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Module 3: The Self

Module Overview

Human beings, by their very nature, are prone to focus on the self and to engage in behavior to protect it. Module 3 will cover some of the ways this occurs. We will start by focusing on the self-concept or who we are and self-schemas. We will also discuss self-perception theory, possible selves, the self-reference effect, self-discrepancies, how others affect our sense of self, and cultural differences of the self. Then we will tackle the issue of self-esteem and its two forms – global and domain specific. Self-esteem across the life span and gender and cross-cultural differences will be examined. We will discuss how self-esteem is affected, and protected, when mortality is made salient, self-efficacy and locus of control, self-regulation, self-awareness, and self-enhancement. Our third section will cover self-presentation and specific strategies we use such as self-promotion, ingratiation, false modesty, self-verification, and self-monitoring. Finally, we will discuss cognitive biases and heuristics used to defend the self, such as the self-serving bias, false consensus effect, false uniqueness effect, and unrealistic optimism and defensive pessimism.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Define the self-concept and clarify how we learn about the self.
  • Define self-esteem and describe efforts we engage in to protect or improve it.
  • Describe ways we make ourselves appear in a more positive light to others.
  • Outline cognitive biases and heuristics used to defend the self.

3.1. The Self-Concept


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define self-concept and clarify whether it is stable or malleable.
  • Define and exemplify self-schemas.
  • Describe self-perception theory and how it helps us learn about the self.
  • Clarify the importance of possible selves.
  • Describe the self-reference effect.
  • Define self-discrepancy theory.
  • Describe Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self.
  • Define reflected appraisal.
  • Describe the social comparison theory and how it helps us to learn about the self.
  • Clarify the importance of the two-factor-theory of emotion for the self.
  • Describe cultural differences in the conception of the self.


3.1.1. The Age-Old Question – Who Are You?

Quite possibly the fundamental question of human existence is who we are. If asked who you are by another person, how would you describe yourself? Are you smart, resourceful, compassionate, petty, empathetic, self-serving, or optimistic? Are you good at sports or do you write poetry well? Should any singing you do be reserved for the shower? These descriptors are what make up our self-concept or the way we see ourselves. This view is probably clear most of the time. If you are not talented at writing, you will likely avoid writing intensive classes as a student. Some classes you cannot avoid, and so in these instances you will seek out extra help so that you are successful with the class. If you are incredibly talented at football, you may go out for the team but will not likely try out for the baseball team. But are there times when you are not so sure about who you are? The answer is likely yes. Maybe you and your spouse are considering adopting. Though you consider yourself a compassionate person, you are not sure you can open your heart up to another child the same way you would to a biological child. In this case, you have no prior experience to reference to determine who you are in this situation. Is self-concept stable or malleable? There are two contradictory views of the self. Though our self-concept is relatively stable and people resist any information that contradicts their view of themselves (Greenwald, 1980), specific social environments can cause different selves to appear (Martindale, 1980). Markus and Kunda (1986) explored this dual nature of the self-concept in a study of 40 female students at the University of Michigan who participated to earn credit in their introductory psychology class (recall our discussion in Module 2 of convenience samples and issues with generalizability as a result). The participants were run one at a time and with three female confederates who were also undergraduate students but paid for their involvement. The researchers used minimal deception and led the participants to believe the study was on attitudes and opinions. They were first shown posters in a series of three trials. The posters had three items on them, either three colors, cartoons, or greeting cards, and the participant was asked to record for each poster the number of the item she liked best (of the three). The experimenter then explained that she had to transfer the responses to a computer coding sheet and that it would make life easier if all participants (the actual participant and the three confederates) could read their responses out loud. On each trial the participant went first, followed by the confederates. Her responses determined what the confederates would say. In the uniqueness condition, on all but 3 of the 18 trials the confederates all disagreed with the participant but agreed with one another. So if the participant preferred Color A the confederates all chose C. On the other three trials, the first confederate agreed with the participant while the other two disagreed with her and with each other. In the similarity condition, on all but 3 of the trials, the confederates agreed with the participant. If she chose Color C, then so did the three confederates. On the other three trials, none of the confederates agreed with the participant and two agreed with each other (meaning if the participant chose C, one chose A and two chose B, for instance). The participant then completed a series of dependent measures to include judgments of similarity to reference groups, self-categorization judgments, and word association. There was also a manipulation check such that participants were asked what percentage of the time they thought other participants agreed with their preference judgment in the first part of the study. Debriefing then occurred.

Results showed that for the manipulation check, subjects were aware of the extent to which participants agreed with them. The uniqueness group stated that the others agreed with them just 8% of the time while the similarity subjects estimated 77% of the time. The authors note that there was actually 17% and 83% agreement, respectively. In terms of how stable self-concept is, results showed that neither group appeared to have been influenced by the information about their similarity or uniqueness. In terms of the malleability of self-concept, the differences in the latencies between the two conditions for self-categorization judgments (i.e. their reaction times), suggests that different types of self-conceptions were mediating these judgments. This was also seen in the similarity to reference groups task such that both conditions felt more similar to in-groups than out-groups. It should be noted that the effect was not as strong for the similarity condition as their mean judgment of similarity to the in-group (M = 4.93) was not as strong as the uniqueness condition (M = 5.13), and their judgment of out-groups was higher (M = 2.26) than the uniqueness condition (M = 1.82).

Markus and Kunda (1986) conclude that both the stability and malleability of the self-concept were demonstrated in their study, though if one only looked at the results of the first part of the study (the showing of the posters with the three items to choose from) “one would tend to infer that the self-conceptions of these individuals were relatively unresponsive to the self-relevant information provided by the study” (pg. 864). Further examination of the word association, latency, and similarity tasks show that “…underlying these similar general self-descriptions were very different temporary self-conceptions” (pg. 864). When individuals were led to feel unique, they became disturbed by this and following the preference manipulation viewed their uniqueness as negative while the state of similarity to others became positive and desirable. They recruited conceptions of themselves as similar to others and made these endorsements relatively quickly (as shown through shorter latencies). Those made to feel extremely similar to others responded in the exact opposite way.

Finally, they say that the self-concept is a set of self-conceptions and from it, “the individual constructs a working self-concept that integrates the core self-conceptions with those elicited by the immediate context. In this sense, the self-concept becomes similar to that suggested by the symbolic interactionists. Thus, for Mead (1934) there was no fixed self-concept, only the current self-concept that was negotiated from the available set of self-conceptions” (Markus and Kunda, 1986, pg. 865).


3.1.2. Self-Schemas

As we interact with our world, we gather information that we need to organize in a way that we can obtain it again when needed. Basically, we store it away in memory and retrieve it when we encounter the person, object, or concept at a later time. This element of cognition is called a schema and as we can have schemas concerning external objects or ideas, we too can have them about ourselves, called a self-schema. These self-schemas make up our self-concept in much the same way that the words on this page make up the module you are reading, and this module is just one of many in the textbook. Markus (1977) defined self-schemata as, “cognitive generalizations about the self, derived from past experience, that organize and guide the processing of the self-related information contained in an individual’s social experiences (pg. 64).”

Self-schemas represent a person’s domain specific attributes or abilities and experiences as they relate to that domain. This allows for quicker encoding, more confident evaluation, accurate retrieval of domain-relevant information, and the ability to adapt to different information processing goals (Carpenter, 1988; Greenwald, 1980; Markus, 1977). Individuals with a self-schema in a domain are said to be schematic while those lacking one are aschematic for that ability (Cross & Markus, 1994). According to Markus (1977), aschematic individuals are not able to recognize their ability in a given domain and do not assign their ability any critical personal importance.

