of constructive solutions probably leads to many of the pathological outcomes connected with shame, such as suicide and major depression (Tangney, Burggraf, & Wagner, 1995). Shame also seems to produce socially undesirable outcomes such as, for some people, a complete withdrawal from others. Other people, however, respond to shame with anger (Tangney et al., 1992). The shift from shame into anger may be a defensive effort to negate the global negative evaluation. There is some evidence that this shift in emotions can lead to violent outbursts (Baumeister et al., 1996). Kitayama, Markus, and Matsumoto (1995) have proposed that the movement from shame to anger reflects the independent selfhood model common to Western cultures and may not occur in cultures that emphasize more interdependent selves.

In contrast, guilt is more reparable and less socially disruptive than shame. Guilt has a strong basis in relationships even when no transgression is involved. For example, some people feel survivor guilt because they have survived when others have died or suffered. The term originated in studies of survivors of the Holocaust and the Hiroshima bombing (Lifton, 1967). More recently, survivor guilt emerged during episodes of corporate downsizing, when people who kept their jobs felt guilty while others were fired (Brockner, Davy, & Carter, 1985). In general, people may feel guilty when they outperform others (Exline & Lobel, 1999).

According to Baumeister, Stillwell, and Heatherton (1994), guilt is mainly interpersonal and seems designed to strengthen relationships. People may try to avoid hurting close others because it makes them feel guilty. After a transgression, guilt makes people seek to make amends or rectify the situation in an attempt to repair the damage to the relationship. It makes people change their behavior so that they will not repeat the damaging behavior. It makes them try to live up to the expectations of others. Feeling guilty is sometimes beneficial to the relationship in and of itself, because guilty feelings confirm that the person cares about the relationship (even if the transgression made it appear that he or she did not care). In addition, people sometimes exaggerate how hurt or upset they are by another person’s actions, in order to make that person feel guilty. The guilt makes the other person more willing to comply with the wishes of the person who felt hurt. This tactic can be used to redistribute power in a relationship: Guilt enables otherwise powerless people to sometimes get their way. Usually, the person who is hurt makes his or her feelings and disappointment clear. If the other person cares about your welfare, he or she will want to avoid hurting you, because hurting you will make him or her feel guilty. Hence the person will do what you want.

Baumeister, Reis, and Delespaul (1995) confirmed that guilt plays an important role in close relationships. The authors asked participants to describe their most recent experiences of six different emotions, including guilt. These were then coded for the level of interpersonal connection. Guilt scored the highest of the six major emotions on interpersonal connection. That is, hardly any guilt stories referred to solitary experiences or interactions with strangers; the overwhelming majority of guilt stories involved partners in close relationships, such as family members or romantic partners.


Similar to shame and guilt, embarrassment seems to be a mixture of self and interpersonal concerns. Modigliani (1971) linked embarrassment to the public self by showing that the best predictor of embarrassment was a situational, perceived loss of others’ good opinion. In addition, embarrassability correlates more highly with public self-consciousness than with private self-consciousness (Edelmann, 1985).

In an influential review, Miller (1995) argued that two theoretical perspectives on embarrassment are predominant. The first theory emphasizes concern over being evaluated by others; to be embarrassed, you must first be concerned about others’ evaluations. The alternative view invokes the unpleasant nature of awkward social interactions. In one study, Parrott, Sabini, and Silver (1988) presented participants with a hypothetical scenario in which someone refused a date. People reported they would feel less embarrassed if the rejector used an obvious excuse than if the rejector bluntly rejected them, even if the person’s rejection was equally negative. However, making an excuse may itself convey a positive evaluation, such as concern for the rejected person’s feelings (Miller, 1995). Miller concluded that both perspectives are valid; nevertheless, the concern over social evaluation is the more common cause of embarrassment.

Blushing is one common sign of embarrassment, but people sometimes blush even when there is no obvious social evaluation. Leary, Britt, Cutlip, and Templeton (1992) concluded that unwanted social attention is the most common cause of blushing. In general, people blush as an appeasement to others after violating social norms. People hope that looking embarrassed after a transgression will inform other people that they feel remorseful. Apparently, embarrassment is effective in minimizing negative evaluations. Semin and Manstead (1982) found that subjects expressed greater liking toward someone who was embarrassed after an accidental transgression. When the target person was not embarrassed, subjects did not like the person as much.

