Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 4: Constructing the self-concept: What we know about ourselves (pp. 96–107)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Sources of the Self-concept (pp. 96–100)
    1. The construction of the self-concept
    2. Self-perception theory
    3. Motivation
    4. Accessibility
    5. Thoughts and feelings
    6. Effects of other people's reactions
    7. Social comparison
  2. Learning About Self and Others: The Same or Different? (pp. 100–102)
    1. Differences in amount of knowledge
    2. Differences in attribution
    3. Similarities in accuracy
  3. Multiple Selves (pp. 102–103)
  4. Putting It All Together: Constructing a Coherent Self-concept (pp. 103–104)
    1. Coherence through limited accessibility
    2. Coherence through selective memory
    3. Coherence through attribution
    4. Coherence through selecting a few key traits
  5. Cultural Differences in the Self-concept (pp. 104–107)
    1. Visions of the self
    2. Descriptions of self
    3. The self as a guide in adaptation
Sources of the Self-concept
The construction of the self-concept

The self-concept is constructed in much the same way that impressions from others are formed. The self-concept is the set of all an individual's beliefs about his or her personal qualities. These beliefs are based on different kinds of information.

Self-perception theory

Daryl Bem's (1967) self-perception theory says that we learn things about ourselves from our own behaviors, but only if we lack strong inner thoughts or feelings about this part of ourselves.


Behavior driven by intrinsic motivation leads to inferences about the self; behavior driven by extrinsic motivation reveals less about inner qualities.

External rewards lead to less intrinsic motivation (see Lepper et al., 1973; SP p. 97), because self-perceptional processes lead to the conclusion that the behavior was engaged in because of the reward.


Thinking about actual or imagined behavior increases the accessibility of related personal characteristics, which leads to self-inferences.

Thoughts and feelings

From the thoughts and feelings of a person, more accurate inferences about the self are drawn. This is true for the person as well as for others who have to form an impression of a person.

Effects of other people's reactions

Charles H. Cooley's ?Looking-glass self? means that people use other people's reactions as a source of self-knowledge (Cooley, 1902; SP p. 98). These reactions serve as a kind of a mirror, reflecting our image so that we can see it. In a study by Miller et al. (1975; SP p. 99), it was shown that children became to behave in a way that others described them. However, this should especially be the case for people who are insecure about their self-concept, such as children.

Social comparison

According to social comparison theory (Festinger, 1954), the self-concept is often shaped by comparisons between ourselves and others. People want to evaluate themselves accurately and therefore seek similar others to compare themselves to. In fact there are also other motives for social comparison. For example, social comparison also plays a role in distinguishing oneself from others, by focusing on the unique features of the self, compared to others.

Learning About Self and Others: The Same or Different?
Differences in amount of knowledge

Our self-knowledge is more extensive than our other-knowledge, probably leading to the difference in the way we perceive ourselves and others: We view ourselves as more variable and flexible than other people, because we know ourselves in all kinds of situations.

Differences in attribution

Because we have greater access to our own thoughts and feelings, we are more aware of the impact people, places, and events have on us than of the impact they have on others. This leads to actor–observer differences in attribution: in describing our own behavior, we take external factors into account. In describing others' behavior, we make correspondent inferences: assumptions that behavior reflects personality characteristics.

Reasons for actor–observer differences:

Similarities in accuracy

Although we have more information about ourselves than about others, this does not mean that our judgments about ourselves are more accurate than our judgments about other people. This is probably due to our use of more general knowledge about human behavior that we apply to interpret both ourselves and others.

Multiple Selves

Because people engage in different roles and situations, self-knowledge is organized around multiple roles, activities, and relationships. Therefore our self-concept consists of multiple selves, which are active in different social situations and make us actually think, feel, and behave differently when we are in different social roles, groups, and relationships.

Putting It All Together: Constructing a Coherent Self-concept
Coherence through limited accessibility

By making different (incoherent) parts of the self inaccessible, a coherent self is easily acquired by just focusing on specific coherent parts of the self.

Coherence through selective memory

People have selective memory, so that they forget inconsistent information about the self and easily retrieve consistent information. If some information needs to be reconstructed to be consistent, people will do this very easily.

Coherence through attribution

Inconsistent behavior is attributed to inconsistent circumstances, not to inconsistent selves.

Coherence through selecting a few key traits

People select a few core characteristics that uniquely describe them and form their self-schema. All information that is consistent with the self-schema is processed very quickly, and inconsistent information is rejected very quickly.

Cultural Differences in the Self-concept
Visions of the self

Although members in all cultures seek a coherent sense of self, the visions of what the self is differ across cultures. In independent cultures, the individual characteristics are emphasized; in interdependent cultures the social roles are more important.

Descriptions of self

In interdependent cultures, members of those cultures rely on self-aspects to define the self, not on self-schemata. Descriptions of self in independent cultures are more in terms of general traits, while descriptions in interdependent cultures are more in terms of the social situation.

The self as a guide in adaptation

Across all cultures the self serves as a guide in adaptation. Our self-knowledge tells us which situations to engage in and which things we should avoid. Therefore, accurate self-knowledge is needed, but accuracy is not the only goal.

So what does this mean?

People construct their self-concept in much the same way as they form impressions of other people. According to self-perception theory, people infer internal characteristics from their behavior. They also use thoughts and feelings and other people's reactions to form opinions about themselves. Social comparison theory describes how people compare themselves to others to learn what characteristics make them unique.

However, there are also differences in how we perceive other people's behavior. People tend to take the influence of the situation on their behavior into account, but attribute other people's behavior to internal characteristics, leading to actor–observer differences in attribution.

Because of the multiplicity of selfhood, people have to be selective in the availability of self-relevant information in order to keep the self a coherent structure.

Next topic

Constructing self-esteem: How we feel about ourselves

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 4 introduction
  2. Constructing the self-concept: What we know about ourselves
  3. Constructing self-esteem: How we feel about ourselves
  4. Effects of the self: Processes of self-regulation
  5. Defending the self: Coping with stresses, inconsistencies, and failures
  6. Chapter overview (PDF)
  7. Fill-in-the-blanks
  8. Multiple-choice questions