They can also help to shape social perception when the description of person is ambiguous. One study showed that when a target (Chris) is described as equally likely to be independent or dependent, participants classified as independence-schematics rated Chris as more independent and dependence-schematics rated him as more dependent or less likely to act independently compared to aschematics. The authors say that self-schemas serve a motivational role such that they help to foster the self-system’s stability, validation, and perpetuation (Green & Sedikides, 2001). Types of self-schemas. Prieto, Cole, and Tageson (1992) compared depressed, clinic-referred children; nondepressed, clinic-referred children; and nondepressed, non-clinic referred children on three cognitive measures of positive and negative self-schemas. On a word recognition measure and an incidental word recall measure, depressed individuals had a less positive self-schema compared to the other two groups. Only non-depressed groups recalled significantly more positive words than negative ones. The results suggest that such negative self-schemas affect how new information is stored and accessed. Another study found that depressive self-schemas were a result of peer victimization such that individuals who experienced relational and verbal victimization more so than physical victimization by their peers had stronger negative and weaker positive self-cognitions and an elimination of the “normative memorial bias for recall of positive self-referential words” (Cole et al., 2014).

Self-schemas have also been identified for race-ethnicity (Oyserman, 2008; Oyserman et al., 2003), body weight (Altabe & Thompson, 1996; Markus, Hamill, & Sentis, 1987), gender (Markus, Crane, Bernstein, & Siladi, 1982), exercise (Kendzierski, 1990), religion (McIntosh, 1995), and illness (Clemmey & Nicassio, 1997), to name a few. Lodge and Hamill (1986) even propose a partisan schema related to political knowledge and interest. Those described as schematics are high in interest and knowledge and show a “consistency bias” such that they recall more policy statements consistent with a congressman’s party affiliation than those inconsistent with it. They also can classify campaign statements as Republican or Democrat. Aschematics, or those low in interest and knowledge, perform at no better than chance levels in the same task. The authors note that the restructuring of memory shown by schematics, and in particular those scoring especially high on interest and knowledge which they call sophisticates, demonstrates a serious bias in how political information is processed. Self-perception theory. One way we gain knowledge about ourselves is through observing ourselves, called introspection or looking inward. We notice food preferences, particular music genres we like, the types of clothing we prefer to wear, and the type of person we consider to be a friend. But what we gain self-knowledge about tends to be things that are not central or critical (Bem, 1972). Why is that? The things about us that are most important make up the attitudes we express, the beliefs we hold, the traits we display, and the emotions we prefer to display and so are at our core. Self-perception helps us to learn about the more secondary aspects of the self. Possible selves. Not only are we concerned about the person we are right now, but we focus on the person we might become, which Markus and Nurius (1986) call possible selves. These could be positive conceptions of our future self, but likewise, they could be something we are afraid of becoming and could elicit guilt and anxiety in the individual (Carver et al., 1999). According to Inglehart, Markus, and Brown (1988) our possible selves allow us to focus attention on specific, task-relevant cognitions, emotions and actions, thereby allowing us to move from our current state to the desired one (Oyserman & Markus, 1990a), especially when a possible self is seen as a self-regulator (i.e. a student who spends more time on homework, improved grades, and participated in class more because they realize they are not doing well now, but could in the future if they engage in specific types of behaviors; Oyserman et al., 2004). Across two studies, Cross and Markus (1994) showed that schematic individuals were better able to direct their attention to the problem at hand and concentrate on it while aschematic individuals were quicker to endorse negative possible selves related to logical reasoning ability. Hence, self-schemas can help foster competence by “providing a foundation for the development of possible selves related to that ability” (pg. 434). They continue, “…the possible self may link effective steps and strategies for solving reasoning problems with beliefs about one’s ability and competence in the domain. Bringing to mind a positive, desired view of oneself in the future as logical and analytical may also help the student dispel anxiety or worry during the task” (pg. 435). Research has also shown that when balance between feared and expected possible selves does not exist, the outcomes can be negative such as the initiation and maintenance of delinquent activity in adolescents (Oyserman and Markus, 1990b). The self-reference effect. Would it surprise you to learn that humans have a tendency to more efficiently process, and recall more accurately, information about ourselves? Probably not. This is called the self-reference effect (Higgins & Bargh, 1987). Craik and Lockhart (1972) proposed the depth of processing (DOP) framework which says that how well a memory trace is retained is determined by the nature of the encoding operations such that deep, meaningful analyses result in a more durable trace than shallow, structural analyses of a stimulus. Up to 1977 it was believed that better retention could be achieved by semantic encoding though Rogers, Kuiper, and Kriker (1977) showed that self-referent encoding produced even better recall. The self-reference effect has since been replicated in numerous studies (for an overview of this research, please see Symons & Johnson, 1997).

Since the self-reference effect is a property of memory, we might expect that it is affected by the aging process. Across three studies, Gutchess, et al., (2007) showed that under some circumstances, older adults can benefit from self-referencing as much as young adults can but in general, they are more limited in their application of it. The authors speculate that “older adults may be limited in their application of self-referencing due to its demand on cognitive resources and their diminished ability to apply the strategy flexibly and broadly in other types of evaluative judgments” (pg. 834).

In terms of what area of the brain might control the self-reference effect, research using lesioning has found a role for the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Patients with focal brain damage to the mPFC were given a standard trait judgment paradigm and damage to this area was found to abolish the self-reference effect, suggesting that the structure is important for self-referential processing and the neural representation of the self (Philippi et al., 2012). The implications of this research go beyond social psychology, too. The authors write, “The ability to detect and encode information for self-relevance might contribute not only to the formation of a self-concept, but also more broadly to psychological and social functioning. Across a variety of psychopathological conditions and personality disorders, self-referential processing appears to be dysfunctional, making it a major target for psychotherapy.” To read this article yourself, please visit: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3297026/.


3.1.3. Self-Discrepancies

Self-discrepancy theory was postulated by Higgins (1987) to distinguish between the various self-states proposed by sociology, psychology, and even philosophy. Higgins says there are two cognitive dimensions which underlie the various self-state representations. The first is the domains of the self, numbering three total – the actual, ideal, and ought selves. The actual self includes the attributes that you are believed to possess, whether by yourself or another person. The ideal self includes all attributes that someone, whether you or another person, hope or wishes for you to possess. The ought self are the attributes that someone (yourself or another person) believes you should possess (i.e. linked to a sense of duty, obligation, or responsibility). Higgins exemplifies the ideal and ought self through the example of the conflict a hero faces between their personal wishes and their sense of duty.

The second cognitive dimension is what he calls standpoints on the self, or whose perspective on the self is involved. The two basic standpoints are your own personal standpoint and the standpoint from a significant other such as a spouse, parent, sibling, or close friend. A person can have a self-state representation for any number of these significant others.

The two cognitive dimensions can then be combined to form six basic types of self-state representations: actual/own, actual/other, ideal/own, ideal/other, ought/own, and ought/other. Our self-concept is derived from the first two, while the last four are self-directive standards or acquired guides for being, or as he calls them, self-guides. Self-discrepancy theory therefore proposes that people differ as to which self-guide they are motivated to meet, and that people do not necessarily possess all four (we might have only ought or ideal self-guides). We are motivated to “reach a condition where our self-concept matches our personally relevant self-guides” (pg. 321).

