Developing Self-Concept: Just Who Do You Think You Are?

Before we can delve into the ways in which self-concept influences emotion, behavior, and interpersonal relationships, we must first understand the working definition of the term “self-concept.” In order to facilitate effective research, social psychologists have divided self-concept into two frameworks: conceptual and operational. The conceptual definition of self-concept is further broken down into four self identities, which include: the material self, the inner self, the interpersonal self, and the societal self. The material self refers to the self that resides within the boundaries of the physical body. The inner self relates to the more individual, private and self-reflective identity. The interpersonal self is a reflection of an individual’s “collection of roles” in the context of interactions with others. Finally, the societal self is related to the social identities of collective society or culture (Fiske, 2004).

The operational definition of self-concept addresses the working definition of self-concept which includes how it can be measured or experimentally. The operational definition focuses on the ways in which self-concept affects people on the cognitive (self-concept), affective (self-esteem), and behavioral (self-presentation) levels. In this way, self-concept is deemed the cognitive representation of the self and is primarily focused on the knowledge people have of themselves. Self-esteem, which involves the self and emotion, focuses on the way people generally feel about themselves and the extent to which they view themselves as worthy or lovable. Self-presentation, a facet of behavior, refers to the ways in which people attempt to convey a certain image to others (Fiske, 2004).

Development of Self-Concept

People acquire self-knowledge and interpret that knowledge in various ways, primarily from four sources of self-knowledge, which include: self-perception, introspection, social comparison, and social feedback. Typically, people develop an isolated self-concept from self-perception and introspection, whereas they develop an interrelated self-concept from social comparison and social feedback (Fiske, 2004).

Self-perception theory, which was developed by Daryl Bem, claims that people will look at their own behavior to determine their attitude when they are unsure of their attitude (Nier, 2007). Therefore, one important source of self-knowledge is observing one’s own behavior. Observing oneself in this way, as an outsider might, can assist people in making more accurate judgments about how others perceive them (Fiske, 2004).

Introspection refers to how people develop a sense of who they are from their inner thoughts and feelings. Considering their own inner experience, rather than behavior, can help people to identify attitudes that are incongruent with their actions. When it comes to self-concept, people generally tend to believe that their thoughts and feelings are the most revealing whereas outsiders view behavior as more telling (Fiske, 2004).

Social comparison discusses the comparisons people make between themselves and others in order to ascertain progress (Fiske, 2004). This enables them to obtain self-knowledge from looking at others. It is believed that others around us help us to determine a standard of measure, such as economic status, intelligence, emotional stability, etc (Myers, 2005). We compare ourselves to others in order to determine how we “measure up,” both in the short- and long-term (Fiske, 2004).

Similar to social comparison, social feedback is also an important source of self-knowledge. It refers to judgments people make about themselves in reaction to responses from others. A person’s self-concept is affected by both actual and perceived appraisals; a person’s self-concept is correlated with how they think they are viewed by others. The way people use their interpretation of others’ appraisals to form perceptions about themselves is referred to as the “looking-glass self,” a concept developed by Charles Cooley (Myers, 2005). We use reflections from others as a way to decide how we view ourselves.

The Self and Emotion

Self-esteem is defined as the way an individual feels about themselves. The relationship between self-concept and self-esteem is positively correlated; if a person perceives himself negatively, then he will likely experience negative feelings about himself and vice versa. The relationship between self-concept and self-esteem is generally discussed in terms of three psychological theories: self-discrepancy theory, self-evaluation maintenance theory, and affective forecasting theory (Fiske, 2004).

Self-discrepancy theory focuses on three versions of the self: the actual self, the ought self and the ideal self. The actual self is a person’s perception of who they currently are. The ought self is the version of the self a person feels he should become. The ideal self represents the self a person wants to become. The ought self, because its focus is on what should be, is related to feelings of guilt; usually an individual will feel guilty if they do not perform the way they feel they should. The ideal self refers to aspirations, which is related to more positive emotions. The ought self tends to emphasize prevention and avoidance of negative consequences whereas the ideal self focuses on promotion, progress, and positive results. Self-discrepancy theory states that the discrepancy between the actual self and ideal self creates feelings of failure in reaching goals and tends to predict depression. Dissonance between the actual self and the ought self focus on avoiding negative consequences and usually lead to anxiety. Therefore, failure to perform in accordance with the ought self and the ideal self produce negative emotions and decrease self-esteem (Fiske, 2004).

