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Chapter 3: The Social Self
• In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks describes patient William Thompson who,
suffering from a brain disorder that impairs memory of recent events, is unable to recall anything for more
than a few seconds.
• Thompson is always disoriented and lacking a sense of inner continuity, always trying to grasp a
constantly vanishing identity. From one moment to the next, he could improvise new identities.
• In social settings, he would go into a veritable delirium of identity-making and seeking. However, when
left alone, he was allowed to relax. This highlights the difference between the private “inner” self and the
“outer” social self.
• The ABCs of self: affect, behaviour, and cognition. How do people come to know themselves, develop
a self-concept and maintain a stable sense of identity? How do people evaluate themselves, enhance
their self-images, and defend against threats to their self esteem? How to people regulate their own
actions and present themselves to others according to interpersonal demands?
• Self-concept is the sum total of beliefs that people have about themselves. This is made up of cognitive
elements called self-schemas, beliefs about oneself that guide the processing of self-relevant
information. Self-schemas are to self-concept like books to a library.
• For any specific attribute, some people may be schematic with respect to it – it is a conspicuous aspect
of their self-concept – while others are aschematic. For an attribute like body weight, schematics may
experience that mundane events like a trip to the supermarket may trigger thoughts about the self.
Rudiments of the Self-Concept
• Consciousness is like a spotlight, shining on only one object at a time but able to shift rapidly between
objects and to process information outside of awareness. In this spotlight, the self is front and center
Is the Self specially represented in the brain?
• Yes, our sense of identity is biologically rooted.
• The synaptic connections within the brain provide the biological base for memory, which makes possible
the sense of continuity needed for normal identity (Joseph LeDoux). The self can be transformed, and
even destroyed, by severe head injuries, brain tumours, diseases, and exposure to toxic substances that
damage the nervous system (Todd Feinberg).
• The self is a frame of reference that powerfully influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in
complex way. There is no one single structure that houses aspects of the self, although imaging
techniques does suggest self-based processes can be traced to certain areas.
Do nonhuman animals show self-recognition?
• Gallup (1977): Placed different animals in a room with a large mirror. At first, they greeted their own
images by vocalizing, gesturing, and making other social responses. After several days, the great apes
(chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) seemed capable of self-recognition, using the mirror to pick food out
of their teeth, groom themselves, etc.
• In another experiment, Gallup painted red dye on their forehead. Upon seeing the red spot in the mirror,
the apes spontaneously reached for their own foreheads, proof that they perceived the image as their
• Most humans begin to recognize themselves in the mirror between 18 and 24 months old.
• Self-recognition among great apes and human infants is the first clear expression of the concept “me”.
• Certain intelligent nonprimates can also recognize themselves: bottlenose dolphins, Asian elephants Page 2 of15
• The ability to see yourself as a distinct entity in the world is a necessary first step in the development of a
What makes the self a social concept?
• Looking-glass self (Charles Horton Cooley) suggests that other people serve as mirror in which we see
• We often come to know ourselves by imagining what significant others think of us and then incorporating
those perceptions into our self-concepts.
o However, what we think of ourselves, informed by what we imagine others think of us, often does
not match what others actually think of us.
• The self is relational: we draw our sense of who we are from our past and current relationships with the
significant others in our lives.
• Gallup’s experiment with red dye was also done on apes raised in social isolation. These apes did not
show self-recognition until after social exposure to peers.
Origin of Self-Concept: Introspection
• Introspection is a looking inward at one’s own thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings and motivations. It is
a powerful way to derive self-knowledge .
• However, others around you need not know your private thoughts to get to know you. In fact,
introspection may not provide a direct pipeline to self-knowledge: many people often cannot accurately
explain the causes or correlates of their own behaviour.
• Wilson (2002): Introspection can actually impair self-knowledge.
o Study found that the attitudes people reported having about different objects corresponded closely
to their behaviour toward those objects. E.g. The more they say they enjoy a task, the more time
they spent on it; the more attractive they find a painting, they more pleasure they reveal in their
o Yet, after participants were told to analyze the reasons for how they felt, the attitudes they reported
no longer corresponded to their behaviour. Why?
It is possible to think too much and get too analytical, only to be confused: we are too busy
mentally processing information to understand our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
People overestimate the positives: we think we are better than average in our skills,
prospects for success, accuracy of opinions etc., although this is statistically impossible.