If this does not happen, we can experience sadness, disappointment, fear, dissatisfaction, apprehension, or feel threatened. For instance, if a discrepancy exists between the actual/own and ideal/own states, meaning the person feels their personal hopes or wishes have not been fulfilled, they will be vulnerable to dejected-related emotions such as disappointment, frustration, and dissatisfaction. If the discrepancy is between actual/own and ideal/other, meaning they have failed to obtain a significant other’s hopes or wishes for them, they may feel shame, embarrassment, or feel downcast. If the discrepancy is between actual/own and ought/other, meaning the current state of our attributes from our standpoint does not match the state the person believes some significant other considers to be our duty or obligation to obtain, then we might experience agitation-related emotions and feel fear or threatened. Finally, an actual/own and ought/own discrepancy occurs when the current state of our attributes, from our standpoint, do not match the state we believe is our duty or obligation to obtain and so we feel self-contempt, guilt, and uneasiness (Higgins, 1987).

In sum, self-discrepancy theory helps us to understand discrepancies between our view of our self and who we would ideally like to be or believe other people think we should be.


3.1.4. How Others Affect Our Sense of Self The looking-glass self. Sociologist Charles Cooley (1902) stated that people based their sense of self on how they think others see them. This social interaction serves as a sort of mirror in which people use the judgments of others to measure their own worth, behavior, and values. He calls this the looking-glass self, and it occurs in three steps. First, we imagine how we appear to others when in a social situation. Second, we imagine what others think of our appearance. Third, we form opinions and feelings about this perceived judgment and then respond to it. Let’s say for instance you are assigned to a small group in your social psychology class and are asked to discuss the topic of self-discrepancy theory. You have not interacted with these individuals thus far this semester, and so you want to demonstrate to these fellow students that you are knowledgeable of the concept. As you discuss the material, you take note of how your fellow classmates respond to your thoughts and applications of the concept of self-discrepancy theory. What is their body language? Do they maintain eye contact with you? Do they seem to be distracted or are they focused? What words do they use in response to your comments? If your classmates generally have positive feedback such as commenting constructively on your thoughts or listening intently, you will feel confident that they see you as competent and knowledgeable. If, on the other hand, they look away often, are playing a game on their phone, or have negative comments, you will likely feel that they do not see you as knowledgeable. To make matters more complicated, in the future your professor has you work with a different group of classmates for a different activity. The new task provides a different context for the interaction and the new set of students changes the nature of those involved. So, how you use the information obtained from this new group of individuals will likely be different than the first group. And of course, not all feedback carries the same weight. Maybe you know one of your group members is an A student and doing very well in the class. If they provide positive feedback this will mean more to you than a student praising your analysis who you know is struggling. Reflected appraisals. Building off Cooley’s work, Felson (1985) said that we come to see ourselves as those important to us see us, called a reflected appraisal. In an interesting study of adolescents from the Netherlands, Verkuyten (1988) found that the general self-esteem of ethnic minorities was relatively high, despite the fact that they have low status, experience discrimination and prejudice, and have little power to influence policymakers. So why was their self-esteem higher than expected? As support for the reflected appraisal process, they derived their self-esteem from fellow family members who regarded them highly. Social comparison theory. Oftentimes, we are uncertain of our abilities and so look to others for a clue. A college baseball player may compare his batting average against those of his teammates to see how well he is doing. Festinger (1954) called this the social comparison theory. We make such comparisons as a way to bring about self-improvement or to motivate us to be better. If the players’ batting average is not the lowest, but close, he may ask for additional batting practice or tips from the batting coach. We also compare ourselves to others to enhance our positive self-image. If the player learns that his batting average is better than most of his teammates, he will feel good about his hitting ability. Of course, he might also develop a superior attitude or become biased or judgmental.

How might social media affect the social comparisons we make? Social networking sites such as Facebook give the impression that others are doing better than they are which can be detrimental to how we view ourselves. In a study of 231 adults aged 18-25, Facebook use was found to lead to greater levels of negative social comparison which resulted in seeing oneself as less socially competent and less physically attractive. This effect was weaker among happier individuals (de Vries & Kuhne, 2015).  A similar study of Instagram “likes” found that exposing female undergraduates to thin-ideal images led to greater levels of body and facial dissatisfaction than average images and that greater investment in Instagram likes led to higher levels of appearance comparison and facial dissatisfaction (Tiggerman et al., 2018).

The benefit of social comparison is that it can lead to efforts to self-improve. How so? We could make a specific type of social comparison called an upward social comparison in which we compare our traits and abilities against someone who is more skilled than we are. This can lead us to engage in motivated behavior to improve, but it could also leave us feeling incompetent, shameful, or jealous (Collins, 1996). Arousal as information about us. Stimuli are forever present in our sensory world and we have perceptions of them. These perceptions lead us to respond. For example, if you are walking down a street and hear footsteps behind you, you might perceive this as a threat if it is late at night and you thought you were alone on the street. This could lead you to walk quicker to your car or house or turnaround to confront the person behind you. What if you heard footsteps but is the middle of the day, on campus, and in between classes? You would likely perceive this as just another student going to class and have no reaction. Schachter (1964) proposed his two-factor theory of emotion which states that how we perceive our own emotions depends on two factors: 1) how much physiological arousal we experience such as rapid breathing, sweating, and/or a pounding heart, and 2) the cognitive interpretation or label we apply such as angry, scared, or happy. Others help us with the second factor such that we will examine their reactions to a given situation to help us interpret the arousal we are experiencing. Say for instance we are at a movie and out of nowhere the killer jumps out and attacks the protagonist. When this happens, we jump in our seat and scream, and notice that other moviegoers have the same reaction. We thus realize we experienced a high level of arousal and label the emotion as scared. Soon after we likely laugh at ourselves since we knew all along the event was not real but a mere fiction on the screen.


3.1.5. The Self and Culture

The self does not exist on an island but in the context of the society and culture in which it lives. As such, there is a great deal of variability in terms of what the self-concept is from culture to culture. First, culture includes all the beliefs, customs, institutions, experience, values, attitudes, art, religion, etc. of a group of people. Each culture establishes norms, or rules, for how its members should behave. For instance, Western cultures view the self as independent or individualistic, meaning that individuals reject conformity, focus on individual traits and goals, and seek personal achievement while Asian cultures are interdependent or collectivistic and identify the self in a social context, believe in blending in, focus on group goals, promote solidarity, and are against egotism.  According to Markus and Kitayma (1991) the independent construal of self is bounded, unitary, and stable; focuses on being unique, realizing internal attributes, and promoting ones’ goals; and sees the role of others as self-appraisal and linked to social comparison and reflected appraisal. In terms of the interdependent self, they say the structure is flexible; the task is to belong and fit in, occupy one’s place and promote other’s goals; and our relationships with others in specific contexts define the self. The independent is internal and private, focused on one’s abilities, thoughts, and feelings while the interdependent is external and public, and focused on statuses, roles, and relationships (Markus & Kitayma, 1991).

Research shows that East Asians, namely those from Korea, have more flexibility in their self-concept compared to Americans (Choi & Choi, 2002) and that Asian Americans, compared to European Americans, show variability across relationship contexts but stability within them (English & Serena, 2007). In another study, when trait self-perceptions across different relationships were inconsistent, relationship quality and authenticity was lower for European Americans but not East Asian Americans. When there was inconsistency within the same relationship, both ethnic groups showed negative outcomes (English & Chen, 2011).