Social Anxiety

Schlenker and Leary (1982) argued that social anxiety is directly linked to self-presentation. In their view, social anxiety arises when someone wants to make a particular, desired impression but fears that he or she will fail to do so. As Leary and Kowalski (1995) describe it, social anxiety is essentially a concern about controlling public impressions. Making a particular impression is important for gaining the acceptance of others and for achieving status (two important interpersonal goals). Given the importance of being perceived positively by others, it is hardly surprising that some people become extremely concerned and anxious during social situations.

Disclosing Emotion and Personal Information

So far, we have discussed the interpersonal roots of emotion. In what way do interpersonal situations, however, affect the expression of these emotions? Clark, Pataki, and Carver (1995) found that people are careful about how much happiness they express when they are concerned about the impression they are making on others. As an influential review showed, people are concerned that their success will create feelings of jealousy and dislike (Exline & Lobel, 1999). Clark et al. (1995) also found that people express anger in an attempt to get their own way. Sadness, too,  can be used as an interpersonal lever; people show sadness when they want others to see them as dependent in order to gain their help. These strategies correspond to the self-presentational tactics of ingratiation, intimidation, and supplication (E. E. Jones & Pittman, 1982). A more general statement was provided by DePaulo (1992): People can either exaggerate or downplay their emotional reactions in order to meet their self-presentational goals. That is, sometimes it is best to pretend to be having a strong emotional reaction, and other times it is advantageous to conceal one’s emotions.

Levels of self-disclosure are also affected by self-control. When one’s self-control is depleted by a self-regulatory task, one is less able to maintain an appropriate level of selfdisclosure. People with an avoidant attachment style withdraw too much during interactions after being depleted, whereas those with an anxious attachment style disclose too much (Vohs, Ciarocco, & Baumeister, 2002). Because a moderate amount of self-disclosure is best for smooth interaction, self-regulatory depletion affects the quality of interactions through disrupting self-disclosure.

Culturaland Historical Variations in Selfhood

Most of the research presented so far has studied North American college students at specific points in time (usually between 1975 and 2000). Although this research is informative, it does not capture the variations in selfhood across the cultures of the world and the decades of the century. Given that the self is an inherently social construct, there should be considerable cultural and historical variation.

Culture and Society

The past 15 years have brought much interest in the cultural determinants of selfhood. By way of summary, it is useful to draw from an influential review article by Triandis (1989). This review identified several key features of selfhood that vary across different cultures. First, cultures vary in conceptions of the private self, or how people understand themselves (e.g., self-regard, self-esteem, introspection, and individual decision making). Second, the public self refers to how the individual is perceived by other people, thus including issues such as reputation, specific expectations of others, and impression management. Third, the collective self involves memberships in various social groups, from the family to an employing organization or ethnic group. Triandis argues that individualistic societies such as that in much of the United States emphasize the private and public selves and downplay the collective self, whereas other (e.g., Asian) societies tend to emphasize the collective self while downplaying the private self. Variation in these conceptions may also occur within a society. For example, some authors have argued that African-Americans show more collectivistic tendencies compared to White Americans (e.g., Baldwin & Hopkins, 1990).

Triandis (1989) also proposed several important cultural dimensions that have important implications for the self. One dimension is individualism versus collectivism. Individualistic societies support diversity, self-expression, and the rights of individuals, whereas collectivistic societies promote conformity and a sense of obligation to the group. As a general rule, Western societies such as the United States are more individualistic, whereas Asian and African societies are more collectivistic. In general, relationships are closer in collectivistic societies. The concept of an independent, individual self is not as common; rather, a person sees his or her self as overlapping with the selves of close others.

Another dimension that varies between societies is tightness, or the amount of social pressure on individuals. Tight societies demand that individuals conform to the group’s values, role definitions, and norms. In contrast, loose societies allow people more freedom to do what they want. (For that reason, tight societies tend to promote the public and collective selves, whereas loose ones allow more scope for the private self to flourish.)