• Affective forecasting: People have difficulty projecting forwards and predicting how they would feel in
response to future emotional events.
o Wilson and Gilbert (2003, 2005): Comparing predictions on how subjects feel after various life
events to how others experiencing these events said they actually felt, discovered that people
overestimate the strength and duration of their emotional reactions in impact/durability bias.
o Role in psychological coping mechanism to deal with negative life events; human beings can be
remarkably resilient, and not as devastated as we fear we will be.
o When we introspect about the emotional impact on us of a future event, we become so focused on
that single event that we neglect to take into account the effects of other life experiences. To
become more accurate in our predictions, we need to force ourselves to think more broadly about
all the events that impact us.
Origin of Self-Concept: Perceptions of Our Own Behaviour
• Bem (1972): Self-perception theory suggests that since internal states are weak or difficult to interpret,
people infer what they think or how they feel by observing their own behaviour and the situation in which
it takes place (devouring a sandwich to conclude that you must have been incredibly hungry). Page 3 of15
• This excludes behaviour observed in the presence of compelling situational pressures like reward or
punishment (being paid to eat a sandwich), but only when the situation alone is insufficient to have
caused their behaviour.
• When people are coaxed into saying or doing something, they come to view themselves in ways
consistent with their public statements and behaviour – when induced to describe themselves in flattering
terms, subjects score higher on later tests of self-esteem.
• One may also infer something about oneself by observing the behaviour of someone else with whom you
completely identify, through vicarious self-perception.
o Goldstein and Cialdini (2007): Students are fitted with EEG recording devices. The subjects are
randomly told that their brain-wave patterns closely resemble that of the person whose interview
they would hear.
o They then watch an interview with another student who in it agrees to spend some time helping out
on a project on homelessness.
o In a post-interview questionnaire, this similarity-condition group rated themselves as more sensitive
and more self-sacrificing. In fact, 93% of them agreed to spend extra time helping the
experimenter, vs. 61% in the no-feedback control group.
Self-Perceptions of Emotion
• The facial feedback hypothesis states that changes in facial expression can trigger corresponding
changes in the subjective experience of emotion.
• Facial feedback and evoke and magnify certain emotional states – smiling can indeed make you feel
happier. However, the face is not necessary to the subjective experience of emotion; despite facial
paralysis causing impairment of ability to outwardly show emotion, patient still reports feeling various
• This feedback hypothesis may work through the process of self-perception (“If I’m smiling, I must be
happy”). Experiment inducing facial expressions with either a mirror or not showed that those who saw
themselves in a mirror, later said their moods were stronger.
• Facial movements may also spark emotion by producing physiological changes in the brain, namely that
smiling causes facial muscles to increase the flow of air-cooled blood to the brain, which produces a
pleasant state by lowering brain temperature.
o Frowning decreases blood flow, producing an unpleasant state by raising temperature
o Zajonc (1989): Participants repeating the vowel sounds ah and e, which cause people to mimic
smiling, lowered forehead temperature and elevated mood. On the other hand, sounds u and ü
which mimic frowning increased temperature and dampened mood.
• Expressive body posture also provides sensory feedback and influence the way we feel: expansion by
standing erect with shoulders raised and head held high, or contraction with slumping and head bowed.
• Experiment for people to sit in either a slumped or upright position by varying the height of the table they
had to write on showed that people can also change their mood by expansion or contraction.
Self-Perceptions of Motivation
• Intrinsic motivation originates in factors within a person, when they engage in an activity for the sake of
their own interest, the challenge, or sheer enjoyment. This includes eating a fine meal, spending time
with friends, etc.
• Extrinsic motivation originates in factors outside the person, when they engage in an activity as a
means to an end, for tangible benefits. This may be for money, grades, or recognition, to fulfill
orbligations or to avoid punishment.
• The overjustification effect is the tendency for intrinsic motivation to diminish, and often become less
enjoyable, for activities that have become associated with reward or other extrinsic factors. When
someone is rewarded for listening to music, their behaviour becomes overjustified and overrewarded; Page 4 of15
then, observing that their own efforts have paid off, people begin to wonder if the activity was ever worth
pursuing in its own right.
• Lepper (1973): Measuring intrinsic motivation of children playing with markers with no reward, when told
they would get a reward, and not told but offered a reward at the end anyway.
o Those who had expected and received a reward were no longer as interested in the markers,
spending less time playing with them. Children who had not received a reward or were getting an
unexpected reward did not have the promise of a tangible benefit, and remained intrinsically
• Amabile (1996): Participants are more creative (writing poems, drawing pictures) when they feel
interested (“play)” and challenged by the work itself, then when they feel pressured to make money, fulfill
obligations, meet deadlines, win competitions, or impress others (“work”).