3.2. Self-Esteem


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe how self-esteem is a need.
  • Identify and define types of self-esteem.
  • Clarify what happens to self-esteem across the life span.
  • Clarify if there are gender and cross-cultural differences in self-esteem.
  • Define Terror Management Theory and clarify its relevance to self-esteem.
  • Describe self-efficacy and locus of control and how they relate to the self.
  • Define self-regulation.
  • Define self-awareness and describe issues related to it.
  • Differentiate public and private self-consciousness.
  • Define self-enhancement and describe strategies used in it.


3.2.1. Self-Esteem Defined and Described Self-esteem as a need. Psychologist Abraham Maslow described a hierarchy of needs as one way to understand motivation and specifically the push of motivated behavior (contrasted with the pull that comes from outside us). According to Maslow, there are five types of needs arranged in a hierarchy, or more so in a pyramid formation. Lower level needs must be fulfilled before higher level ones can be. At the bottom are the physiological needs which are what we need to survive. They include food, water, sex, temperature, oxygen, etc. At the next level are needs centered on our safety and security, or living in a safe environment, being safe from Mother Nature, and having enough money to pay the bills. With this level satisfied, we can next focus on feeling socially connected to others and being in mature relationships, which he called the love and belonginess needs. Fourth are our self-esteem needs or being independent, gaining mastery, how we feel about ourselves, and being responsible. At the pinnacle of the pyramid are our self-actualization needs, which Carl Rogers and other humanistic psychologists discussed. This level focuses on realizing our full potential, feeling fulfilled and satisfied, and seeking personal growth. We also pursue interests out of intrinsic interest and not extrinsic demands. For our purposes, Maslow’s fourth level will be focused on and self-esteem can be defined as how we see ourselves, including both positive and negative evaluative components. Types of self-esteem. Is self-esteem a unitary concept though? Rosenberg (1979) proposed a global self-esteem and subsequent research has supported domain specific self-esteem such as for academic matters (Rosenberg et al., 1995). So, which causes which? Does global self-esteem lead to specific or vice versa? The authors propose that global could be the result of specific self-esteem since it is “based on the judgments of various parts of the self, the parts (specifics) might be seen as responsible for the whole (global)” (pg. 148). In terms of the specific arising from global, they say, “assessments of particular facets of the self may well be based on one’s overall feelings of self-worth” (pg. 148). They conclude that global and specific self-esteem are in fact neither equivalent nor interchangeable, global appears to be heavily affective in nature and associated with psychological well-being while specific is more judgmental and evaluative arising from a cognitive component; specific facets of the self vary in their level of abstraction and some types such as academic self-esteem affect global self-esteem more than other types; the degree to which we value our behavior affects how much specific self-esteem affects global; and finally, in the case of school performance it is affected by self-esteem but in terms of the specific type and not global (Rosenberg et al., 1995).

What are some of the specific types of self-esteem.? According to Gentile et al. (2009) they might include:

  • Physical appearance – what we look like
  • Athletics – how good we are in sports
  • Academics – our general performance in school
  • Social Acceptance – our friendships, peer relationships, and social approval
  • Family – Our family can serve as a source support and help affirm our beliefs about our own self-worth
  • Behavioral conduct – includes our perception of how socially unacceptable our behavior is
  • Affect – Feeling happy, satisfied, and free from anxiety which lead to better emotional well-being
  • Personal self – Our evaluation of our personality independent from the physical body or others
  • Self-satisfaction – Our measure of happiness with oneself as a person
  • Moral-ethical self-concept – Our perception of moral-ethical attributes and how satisfied we are with our religion or lack of one Self-esteem across the life span. Our next question centers on whether self-esteem can change throughout our life. Trzesniewski et al., (2003) tested this very question across two studies and found that, “stability is relatively low during early childhood, increases through adolescence and young adulthood, and then declines during midlife and old age” (pg. 215). This effect held across gender, nationality, and ethnicity. How can we account for these trends? First, self-esteem was least stable during childhood, though the authors question whether self-esteem measures are valid for young children as they may not fully understand the meaning of questions on such scales or cannot form abstract concepts of themselves, such as being good or bad. Second, self-esteem is lower in early adolescence and increases after this likely due to the turmoil puberty brings about in terms of rapid maturational changes. By late adolescence and early adulthood, the individual has the resources and autonomy necessary to deal with these changes. Finally, self-esteem stability decreases from midlife to old age likely because in midlife there are few environmental changes but as we transition into late adulthood, there are a great deal of life changes and shifting social circumstances such as children moving out, retirement, health problems and the death of loved ones. In regard to late adulthood, they add, “Another possibility is that as individuals age they may begin to review their lifelong accomplishments and experiences, leading in some cases to more critical self-appraisals and in other cases to greater acceptance of their faults and limitations” (pg. 216).

Interestingly, data from 187 newlywed couples shows that the birth of the first child does affect self-esteem over the first five years of marriage. Changes mostly affect the mother and are negative in nature with a sudden decline in self-esteem the first year after the child’s birth and a gradual decline continuing over the next four years. The study utilized a control group of parents who had no child during the same period and for which there was no change in self-esteem. This suggests that the change in self-esteem of the parents with a child was likely due to the birth of their first child (Bleidorn et al., 2016). Gender and cross-cultural differences in self-esteem. Gentile et al. (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies and assessed the 10 different domains of self-esteem mentioned at the end of the previous section. They found that gender differences vary greatly across the different domains of self-esteem. In some cases, there was no difference at all (i.e. academic, social acceptance, family, and affect), while other domains showed a moderate amount of variation (i.e. males higher on physical appearance, athletics, personal, and self-satisfaction; females higher on behavioral conduct and moral-ethical).

But are there cross-cultural differences in gender and self-esteem? Bleidorn et al. (2016) tackled the issue in an Internet sample of 985,937 individuals from 48 nations and found that self-esteem increased from late adolescence to middle adulthood, there were significant gender gaps, and that males consistently report higher self-esteem than females. These findings are important as they show that the trends, which are consistent with the literature but previous studies only examined Western samples, are in fact cross-culturally valid and suggest universal mechanisms at least in part. These mechanisms might include biological sources including genetics or hormones or universal sociocultural factors such as socially learned gender roles and stereotypes.

Despite these cross-cultural similarities, there was a difference across nations in terms of the magnitude of gender-specific trajectories, suggesting that universal explanations may not be at work but culture-specific influences such as a nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, mean age at marriage, and HDI (Human Development Index; measures of living a long life, being educated, and having a decent standard of living) are responsible. Their data suggests that wealthy, developed, egalitarian, and individualistic nations had relatively large gender differences in self-esteem, though they decrease throughout early and middle adulthood. In contrast, collectivistic, poorer, developing nations marked by greater gender inequality and an earlier age at marriage show smaller gender gaps, though these increase during early and middle adulthood.

Bleidorn et. al. (2016) conclude that universal influences on self-esteem do not tell the whole story, and that “systematic cultural differences in the magnitude and shape of gender and age differences in self-esteem provide evidence for contextual influences on the self-esteem development in men and women” (pg. 408).