Athird dimension of cultural variation proposed by Triandis (1989) is societal complexity. In a complex society, an individual tends to belong to many different groups; thus it is less imperative to stay on good terms with any one of these groups. The collective self is therefore not so crucially important. In addition, complex societies allow greater development of the private self (because of the greater availability of many social relationships). The public self is also quite important because it is the common feature of all one’s social relations. In contrast, in a simple society people belong to relatively few groups, each of which is then quite important in defining the self. The collective self flourishes in adapting to these memberships, and the need to conform to the group tends to stifle the private self.

Triandis (1989) illustrated some of his central ideas by contrasting American and Japanese societies. Japan tends to be tighter and more collectivistic than the United States, and as a result there is much greater homogeneity: Japanese citizens tend to eat the same foods, whereas Americans use the prerogative of the private self and choose from a broad assortment. Certain Asian traditions, such as having the oldest male order the same food for the entire table, would be unthinkable in the United States, where each individual’s special pBibliography: are honored.

Furthermore, Americans place a premium on sincerity. At its base, sincerity is the congruency between public and private selves: You are supposed to say what you mean and meanwhatyousay.InJapan,however,publicactionsaremore important than private sentiments. For example, Americans object to hypothetical dilemmas in which people think one thing and say another, whereas Japanese respondents approve of these options.

Markus and Kitayama (1991) proposed that Asian and Western cultures primarily vary in independence versus interdependence. Western cultures, they argue, emphasize the independent self: People are supposed to attend to themselves, to discover and express their unique attributes, and to try to stand out in important ways. In the West, as they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In contrast, Asian cultures emphasize interdependence. Asians are expected to attend to others, to conform to group demands and role obligations, and to try to fit into  the group. In Asia, “the nail that stands out gets pounded down.” To the Western mind, the self is an autonomous unit that is essentially separate and unique, whereas the Asian view begins with an assumption of the basic and pervasive connectedness of people.

Multiple consequences flow from this idea. As might be expected in an interdependent culture, relationship harmony was more important to self-esteem for students in Hong Kong compared to students in the United States (Kwan, Bond, & Singelis, 1997). Because relationships are more intertwined with the self in these cultures, they are more important to selfesteem and life satisfaction. Self-enhancing biases also differ between the two types of cultures. In general,Americans tend to self-enhance, whereas the Japanese tend to self-criticize (Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, 1997).

People from independent cultures also tend to describe others in terms of cross-situational, person-centered traits (e.g., “He is stingy”). In contrast, people from interdependent cultures tend to describe others more in terms of specific contexts (e.g., “He behaves properly with guests but feels sorry if money is spent on them”; Markus & Kitayama, 1991, p. 232). Self-descriptions also vary between cultures (Bond & Cheung, 1983; Cousins, 1989). Japanese college students asked to finish a sentence beginning with “Iam…” were more likely to respond with social roles (“brother,” “student at Tokyo University”), whereasAmerican college students were more likely to respond in terms of personal attributes (“outgoing,” “blonde”). Thus, members of independent societies see themselvesandothersintermsofrelativelyconstantpersonality traits, whereas members of interdependent societies see personality and behavior as more dependent on the situation.

In addition, interdependent societies do not emphasize consistency among private thoughts and feelings as much as independent societies do. In an interdependent society, it is more important to be accommodating and kind than to be internally consistent. Among independent selves, politeness means giving the other person the maximum freedom to express unique, special, and changing wants. Among interdependent selves, however, politeness means anticipating what the other might want and showing appreciation for their actions. There are also emotional consequences, as Markus and Kitayama (1991) explain. In the West, the expression versus suppression of anger has long been a point of controversy; anger is socially disruptive, but it also expresses the needs of the individual. In Asian cultures, however, there is no controversy: Anger is to be avoided at all costs.

Thus it is important to consider culture when studying the self. Most research on the self, like that on most psychological topics, has involved participants from Western countries. As a result, it may exaggerate the fundamental nature and pervasiveness of the independent self. Although cultures share many conceptions of selfhood, many others show striking differences.

