AP Psychology Study Resource: Self-Concept
Have you ever wondered what makes you – You?
Even if you have never thought much about this before, you will probably have some answers ready.
You might say you are a “father,” a “teacher,” a “free spirit,” or a “loving wife.”
Or you may look toward your achievements, saying you are “a successful entrepreneur” or an “award-winning author.” Alternatively, you may look at your personal traits, saying you are “happy go lucky,” “kind-hearted,” or “motivated,” for example.
No response is right or wrong – your opinion of yourself comes with a deep inner sense of knowing who you are as a person.
You develop this sense during your early years but through your life and those constant evaluations and changes you go through, it may change slightly.
This is the idea of self-concept, which we’ll explore in more detail below.
The Definition of Self-Concept
In general terms, self-concept refers to how someone perceives, evaluates, or thinks about themselves. Those who have a concept of themselves are aware of themselves.
There are many different definitions of this concept but they are all based on roughly the same idea – that it’s about the individual belief we have in ourselves, including what and who this “self” is, the personal attributes we have, and the many other aspects that join together to make us who we are, including spiritual, social, emotional, and physical points.
Your concept of self is the mental idea you have of who you are.
When you are young, this concept is far more moldable because you are still discovering yourself and forming your identity.
As you age, your self-perception will become more organized and detailed – you will have a better understanding of who you are what is important to you.
Lewis (1990) also suggests that there are two aspects involved in our development of this concept:
The Existential Self
As the most basic aspect of our concept of self, this is the sense of being distinct and separate from others, while also being aware of the constant of our self – Bee (1992).
For example, the child recognizes they are a separate being to others and that, over time and space, they continue to exist.
And according to Lewis, we become aware of our existential self from as young as 2-3 months old. This is partly down to the relationship a child develops with the world. They touch something and it moves or they smile at someone and someone smiles back, for instance.
The Categorical Self
Now, having come to the realization that they exist as an individual experiencing entity, they start to become aware that they are also an object.
Other things, including people, create experiences through their properties (e.g. they are rough, green, tall, or small), and the child becomes aware that, as an object with properties, they too can be experienced.
The self can also be categorized into other things such as skills, size, gender, or age. Age and gender are two of the first categories that will be applied to a child, “I am 2,” “I am a boy.”
During these early stages, the categories children place themselves in are very specific – e.g. their height, eye color, and favorite things.
But later on, they will also start to reference comparative evaluations, internal psychological traits, and other people’s perceptions to create their self-description.
This leads on to the different theories psychologists have about what components make up our self-concept.
What Makes Up Our Self-Concept?
As with all theories, there are various different ways you can look at this concept.
The social identity theory believes this concept is made up of two key aspects: personal and social identity.
Our personal self-includes the characteristics and personality traits that make us unique, whereas our social identity refers to the groups we are part of, including our college, religion, community, and other such groups.
In 1992, Dr. Bruce A. Bracken put forward the idea that our concept of self is made up of six areas:
- Affect: Our awareness of emotional states
- Social: Our ability to interact with others
- Physical: How we feel about our physical condition, health, looks, and general appearance
- Competence: Our ability to meet basic needs
- Academic: Our achievements or failures in school
- Family: How well we work in our family unit
Carl Rogers (1959) also had the theory that there are three parts to our self-concept:
Self-Image (How You Perceive Yourself)
Here, it’s important to understand that someone’s self-image and reality may not coincide.
Someone might have an egotistical self-image, believing they are better at certain things than they actually are. Or, someone might be self-deprecating, meaning they perceive or exaggerate weaknesses or flaws.
For example, a teenage girl may assume that she is socially inept, clumsy, and awkward when in reality she is well-liked and charming. A teenage boy may think he is overweight when he is actually quite thin.
Each person’s self-image will be influenced by many factors, including the media, friends, parents, social roles, physical characteristics, and personality traits.
In 1960, Kuhn explored the idea of self-image with his, The Twenty Statements Test.
He asked his participants to come up with 20 different answers to the question, “Who am I?”
His findings allowed him to divide the responses into two main categories – social roles and personality traits – an idea we already touched on above.
Social roles include objective or external aspects of ourselves, such as a friend, tutor, or daughter. Personality traits include affective or internal aspects of ourselves, such as funny, impatient, or kind.
Typically, when younger people are describing themselves, they will use personal features, whereas older people will feel their social roles play greater importance in their definition.
Self-Esteem (How Much You Value Yourself)
Sometimes known as self-worth, self-esteem refers to what extent we approve, accept, or like ourselves. It is also how much value we give ourselves. To create this view of ourselves, there is a degree of evaluation involved. It will also allow us to create a positive or negative perception of ourselves.
If we have a high self-esteem, we feel positive about ourselves. This gives us self-acceptance, confidence in our abilities, optimism, and lack of concern over what other people think.
But if we have a low self-esteem, we are negative about ourselves. This often leads to pessimism, wanting to look like or be someone else, lack of confidence, and constant worry about what other people think.
According to Argyle (2008), our self-esteem is influenced by 4 major factors:
- How Others React: If people want to be in our company, are complimentary, admire us, listen to us, and agree with us, we tend to create a self-image that’s very positive. But if they tell us things we don’t want to hear, neglect us, and avoid spending time with us, this creates a negative self-image.
- Comparison to Others: When we compare ourselves to people who we perceive to be better looking, richer, more successful, and happier than us, we will often create a negative self-image for ourselves. However, this becomes more positive if they are less successful than us.
- Social Roles: There are certain roles in society that carry respect, including pilots, doctors, top footballers, and A-list celebrities. Other roles come with a stigma, including being unemployed, a patient in a mental institute, a prisoner, or a refuse collector.
- Identification: The roles we play also become part of who we are. The positions we occupy, the groups we belong to, and the roles we play are all something we identify with.
Ideal Self (What You Wish You Could Be)
This is the person you would like to be. Also, there is often a mismatch between how you perceive yourself and what you would really like to be.
When this occurs and your self-image and ideal-self don’t match up, this tends to affect the value you have for yourself. Therefore, there is a close relationship between your self-esteem, ideal-self, and self-image, something psychologists explore through the Q-Sort Method.
For example, your ideal self may not match up to the experiences you have or what happens in your life. And when there is a difference between the actual experience and your ideal self, this is known as incongruence. But if there is consistency between the two, this creates a state of congruence.
It is very rare that a complete state of congruence will occur because the majority of us will have a certain level of incongruence.
The influences that affect how we develop this state of congruence are found in the four major factors Michael Argyle put forward for self-esteem.
Furthermore, Carl Rogers also stated that incongruence starts to form as early as our childhood. When parents introduce conditions on the affection they show toward their children (e.g. they have to “earn” their love and affection by behaving in a certain manner). The children then start to distort these memories which leaves them feeling as though they don’t deserve the love of their parents.
In contrast, unconditional love helps develop congruence. If a child feels this love, their memories don’t become distorted because they believe that others will accept and love them just the way they are.
Finding Your Self-Concept
Ultimately, self-concept is a complex and ever-changing theory. It depends on your personal belief systems, feelings, and attitudes. All of which can change when you receive new information.
Featured image: CC0 Creative Commons, bugent via https://pixabay.com.