3.2.2. Terror Management Theory (TMT) What is TMT? Ernest Becker (1962, 1973, & 1975) stated that it is the human capacity for intelligence, to be able to make decisions, think creatively, and infer cause and effect, that leads us to an awareness that we will someday die. This awareness manifests itself as terror and any cultural worldviews that are created need to provide ways to deal with this terror, create concepts and structures to understand our world, answer cosmological questions, and give us a sense of meaning in the world.

Based on this notion, Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, and Solomon, 1986) posits that worldviews serve as a buffer against the anxiety we experience from knowing we will die someday. This cultural anxiety buffer has two main parts. First, we must have faith in our worldviews and be willing to defend them. Second, we derive self-esteem from living up to these worldviews and behaving in culturally approved ways. So, culture supports a belief in a just world and meeting the standards of value of the culture provides us with immortality in one of two ways. Literal immortality is arrived at via religious concepts such as the soul and the afterlife. Symbolic immortality is provided by linking our identity to something higher such as the nation or corporation and by leaving something behind such as children or cultural valued products. It has also been linked to the appeal of fame (Greenberg, Kosloff, Solomon, Cohen, and Landau, 2010).

Finally, based on whether death thoughts are in focal attention or are unconscious, we employ either proximal or distal defenses. Proximal defenses involve the suppression of death-related thoughts, a denial of one’s vulnerability, or participating in behavior that will reduce the threat of demise (i.e. exercise) and occur when thought of death is in focal attention. On the other hand, distal defenses are called upon when death thoughts are unconscious and involve strivings for self-esteem and faith in one’s worldview and assuage these unconscious mortality concerns through the symbolic protection a sense of meaning offers. The typical mortality salience study. In a typical mortality salience (MS) study, participants are told they are to take part in an investigation of the relationship between personality traits and interpersonal judgments. They complete a few standardized personality assessments which are actually filler items to sustain the cover story. Embedded in the personality assessments is a projective personality test which consists of two open ended questions which vary based on which condition the participant is in. Participants in the MS condition are asked to write about what they think will happen to them when they die and the emotions that the thought of their own death arouses in them. Individuals in the control condition are asked to write about concerns such as eating a meal, watching television, experiencing dental pain, or taking an exam. Next, they complete a self-report measure of affect, typically the PANAS (Positive-Affect, Negative-Affect Scale), to determine the effect of MS manipulation on their mood. Finally, they are asked to make judgments about individuals who either directly or indirectly threaten or bolster their cultural worldviews. Worldview defense. General findings on TMT have shown that when mortality is made salient, we generally display unfavorable attitudes toward those who threaten our worldview and celebrate those who uphold our view. This effect has been demonstrated in relation to anxious individuals even when part of one’s in-group (Martens, Greenberg, Schimel, Kosloff, and Weise, 2010) such that mortality reminders led participants to react more negatively toward an anxious police liaison from their community (Study 1) or to a fellow university student who was anxious (Study 2). Mortality salience has also been found to elevate preference for political candidates who are charismatic and espouse the same values associated with the participant’s political worldview, whether conservative or liberal (Kosloff, Greenberg, Weise, and Solomon, 2010).

Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, and Lyon (1989) examined reactions of participants to those who violated or upheld cultural worldviews across a series of six experiments. In general, they hypothesized that when people are reminded of their own mortality, they are motivated to maintain their cultural anxiety buffer and are punitive toward those who violate it and benevolent to those who uphold it. Experiments 1 and 3 provided support for the hypothesis that subjects induced to think about their own mortality increased their desire to punish the moral transgressor (i.e. to recommend higher bonds for an accused prostitute) while rewarding the hero (Experiment 3). Experiment 2 replicated the findings of Experiment 1 and extended them by showing that increasing MS does not lead subjects to derogate just any target as it had no effect on evaluations of the experimenter. Also, MS increased punishment of the transgressor only among subjects who believed the target’s behavior was truly immoral.

Experiments 4 – 6 tested alternative explanations for the findings. First, self-awareness could lead individuals to behave in a manner consistent with their attitudes and standards.  The results of Study 4 showed that unlike MS, self-awareness does not encourage harsher bond recommendations and in fact, heightened self-awareness reduces how harshly a prostitute is treated among individuals with positive attitudes toward prostitution. In Study 5, physiological arousal was monitored and MS was found not to arise from mere heightened arousal. Finally, Experiment 6 showed that particular features of the open-ended death questionnaire did not lead to the findings of Studies 1-5, but rather to requiring subjects to think about their own deaths.

McGregor, Lieberman, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, Simon, and Pyszcznski (1998) tested the hypothesis that MS increases aggression against those who threaten one’s worldview by measuring the amount of hot sauce allocated to the author of a derogatory essay. In the study, politically conservative and liberal participants were asked to think about their own death (MS) or their next important exam (control). They were then asked to read an essay that was derogatory toward either conservatives or liberals. Finally, participants allocated a quantity of very spicy hot sauce to the author of the essay, knowing that the author did not like spicy foods and would have to consume the entire sample of hot sauce. As expected, MS participants allocated significantly more hot sauce to the author of the worldview-threatening essay than did control participants.

In a second study, participants thought about their own mortality or dental pain and were given an opportunity to aggress against someone who threatened their worldview. Half of the MS participants allocated the hot sauce before evaluating the target while the other half evaluated the target before allocating the hot sauce. Results of Study 2 showed that MS participants allocated significantly more hot sauce when they were not able to verbally derogate the targets prior to the administration of hot sauce. However, when MS participants were able to first express their attitudes toward the target, the amount of hot sauce allocated was not significantly greater than for the controls. This finding suggests that people will choose the first mode of worldview defense provided to them. Self-esteem. According to the anxiety buffer hypothesis, if a psychological structure provides protection against anxiety, then strengthening that structure should make an individual less prone to displays of anxiety or anxiety related behavior in response to threats while weakening that structure should make a person more prone to exhibit anxiety or anxiety related behavior in response to threats. In support of this, Greenberg et al. (1992) showed that by increasing self-esteem, self-reported anxiety in response to death images and physiological arousal in response to the threat of pain could be reduced. Furthermore, the authors found no evidence that this effect was mediated by positive affect. Additional support for the function of self-esteem in reducing anxiety was provided by Harmon-Jones, Simon, Greenberg, Pyszcynski, Solomon, and McGregor (1997) who showed that individuals with high self-esteem, whether induced experimentally (Experiment 1) or dispositionally (Experiment 2), did not respond to MS with increased worldview defense and that this occurred due to the suppression of death constructs (Experiment 3).


3.2.3. Self-Efficacy and Locus of Control

Self-Efficacy (Bandura, 1986) is our sense of competence and feeling like we can deal with life’s problems. It includes our beliefs about our ability to complete a task and affects how we think, feel, and motivate ourselves. When our self-efficacy is high, we feel like we can cope with life events and overcome obstacles. Difficult tasks are seen as challenges and we set challenging goals. In contrast, if it is low, we feel hopeless, helpless, and that we cannot handle what life throws at us. We avoid difficult tasks and throw in the towel quickly when things get tough. These individuals are easily depressed and stressed.

Our sense of competence is affected by the degree to which we blame internal or external forces for our success and failures. Using Julian Rotter’s (1973) concept of locus of control, we have an internal locus of control if we believe we are in control of our own destiny, but if we believe outside forces determine our life, we have an external locus of control.