Historical Evolution of Self

It is not necessary to visit multiple cultures to find variations in selfhood. There is often ample variation within a single culture, because cultural change over time modifies the society. This is the root of research on birth cohort differences (e.g., Caspi, 1987; Stewart & Healy, 1989; Twenge, 2000, 2001a, 2001b):Your generation influences the culture you are exposed to and thus your individual characteristics. Western culture’s dominant ideas about selfhood have changed and evolved dramatically over the past few centuries (see Baumeister, 1987; Twenge & Campbell, 2001). Thus, the special nature of the modern Western form of selfhood can be understood in a historical context as well as in the context of cross-cultural comparisons. These changes are important for the interpersonal self because many of these trends have affected personal relationships and the independent-interdependent nature of the self. Just as some cultures (such as the West) are more independent, so are some time periods (such as 1970–2000). In addition, shifts in self-views due to societal trends demonstrate the inherently social nature of the self: It changes in response to the larger society and one’s generational peers.

Medieval Times to the Twentieth Century

During medieval times, people did not have identity crises the way we do today (see Baumeister, 1987, for a review). In earlier times, age, gender, and family were the decisive determinants of life outcomes and thus of identity. There were set patterns for life, depending on the constraints of these ascribed attributes; if you were born a peasant worker, you remained a peasant worker. Upward mobility was almost nonexistent, and most men entered their father’s professions or were apprenticed to professions chosen by their parents. Religion dictated strict standards for behavior and worship. Many marriages were arranged. To put it crudely, a rigid society told our ancestors who they were, and there was not much they could do about it. In general, these societies were tighter and more collectivistic than Western societies are today.

Over the course of several centuries, Western societies became looser and more individualistic. For example, modern selves are based on changing rather than stable attributes. Gender and family background slowly became less important than more changeable attributes such as ability, diligence, and personality. The modern Western self can be defined and redefined much more than the self of earlier eras. This greater freedom has also shifted the burden of defining the self onto the individual; today everyone can choose from a wide spectrum of possible identities. This freedom can cause anxiety, however, because these choices can be overwhelming in their scope and direction. It also requires great self-knowledge, because decisions about careers and romantic partners are based on suitability (What is the best job for me? Is this person the one I’m supposed to marry?) The burden falls most heavily on adolescents, because adolescence ends with the formation of adult identity (e.g., Erikson, 1968). Hence, in the twentieth century adolescence has become a period of indecision, uncertainty, experimentation, and identity crisis (see Baumeister & Tice, 1986).

The 1960s to the Present

The trend toward greater focus on the self has accelerated in recent decades. Over the last 30 years, the self has become increasingly more individualized and autonomous. During the late 1960s and 1970s, popular culture promoted selffulfillment, self-love, and “being your own best friend” (Ehrenreich & English, 1978). Pollsters noted that “the rage for self-fulfillment” had spread everywhere (Yankelovich, 1981).At one time, duty and modesty were the most favorable traits; during the 1970s, however, self-help books advised “a philosophy of ruthless self-centeredness” that informed people that “selfishness is not a dirty word” (Ehrenreich & English, 1978, p. 303). The preoccupation with self so permeated the society that Lasch (1978) called it “The Culture of Narcissism”; L. Y. Jones (1980, p. 260) spoke of the decade’s “orgy of self-gratification”; and the young adults of the 1970s acquired the label “The ‘Me’ Generation.” Increasingly, proclaiming that you loved, cherished, and valued yourself was no longer an immodest proposition (L.Y. Jones, 1980; Rosen, 1998; Swann, 1996). By the 1980s, Whitney Houston could sing (without irony) that “the greatest love of all” was for oneself.

This emphasis on individualism had specific consequences for many interpersonal relationships. Because spouses and children necessarily hindered the expression of unfettered individualism, writers and commentators increasingly portrayed marriage and children as “a drag” (Ehrenreich & English, 1978, p. 295). For example, if there was a conflict between what is best for the marriage and what is best for the self, earlier generations often placed the obligation to marriage as the supreme duty, but more recent generations placed the self higher (Zube, 1972). “From now on, Americans would live for themselves,” notes David Frum in his cultural history of the 1970s (2000; p. 58). “If anyone or anything else got in the way—well, so much the worse for them.” It is probably not a coincidence that divorce rates began to rise substantially during the late 1960s and early 1970s, just as this new individualism was taking hold (Frum).