Self-evaluation maintenance theory focuses on emotional discord caused within relationships. The theory focuses on the emotional disturbances that occur when a central area of an individual’s self-concept is threatened by another person. Self-evaluation maintenance theory examines the relationship between self performance and another person’s performance in areas high in self-relevance. In short, if a close other performs better than an individual in an area of high self-relevance; this may decrease the individual’s self-esteem (Fiske, 2004).

Affective forecasting theory examines the way in which people try to predict how future events will make them feel. People often misjudge their future actions; people tend to overestimate the impact of negative events and underestimate their own coping skills. People’s feelings of competence in dealing with negative situation are often understated (Fiske, 2004). Individuals with higher self-esteem frequently feel more positively about their ability to cope with difficult life events (Myers, 2005).

The Self and Behavior

Self-presentation, self-monitoring, and self-regulation explain the relationship between a person’s self-concept and their behavior. The relationship between self-concept and behavior focuses on self-presentation, or how people present themselves to others. The way people see themselves within a given social context influences the way they behave. Fiske (2004) states that the reasons self-presentation is different within various contexts are personal goals, audience, immediate situation, and society. Self-presentation tends to depend on a person’s individual goals (i.e., if a student values scholastic achievement then she will present herself as a good student). Another factor influencing self-presentation is the audience; people tend to select aspects of themselves appropriate or pleasing for their target audience. The immediate situation also plays a role in self-presentation because people will typically describe themselves based on what identifies them in a given setting (i.e., defining oneself by job title at one’s place of employment). Finally, society influences self-presentation because humans are social beings and ultimately will adapt to achieve a sense of belonging (Fiske, 2004).

Self-monitoring also influences behavior because it highlights how much people will monitor themselves to fit a particular social situation. Self-monitoring refers to how much a person attends to a given social situation. Low self-monitors tend to see themselves as central and are less likely to alter their behavior to fit the group’s norms. High self-monitors see the group goals as central; therefore, the social situation will guide their behavior (Fiske, 2004).

Finally, self-regulation also influences behavior within a social context. Self-regulation refers to the way people attempt to regulate their individual behavior and suggests when people are able or unable to control their behavior. Attempts at self-control (i.e. dieting) diminish an individual’s self-regulatory capabilities. Therefore, using self-control can often deplete an individual’s ability to regulate their behavior. For example, if a person is able to resist eating fattening foods, she will be less likely to regulate her behavior during a second opportunity to resist the food (Fiske, 2004).


Self-concept is defined both conceptually and operationally. The conceptual definition refers to the material, inner, interpersonal, and societal self. The operational definition, used by researchers to observe and measure self-concept includes: self-concept (cognitive/thoughts), self-esteem (affective/feelings), and self-presentation (behavioral). Self-knowledge is acquired through self-perception, introspection, social comparison, and social feedback. Self-concept influences self-esteem as evidenced by three theories: self-discrepancy theory, self-evaluation theory, and affective forecasting theory. Each theory focuses on how self-concept can affect the way people feel about themselves. Self-concept influences behavior because self-presentation changes within various social contexts. People use strategic self-presentation, self-monitoring, and self-regulation to determine appropriate behavior in social situations. In short, self-concept influences not only how an individual feels about himself, but also how he behaves in given social situations. Because we live in a social world, a concern about appropriate self-presentation — which is governed by one’s self-concept — is a constant consideration. People are constantly adjusting their perception of themselves in order to feel more comfortable both within themselves and within a social context. Therefore, if a person wants to experience a more positive self-awareness, he can simply seek out a social environment that provides him with positive reflective feedback.


Fiske, S. (2004). Social beings. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Myers, D. (2005). Social psychology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Nier, J. (2007). Taking sides: Clashing views in social psychology (2nd ed.). Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.