So how do self-efficacy and locus of control intersect with one another. A study of students from a mid-sized public university in the northeastern area of the United States showed that students with an external locus of control and who are low in academic self-efficacy should be identified as they enter college and interventions directed at them to help them perform better in their classes (Drago, Rheinheimer, & Detweiler, 2018). A study of 147 women with type 1 diabetes examined the relationship between self-efficacy, locus of control, and what their expectations were of preconception counseling (Grady & Geller, 2016). Using the Diabetes-Specific Locus of Control (DLC) measure which assesses beliefs about internal, chance, and powerful others loci of control in terms of how diabetes is managed (the measure has 5 subscales: internal-autonomy, internal-blame, chance, powerful other – health professionals, and powerful other – nonmedical), a measure to assess preconception planning, and sociodemographic data,  the researchers tested the hypothesis that expectations of preconception counseling would be associated with beliefs about disease control and self-efficacy. The results showed that self-efficacy for planning a healthy pregnancy predicted outcome expectations of preconception counseling. The authors write, “…women’s self-efficacy was positively associated with their perceived usefulness of preconception counseling and birth control use, whereas self-blame about disease management negatively correlated with these views” (pg. 41). The authors suggest that efforts should be taken to improve self-efficacy and empower women with diabetes to confidently control their disease” (Grady & Geller, 2016).


3.2.4. Self-Regulation

We cannot always act or say what we feel. At times, we have to practice what social psychologists call self-regulation or controlling and directing our thoughts, feelings, and actions so that we can achieve a societal or personal goal. The good news is that much of our self-regulation occurs outside of conscious awareness but if we are trying to engage in meaningful behavioral change, we might have to focus much of our energy into self-control. One study linked successful self-regulation to executive functions to include updating, inhibiting, and shifting, which results in the ability to take goal-direction action such as losing weight (Dohle, Diel, & Hofmann, 2018).

Do concerted efforts at self-regulation reduce the amount of energy available for such activities in subsequent tasks? The question implies that self-regulation is a limited resource. Baumeister, Bratslasky, Muraven, and Tice (1998) tested this over four experiments and described this temporary reduction in the self’s ability to engage in volitional action caused by engaging in a volitional act previously ego depletion. The researchers first attempted to show that exerting self-control in terms of resisting temptation (Experiment 1) or a preliminary act of choice and responsibility (Experiment 2) would reduce the person’s ability to self-regulate on a subsequent, frustrating and difficult task. Results showed that people asked to resist eating chocolates and to make themselves eat radishes instead gave up much faster when next asked to complete a difficult puzzle than those who could indulge and eat the chocolate. Likewise, people who freely and deliberately consented to make a counterattitudinal or proattitudindal speech gave up quickly when asked to do the puzzle while those who expected to make the counterattitudinal speech under low-choice conditions showed no reduction in self-control. They state that it was the act of responsible choice, and not the behavior itself, that depleted the self and reduced persistence on the subsequent task. Experiments 3 and 4 further confirmed the finding that an initial act of volition leads to ego depletion in subsequent tasks. The good news is that this resource is replenished with time and specific factors could hasten or delay this replenishment (Baumeister et al., 1998).


3.2.5. Self-Awareness

Duval and Wicklund (1972) proposed that our self-regulation can either be directed inward and toward the self or directed outward and toward the environment. We are usually focused outward, but there are times when our attention is turned inward. For instance, if you walk by a mirror you might stop to see how you look in your new jeans. If we see a video of ourselves, are asked to talk about ourselves in an interview, or are required to give a presentation in our social psychology class, we experience an increased level of self-awareness and compare ourselves against a high standard which leads to reduced self-esteem since we realize we do not meet the standard. We then engage in motivated behavior to meet the standard, reassess whether we have, and then continue making adjustments until we finally meet the standard or give up and turn away from the self (Carver & Scheier, 1981). As you might expect, the process is aversive and so we want to resolve it (Flory et al., 2000). If we do not, we could experience depression (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987), engage in binge eating (Heatherton & Baumeister), and engage in counternormative behavior such as cheating (Diener & Wallbom, 1976) to name a few of the negative effects. Two recent studies found that when male participants were exposed to an intervention designed to focus their attention onto inhibitory, self-awareness cues, they engaged in significantly less alcohol-related physical aggression behaviors toward a female confederate compared to controls (Gallagher & Parrott, 2016) but for men with an internal and not an external locus of control (Purvis, Gallagher, & Parrott, 2016).

It is possible that some individuals are more self-focused than others, a distinction referred to as public vs. private self-consciousness (Fenigstein, Scheier, & Buss, 1975). Public self-consciousness refers to an individual who focuses on themselves as a social object and is concerned by how they appear to others. In contrast, private self-consciousness refers to an individual who focuses on the internal self, is introspective, and attends to one’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. Scheier, Buss, and Buss (1978) found that for those high in private self-consciousness, the correlation between aggressive behavior and self-report of aggressiveness was significantly higher than for those low in private self-consciousness or high or low public self-consciousness. Public self-consciousness has also been found to relate to social aspects of identity while private self-consciousness was related to personal aspects (Cheek & Briggs, 1982).


3.2.6. Self-Enhancement

Self-enhancement is a fundamental component of human nature and involves our tendency to see ourselves in a positive light. This often occurs after our self-esteem has been negatively affected in some way (Beauregard & Dunning, 1998).

According to Sedikides & Gregg (2008), self-enhancement can be done in one of several ways. First, we might self-advance or self-protect either by augmenting positivity or reducing the negativity of the self-concept. Second, self-enhancement can occur either publicly or privately whereby in the case of the former we engage in favorable self-presentation and the latter is an internal affair. Third, we tend to self-enhance in domains that matter most to us. Finally, self-enhancement is either candid or tactical, meaning “one can both seize an opportunity for overt and immediate self-advancement, or one can forgo it in favor of other activities liable to facilitate delayed self-enhancement” (pg. 104).

People can also engage in positive illusions (Taylor & Brown, 1988) in which they hold opinions of themselves that are exaggerated or falsely positive regarding abilities and skills. These positive illusions include inflating their perceptions of themselves (i.e. self-aggrandizement), believing they have more control over events than they do (i.e. exaggerated perceptions of control), and being overly optimistic about their future (i.e. unrealistic optimism). Positive illusions have been shown to lead to successful adjustment to stressful events (Taylor & Armor, 1996); increased satisfaction in close relationships when an individual idealized their partner and is in turn idealized by them (Barelds & Dijkstra, 2011; Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996); and better outcomes for physical health later in life in terms of more satisfaction with leisure time, higher self-esteem, better perceived health, and less boredom proneness when retirees hold an exaggerated youthful bias (Gana, Alaphillippe, & Bailly, 2002). Positive illusions have been reported in parenting as well in which parents have a tendency to rate their own children as possessing more positive and less negative attributes than other children (Wenger & Fowers, 2008).

Have you ever worried about doing well on a test and so create an excuse to cover poor performance such as saying you were sick when you took it? If so, you engaged in behavioral self-handicapping (Jones & Berglas, 1978). We self-handicap when we are uncertain about our abilities and anticipate a threat to our self-esteem. Instead of saying we failed the exam because our ability was low or we did not study, we instead blame it on being sick or not sleeping well the night before. Self-handicapping can take two forms – behavioral and claimed. Behavioral self-handicapping occurs when we actively acquire an impediment such as drug or alcohol abuse (Arkin & Baumgardner, 1985) or do not have enough time to practice (Baumeister, Hamilton, & Tice, 1985). Claimed self-handicapping occurs when a person only reports obstacles to their success such as suffering from test anxiety (Smith, Snyder, and Handelsman, 1982) or being in a bad mood (Baumgarder, Lake, and Arkin, 1985). Between the two, behavioral handicaps are more convincingly tied to performance and so more credible, while claimed handicaps serve as an excuse for failure but do not necessarily decrease the person’s chance of success (Zuckerman & Tsai, 2005). Finally, Stewart & Walker (2014) found that self-handicapping was predicted by perfectionism and an external locus of control in a study of 79 university students (they also found that perfectionism predicted low self-efficacy).