In addition, many authors have argued that the 1970s promoted negative attitudes toward children—what the Germans call Kinderfeindlichkeit, or hostility toward children (see, e.g., Holtz, 1995; Strauss & Howe, 1991). According to some authors, the growing emphasis on individualism tended to decrease the priority parents placed on children’s needs as opposed to their own (Ehrenreich & English, 1978). At the same time, the birth rate declined during the 1970s, reaching historic lows that have not been equaled since. Children did not fit into the picture of individual self-fulfillment—after all, what could they really do for their parents?

Not only did the general societal ethos promote the self, but a self-esteem movement (an offshoot of the human-potential and self-growth movements) gained prevalence, arguing that “the basis for everything we do is self-esteem” (MacDonald, 1986, p. 27; quoted in Seligman, 1995). During the early 1980s, educators began to actively promote self-esteem in school children. This was partially accomplished by affirmation (children were given T-shirts that said “I’m lovable and capable” or sang songs about self-love; e.g., Swann, 1996). In addition, many schools discouraged criticism, telling teachers not to correct misspellings or grammar mistakes, so as not to harm a child’s self-esteem (Sykes, 1995). Thus the culture increasingly promoted self-esteem as an end unto itself, rather than as an outcome of accomplishment or meaningful personal relationships.

This popular interest in the self also meant that young people became increasingly exposed to self-esteem as a desirable goal. Gergen (1973) argued that the popularization of psychological concepts often creates changes in the responses of the subject populations. Self-esteem is a prime candidate for changes based on popularization. Not only has self-esteem been directly trumpeted by social movements and promoters, but the concept has received wide media attention in newspapers, magazines, television programs, and popular music (Whitney Houston sings about it, and a popular song in the mid-1990s explained the singer’s misguided actions as resulting from “low self-esteem”). If anything, this attention increased during the 1980s; while the self-esteem and human potential movements reached only some people in the 1970s, the 1980s and 1990s saw talk about self-esteem enter the mainstream.

Empirical searches show that coverage of self-esteem has increased substantially in the popular press (these searches were originally performed for Twenge & Campbell, 2001). In 1965,theReader’sGuidetoPeriodicalLiteraturedidnoteven include a listing for self-esteem (nor did it list any articles under self-respect or self-love). In 1995, the Reader’s Guide listed 27 magazine articles devoted solely to the topic of selfesteem. In addition, a search of the Lexis-Nexus database for 1995 articles mentioning self-esteem exceeded the search limit of 1,000 articles; the 1,000-article limit was still exceeded even when the search was limited to a single month (June 1995). In the academic literature, PsycLit also shows a steady increase in articles mentioning self-esteem. From 1970 to 1974, .6% of all articles in the database mentioned selfesteem. This number increased steadily, reaching .10% from 1975 to 1979 and .12% from 1980 to 1984; the number has sinceleveledoffat.12%to.13%.Thus,overthetimeperiodin question, academic publications examining self-esteem have doubled.

One consequence of these cultural changes has been increases in self-esteem as measured by popular questionnaires. Twenge and Campbell (2001) found that college students’ scores on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale rose more than a half a standard deviation between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. Children’s scores on the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory also increased from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. The authors argued that much of this change can be traced to the self-esteem movement and the general emphasis on the individual self in the larger society. Increases in assertiveness (Twenge, 2001b) and extraversion (Twenge, 2001a) complete the picture of a generation increasingly concerned with the self, individual rights, and self-expression.

To sum up: The self cannot be fully understood without reference to culture, whether that culture differs with respect to region or with respect to time. Research on cultural differences has blossomed into an extensive and growing subfield, while research on birth cohort and change over time is just beginning to be conducted. As Caspi (1987) argued, many aspects of development and personality must be understood within the context of time, because the larger sociocultural environment changes so much from decade to decade (also see Gergen, 1973). When we are born, grow up, and discover our adolescent and adult identities has a substantial effect on how we see the self as an entity.


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