• Intrinsic motivation is undermined by some types of rewards, but not others:
o Warneken and Tomasello (2008): Experimenter would drop a pen, and 20-month-old babies are
watched to see if they would help by picking up the object. Without any treatment, most babies
o Then, researchers start responding to the assistance by giving the child a toy cube, verbal
praise, or nothing. The no-response condition babies continued to help 89% of the time, and those
with verbal praise helped 81% of the time. However, those with a reward only helped 53% of the
time when the reward was no longer given.
o For verbal praise, intrinsic motivation can be enhanced with positive feedback about
• Individual differences also matter: for those who are intrinsically oriented, rewards may be unnecessary
or detrimental. For others who are highly focused on the achievement of certain goals, extrinsic
inducements can boost intrinsic motivation.
Origin of Self-Concept: Influences of Other People
Social Comparison Theory
• People tend to describe themselves in ways that set them apart from others in their immediate vicinity.
Changing one’s social surroundings can change that person’s spontaneous self-description.
• This indicates that the self is relative, a social construct, and that we define ourselves in part by using
family members, friends, and others as a benchmark.
• Social Comparison Theory (Leon Festinger, 1954): When people are uncertain of their abilities or
opinion, they evaluate themselves through comparisons with similar others.
o When do we turn to others for comparative information?
Mostly, people engage in social comparison in states of anxiety when objective means of self-
evaluation are not readily available. However, people do judge themselves in relation to
others even when more objective standards are available.
Klein (1997): Subjects make a series of judgements of artwork and then told that they had
either 60% or 40% of their answers correct – and that this was either 20% higher or lower
than the average. When later rating their own skill, subjects were influenced more by their
relative scores than their absolute scores – better to have a 40% score above average, than
a 60% score below average.
o Of everyone on Earth, with whom do we choose to compare ourselves?
We look to others who are similar to us in relevant ways. If you are curious about your writing
skills, you’re more likely to compare yourself with other university students than high-
schoolers or best-selling authors.
Exceptions: coping with personal inadequacies by focusing on others less able than
themselves Page 5 of15
Two-Factor Theory of Emotion
• We also turn to others to determine something as personal and subjective as our own emotions.
• When people were frightened into thinking they would receive painful electric shocks, most sought the
company of others in the same predicament. Nervous and uncertain about how they should be feeling,
participants wanted to affiliate with similar others for the purpose of comparison.
• However, when they were not fearful and expecting only mild shocks, or when others were not taking
part in the same experiment, participants preferred to be alone. “Misery loves miserable company.”
• Two-Factor Theory of Emotion states that two factors are necessary to feel a specific emotion:
o 1) A person must experience the symptoms of physiological arousal, like racing heart, perspiration,
o 2) The person must make a cognitive interpretation that explains the source of the arousal. The
presence of others around us helps us interpret our own arousal.
• Scachter (1962): Participants injected with epinephrine and are either forewarned or not. Participants are
left with a confederate introduced as having received the same injection. In some sessions, the
confederate behaved euphorically, while in others he displayed anger.
o Those in the placebo group experienced no physiological arousal and had no symptoms to explain.
o Those in the drug-informed group expected the physiological symptoms and did not need search
for an explanation.
o Those in the drug-uninformed group suddenly became aroused without knowing why, and took
cues from the confederate to try and identify the sensations as either happy or angry.
• When people are unclear about their own emotional states, they sometimes interpret how they feel by
watching others. For others to influence your emotion, your level of physiological arousal cannot be too
intense, or else it will be experienced as. As well, the other people must be present as a possible
explanation for arousal before its onset – people turn for an explanation to events that preceded the
change in their physiological state.
Origin of Self-Concept: Autobiographical Memories
• Without autobiographical memories – recollections of the sequences of events that have touched your
life – you would have no coherent self-concept. Autobiographical memory links the present to the past
and provides us with an inner sense of continuity
• When prompted to recall their own experiences, people typically report more events from the recent past
than from the distant past. However, consistent exceptions:
o Large number of personal memories from their adolescence and early adulthood years, a
“reminiscence peak” due to these being busy and formative years in one’s life.
o Transitional “firsts” such as the first day arriving on university campus, first time meeting your
significant other. College graduates disproportionately recount the most memorable experiences as
from the first two months of their first year, and the last month of their senior year.
• Not all experiences leave the same impression: flashbulb memories describe enduring, detailed, high-
resolution recollections biologically equipped for survival purposes to “print” dramatic events in memory.
However, these memories are not necessarily accurate or even consistent over time.