We might even engage in the social comparison process to feel better about ourselves. How so? Instead of comparing our performance to others to see where we rate, we will look for someone we know performs worse than we do or is worse off than we are, and then make a downward social comparison (Wills, 1981). This makes us feel better about ourselves because no matter how bad off we are at the time, that person is in a far worse predicament. Maybe we know we are in a batting slump over the past 10 games and have experienced a reduction in our self-esteem as a result. We might compare ourselves against another teammate who has underperformed all year and realize that our situation is temporary and not seemingly permanent like theirs.

People have a tendency to evaluate themselves much higher than they evaluate others. For instance, they are smarter, better looking, more capable, and more honest than other people. This is called the “better than average” (BTA) effect. Across five studies, Brown (2012) showed that the BTA is stronger for important attributes than ones that do not matter and when participants experienced a threat to their feelings of self-worth. It has also been shown that the effect holds for easy tasks which produce underconfidence, but not for difficult ones which lead to overconfidence and making a worse-than-average bias (Larrick, Burson, & Soll, 2007). Finally, Kanten and Teigen (2008) asked 385 students to rate themselves or an acquaintance relative to their peers on several personality traits. The results showed that participants saw themselves as superior to most others at all points in time. The authors describe a better than average improvement effect such that participants said they were more superior now compared to the past and expected to be even more superior in the future.

Finally, Cialdini et al. (1976) said that people have a tendency to publicly announce their associations with successful others in a process they called “bask in reflected glory” (BIRG). In a series of three field experiments involving 300 university students across seven universities in the United States, Cialdini et al. (1976) found that participants strived to bask in the glory of successful others even though they were not the cause of their  success, such as wearing school apparel and saying ‘we’ after their team was victorious but not when they lost (in the case of a loss, participants often said ‘they lost’ instead of ‘we lost’).  In another study, two days before the 1999 general election in Flanders researchers counted and recorded houses displaying at least one poster or one removable lawn sign supporting a political party (a total of 462 addresses for posters and 177 addresses for lawn signs). The day after the elections, the houses were checked to see if the poster or lawn sign (s) was/were still present. The results showed that the better the election result, the more houses that still displayed the sign/poster. Winners flaunted their association with the winning party, supporting BIRG while supporters of the losing party tried to conceal their association (Boen et al., 2002).


3.3. Self-Presentation


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define self-presentation.
  • Define self-promotion and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define ingratiation and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define false modesty and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define self-verification and describe how it is used in self-presentation.
  • Define self-monitoring and describe how it is used in self-presentation.


3.3.1. Self-Presentation Defined

Think about the last date you went on, especially a first date. What did you do beforehand? You likely showered and groomed yourself, maybe even rehearsed what you would say in the mirror. You also likely took great care to pick your clothes out to make a good first impression. Any strategies we use to make ourselves appear in a more positive light to others is called self-presentation. We intentionally try to control or shape their impressions of us (Schlenker, 2012). First impressions are especially important. Oftentimes, if we make a bad first impression it can be virtually impossible to overcome even if subsequent interactions are much more positive.


3.3.2. Specific Strategies Used in Self-Presentation

So that we can successfully shape the view others have of us to be positive, we need to engage in effortful behavior. How so? One strategy is to use self-promotion or engaging in behaviors or saying positive things about oneself. We often engage in this type of behavior on a first date or in an interview. Research has also shown that individuals higher in narcissism and lower in self-esteem engage in greater levels of online activity on social networking sites such as Facebook and use more self-promotional content to include About Me, Main Photo, View Photos, and status updates. The study also found gender differences insofar as males engaged in more self-promotion in the About Me and Notes sections while females displayed more self-promotional main photos (Mehdizadeh, 2010).

Another strategy is called ingratiation or complimenting, flattering, or engaging in other acts that lead a person to do things for you or like you. This is a typical strategy used by salespeople to have you engage in one clear behavior – buy a car or other product. Politicians are known to use the strategy also so that you come to like them while they are campaigning and then subsequently vote for them on election day. Cialdini (2007) writes in his book Influence: The Power of Persuasion, “Apparently we have such an automatically positive reaction to compliments that we can fall victim to someone who uses them in an obvious attempt to win our favor” (pg. 176).

Maybe you have been on a team at work before and had an idea that completely revolutionized the way your company completed a service for its clients. Did you gloat about your performance? Not likely. You were more likely to downplay your performance and talk about the contributions of your fellow teammates instead. The end result is that you will be seen as likeable and competent by others but for what is called false modesty, you must have been successful in your performance and others must know about it already (i.e. a fan was watching the big game and saw the wide receiver catch the game winning touchdown).

Another strategy is to choose situations or interpret behavior in ways that confirm already held beliefs or to avoid situations and criticism that might contradict these beliefs. Essentially, we want to confirm our existing self-concept but from the eyes of others. This behavior can best be described as self-verification.

Finally, we engage in self-monitoring or observing our own behavior so that we can make adjustments to produce the impression we desire in others and to meet the demands of the situation (Snyder, 1987). For instance, a literature review of self-monitoring through paper diaries, the internet, personal digital assistants, and digital scales in relation to weight loss, found that more frequent self-monitoring of diet, physical activity, or weight led to more successful outcomes for weight management (Burke, Wang, & Sevick, 2011).


3.4. Cognitive Biases and Heuristics Used to Bolster the Self


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define the self-serving bias.
  • Describe how social desirability is a form of the self-serving bias.
  • Contrast the false consensus and false uniqueness effects.
  • Outline the benefits, and perils, of optimism and pessimism.

Our final section covers cognitive biases and heuristics used to increase our sense of self, though we have discussed others already throughout this module.


3.4.1. The Self-Serving Bias

First, the self-serving bias is our tendency to see ourselves in a favorable light. We take credit for our successes but blame failures on outside forces. This bias is often displayed by students who are quicker to explain a bad grade on a test as the instructor creating a test that was too difficult or testing on information not in the study guide. When the student does well, though, it is due to their skill and time spent studying, and not necessarily to the test being extra easy.

We even have a tendency to see ourselves as less likely to exhibit a self-serving bias than others (Friedrich, 1996; Myers, 1990). Friedrich (1996) documented this effect across two studies. First, 47 upper level undergraduates enrolled in either a statistics or industrial/organizational psychology course completed an anonymous survey at the beginning of class having them read a paragraph about the results of a SAT survey and then respond to a paragraph describing the self-serving bias. At the end they were asked, “How often do you think (you; the average person) make this kind of mistake when judging or evaluating (yourself; him- or herself)?” and indicated their answer on a 9-point scale (1 meaning almost never and 9 indicating nearly all the time). The results showed that students generally saw themselves as significantly less likely to distort their self-perceptions. In the second study, 38 introductory psychology students were lectured on research related to the self-serving bias during the last third of a regularly scheduled class. At the beginning of the next class they were given a questionnaire asking them to what degree they thought that they or the average person (depending on the condition they were in) would make the mistake. The same 9-point scale was used. Results of the second study were consistent with the first such that students believed others are more likely to commit the self-serving bias than they are.

Another way we see the self-serving bias play out in research is through the social desirability effect or when participants only provide information that appears to be what is expected by society or is desirable. If asked questions about sexual activity, some may report lower levels of activity than is true or not mention acts of sexual impropriety. Though our society has become sexually charged, there are still limits to what is acceptable. We will talk more about self-serving behavior when we discuss attribution theory in Module 4. Explaining self-serving bias. So, what are potential causes of the self-serving bias? In a 2008 article, Shepperd, Malone, and Sweeny cite a few different classes of explanations. First, the previously discussed self-enhancement and self-presentation are offered as motivation-driven reasons (please see the previous sections for a discussion).

Second, they offer cognitive-driven explanations. The outcomes might be inconsistent with expectations such that our expectations are grounded in experience and we utilize cognitive mechanisms that might mute, dampen, or even erase previous negative experiences but not positive ones. Our outcomes may also not be consistent with our self-schema meaning that our views of our skills and abilities are often overly positive and that we view ourselves as the kind of person who produces positive outcomes, not negative ones. Positive outcomes are consistent with our self-schema while negative outcomes lead to two possible conclusions: the negative outcome had an internal cause and our positive self-schema is not correct, or the negative outcome had an external cause and our positive self-schema remains intact. A third possibility is that outcomes are inconsistent with actions. Positive expectations usually lead to goal-directed behavior. The authors offer the example of a boy who prepares to ask a girl out on a date by rehearsing what he will say, dressing nice, and acting charming. If she accepts his offer, he will see it as due to his efforts but if she rejects him, he will likely regroup and try again a few times. If the answer continues to be ‘no’ then he will believe the cause is not with him but something external.

A fourth cognitive explanation is called biased hypothesis-testing. When failure occurs in place of expected success, we are likely to ask ‘why did this happen?’ Like scientist’s, people form hypotheses to answer the question and then collect data to test it. But they are often not good scientists and engage in confirmation bias and see only information that confirms rather than disconfirms their hypothesis. People also find case-positive information more diagnostic than case-negative. Finally, people engage in different standards of proof in which they form a proposition or hypothesis and proceed to evaluate evidence. Unlike biased hypothesis-testing though, they consider all information and do not omit disconfirming evidence. How much information is needed to accept or reject their hypothesis also varies insofar as they require more information to accept an undesired hypothesis and less for a desired hypothesis.  For instance, the specific hypothesis tested (i.e. ‘Am I smart?’ or ‘Am I stupid?’) determines what information is sought out in biased hypothesis testing while in different standards of proof the exact hypothesis determines how much information is required to draw a conclusion (more proof for the question centered on whether they are stupid and less for if they are smart).

Shepperd, Malone, and Sweeny (2008) conclude that the self-serving bias can only be understood using both motivational and cognitive driven explanations.


3.4.2. Overestimating Our Opinions and Skills

People often overestimate to what degree their opinion is shared by others. This tendency is called the false consensus effect (Ross, Greene, & House, 1977). It may occur because people are biased in viewing their own positions as what everyone else subscribes to as well, or because they overgeneralize from case information with their opinion serving as one salient type of case information (Alicke & Largo, 1995). The false consensus effect has been demonstrated in regard to smoking behavior (thinking that half or more than half of adults or peers smoked led to the most smoking involvement; Botvin et al., 1992); drug use (Wolfson, 2000); engaging in health protective or defeating behaviors (Suls, Wan, & Sanders, 1988); a willingness to escalate a disturbance (Russell & Arms, 1995); presidential preferences such that supporters of a candidate predicted a higher percentage of support for the candidate than other candidates (Brown, 1982); determining the extent to which other voters would vote like you (Koestner et al., 1995); and illicit drug use by elite athletes (Dunn, Thomas, Swift, & Burns, 2011).

Likewise, we tend to underestimate to what degree others share our abilities and skills. This tendency is called the false uniqueness effect. We might see our math ability as rare, our future to be brighter, or our opinion of a social matter to be more desirable. One study found that participants believed their first name to be unique, whether it was rare or common. The effect held for both male and female names and the researchers also found that when we consider making a name change, rare names are often considered (Kulig, 2013).


3.4.3. Optimism…to the Extreme

Of course, seeing the jar as half full and not half empty has obvious benefits for mental health. This is the essence of the difference between being optimistic and pessimistic.  Scheier and Carver (1985) offered a theory of dispositional optimism which defines it as, “a stable individual difference that reflects the general perception that future positive outcomes will be common and future negative outcomes will be rare” (Gallagher, Lopez, & Pressman, 2012). Research has shown that being optimistic results in higher levels of subjective well-being for college students (Gallagher & Lopez, 2009) and adults (Isaacowitz, 2005), leads to more adaptive coping mechanisms (Carver et al., 2009; Nes & Segerstrom, 2006), can bring about greater success on the job (Seligman & Schulman, 1986), results in goal attainment (Segerstrom & Nes, 2006), and brings about better physical health (Giltay et al., 2004).

Is optimism universal? Gallagher, Lopez, and Pressman (2012) conducted a study using representative samples from 142 countries numbering over 150,000 participants and found that individuals of all ages, races, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds and most countries are optimistic and that this optimism leads to better subjective well-being and health. Optimism is not merely a benefit of living in an industrialized nation either.

But is there such a thing as being too optimistic to the point of being unrealistic? The answer is yes and Weinstein (1980) identified a tendency people have to think they are invulnerable and that others will be the victims of misfortune but not themselves. He called this error in judgment, which results in a bias towards favorable outcomes, unrealistic optimism. For instance, college students in one study were unrealistically optimistic about the likelihood they would develop alcohol related problems in the future such as having a hangover, missing classes, or having an argument with a friend over their drinking. The negative consequences of unrealistic optimism were found to be both proximal and distal (Dillard, Midboe, & Klein, 2009). Another study found that patient’s participating in early-phase oncology trials display the unrealistic optimism bias in relation to their expectation of the therapeutic benefit of the trial and that this tendency can undermine the informed consent of participants (Jansen et al., 2011).

Everything is not always roses and so expressing some pessimism can actually help us to be realistic. Defensive pessimism can help us manage our anxiety and pursue our goals by setting low expectations and mentally exploring possible outcomes of goal-relevant tasks (Norem, 2008; Norem & Cantor, 1986). Hazlett, Molden, and Sackett (2011) found that participants who were focused on growth and advancement preferred optimistic forecasts and perform better when they express an optimistic outlook while those who were concerned with safety and security preferred pessimistic forecasts and perform better when they express a pessimistic outlook.


Module Recap

That’s it. We spent an entire module talking about our – self and should feel no guilt over it. Kidding. To be serious though, we all try and answer the question of who we are and philosophers have been tackling issues related to what it means to be human and matters of human existence since the dawn of time. Our discussion focused on the self-concept, self-esteem, self-presentation, and biases and heuristics we make/use to protect our sense of self. We hope you enjoyed the wide array of issues we covered and with this topic out of the way, we can now continue our discussion in Part II of how we think about ourselves and others by focusing on ‘others.’ After this, we will round out Part II by discussing the attitudes we have about ourselves, others, and things in our world.


2nd edition


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