• Memories shape the self-concept, but self-concept shapes memories too: people are often motivated to
distort the past in ways that are self-inflated, to reflect favourably on the self.
o Senate Watergate hearings (1973): Key witness John Dean, former counsel to Nixon, consistently
exaggerated his own role and importance in his recounts of conversations, as compared to the
o Bahrick (1996): College students recalling high school grades recalled most correctly, but the errors
were largely grade inflations; the lowest grades were recalled with the least accuracy and the most
inflation. Page 6 of 15
Origin of Self-Concept: Cultural Influences on the Self-Concept
• Some cultures value individualism, and the virtues of independence, autonomy, and self-reliance; one’s
personal goals take priority over group allegiances. These include the U.S., Australia, UK, Canada and
• Others value collectivism and the virtues of interdependence, cooperation, and social harmony; a
person is first and foremost a loyal member of a family, team, church and state. These include
Venezuela, Colombia, Pakistan, Peru, Taiwan and China.
• Individualism and collectivism exist along a continuum, and there are differences within a country: African
Americans are most individualistic, while Asian and Latino Americans are most collectivistic.
• There is a close link between cultural orientation with self-conceptions and identities.
o Independent view of the self as distinct, autonomous, and endowed with unique dispositions (“I
enjoy being unique and different from others”)
o Interdependent view where the self is part of a larger social network that includes one’s family and
coworkers (“My happiness depends on the happiness of those around me”).
• This can influence the way we perceive, evaluate, and present ourselves in relation to others.
o Individualistic cultures strive for personal achievement, overestimating their contributions while
blaming others for failure.
o Collectivist cultures derive more satisfaction from the status of a valued group, underestimating
their own role and presenting themselves in more modest
• Our cultural orientations may lead us to favour similarity or
uniqueness in unrelated things, such as abstract shapes: in a set
of 9 shapes, most are identical in position and orientation but one
or more is different.
o Subjects asked which of the 9 subfigures in each set they
prefer most. American subjects prefer the unique shapes, while Korean subjects prefer those that
• We have both personal and collective aspects of the self: the part that comes to mind depends on the
o Students from Hong Kong who were asked to describe themselves in either a Chinese test or an
English test gave different results.
o Students who took the test in English focused more on personal traits, while those who took it in
Chinese focused more on group affiliations.
• Dialecticism is an Eastern system of thought that accepts the coexistence of contradictory
characteristics within a single person, e.g. Proverb “Beware of your friends, not your enemies.” This is a
core difference from the Western perspective, grounded in logic, by which people differentiate seeming
opposites on the assumption that if one is right, the other must be wrong.
o Dialectical style of thought has implications for the self: English and Chen (2007) questioned
Caucasian and Asian-American students about what kind of person they are in different everyday
o Caucasians portray their “true selves” as stable across the board, whereas Asians vary their self-
concepts to suit different relationship situations, though they are consistent within those situations.
• Social and emotional relationships are an important part of Latin American collectivist cultures. Latino
cultures prize the concept of simpatico, which emphasizes expressive displays of personal charm,
graciousness, and hospitality. This cultural value is part of the Latino self-concept – more likely to
describe themselves using simpatico-related terms including likable, friendly, sympathetic, and amiable. Page 7 of 15
• Self-esteem is an affective (emotional) component of the self, consisting of a person’s positive and
negative self-evaluations and judgements.
• People can view parts of the self differently since the self-concept is made up of many self-schemas.
One may judge some parts of oneself more favourably than other parts.
• The degree of self-worth is not permanent – it is a state of mind that fluctuates in response to success,
failure, ups and downs in fortune, social relations, and other life experiences.
• The stability of self-esteem differs between individuals; for some people self-esteem can fluctuate in
response to daily experiences, making them both highly responsive to positives and overly sensitive to
The Need for Self Esteem
• Leary and Baumeister (2000): People are inherently social animals and the desire for self-esteem is
driven by this primitive need to connect with others and gain their approval. Self-esteem acts as a
“sociometer”, a rough indicator of how we’re doing in the eyes of others: the threat of social rejection
lowers self-esteem, which activates the need to regain approval and acceptance.
• Terror Management Theory: Since we are biologically programmed for life and self-preservation, to
cope with the paralyzing fear of our own death, we construct worldviews that provide meaning and
purpose. Part of this is done by preserving our self-esteem.
o Pyszczynski (2004): After given positive feedback on a test, boosting their self-esteem, subjects
react to graphic scenes of death with less anxiety and defensiveness.
• High self-esteem people:
1. Are happier, healthier, more productive and more successful
2. Are confident and motivated, and persist longer on tasks
3. Sleep better and have fewer ulcers and colds
4. Conform less to peer pressure
5. Are more accepting and trusting of others
• Low self-esteem people:
1. Anxiety, depression, illness, and pessimism
2. Less task persistence, less confidence, less success
3. More learned helplessness
4. Mre self-blame for failure
• However, there is no causal link between self-esteem and desirable life outcomes like performing well at
work or being socially popular. In fact, pursuing high self-esteem may cause people to avoid activities