To Thine Own Self Be True – Self Concept and Self Identity

Who, and what, am I? This question seems to be central to our existence as individuals, yet it has stumped philosophers for decades. Recently, psychologists have begun to use their methodologies to tackle this question, with illuminating results. Phin Upham presents some of the seminal works by psychologists.

A few things seem clear about our identities: One, our identities are multi-faceted and, to an extent, in flux. Two, our identities are at least partially, if not largely, socially constructed. This means that they are very seriously related to our reference classes, our organizational and social identities, and to our cultural norms/values. Three, it seems clear that we only have a partial knowledge of what we consider our “identities” and that this very concept is partially socially based. Four, we have very little, if any at all, idea of how our self identity is formed and maintained.

William James, one of this nations greatest intellectual treasures, use psychology to explore these seminal questions. Psychology, as a methodology, is especially well suited to exploring questions of self-identity. Firstly, it is able to quantitatively come up with counterintuitive and unpredicted results through the use of controlled experiments and natural experiments (including cross cultural experiments). This is especially useful for self-concept analysis which is often counter intuitive by its very nature. Secondly, it is good at dealing with multi-layered and multi-functional phenomena. Self-concept analysis seems to be like this. Thirdly, it is highly focused on verifiable or at least testable results, which is something past philosophical speculation never took seriously and which limited research into self-concept analysis seriously. Lastly, it has developed as a literature in which OFTEN each paper takes on relatively small chunks of an issue and explores it in depth. Since such a field, with “bricks” of knowledge rather than “edifices” tending to be built, lends itself to a building up of walls of verified and accepted information, self-concept/identity analysis has been able to grow slowly and develop some foundational basic beliefs which are so helpful to so complex a field.

William James’s The Principles of Psychology, chapter X “The Consciousness of Self” is a masterful attempt to understand who and what our self identity, of who we are and how we view our selves. It is limited by its cultural relativism (as seen in later works explored in this essay), an “unscientific,” and more philosophically pensive, approach, and a lack of empirical, quantitative data to explore its propositions. Nevertheless, it provides a framework to think about the problem and effectively illustrates how hard it is to think about who and what we are. It astutely points out that we have multiple selves, that there is a salient to these multiple selves, that we have social selves, group selves, and individual selves, that our concept of self is arbitrary and adjusts, and many other ideas later explores more qualitatively and refined in later psychological works.

On of the major flaws of James’s work is its apparent lack of cross-cultural awareness shown in the early half which deals with self-identity and concept. James lived in the US (though he often traveled to England where his brother spent much time as well) during a very individualistic and optimistic time and bought into the American world-view. The usefulness of empirical works, limited in scope, that I discussed brifly earlier is brought to the forefront in Markus and Kitayama’s brilliant work on Japanese and US differences in self-identity. Through linguistic, aphoristic, quantitative, structural, and empirical means they show how the US and Japanese constructions of self and others are fundamentally different. In the US they found an individualistic and self-related self identity which sharply contrasted with the Japanese more close-knit, others related, shame-based society where harmonious relationships with others was highly valued. Rather than the US being the norm in its individualistic concept of self-identity, it is the outlier (from a global perspective).

Other pieces are illuminating in their attempts to mail down aspects of self identity and build a framework which can account for its complexity and adaptability. Brewer’s piece on the Social Self, for example, provides a very interesting guide as to what sorts of groups one will use as the basis for self-identity. She hypothesizes that people are functionalistic in their choice of social identification, that they wish to differentiate themselves while at the same time provide a sense of belonging. Her work is provides a model that is both empirical and analytical. Ashforth and Mael provide us with a Social Identity Theory that attempts to describe what may help an individual to partially define him/herself through an organization (to a greater or lesser extent). Features that help buffer, reinforce, and self-identify an individual within an organization are discussed.

Taifel and Turner’s piece on inter-group behavior can be seen as almost building, on the meso level, on the previous two articles mentioned. Once someone identifies themselves with a set of groups (especially with one group, or one group given some relevant context) how does this affect his/her relationship and interrelationship with members of other groups? How does group identity and group prestige and dominance positively and negatively affect members of a minority or a majority? If people identify themselves (voluntarily or non-voluntarily) with a group and that group has certain social characteristics (prestige, power, dominance, etc) what happens to that person in terms of real, measured consequences? How does this self-identity change over time or cross-culturally? Lastly, Leon Festinger’s A Theory of Social Comparison Processes builds on the microscopic level a model which looks, in many ways, like Taifel and Turner’s does on the meso-level. Festinger explores how an individual uses a group to build up and change his/her identity and how a group in turn treats the ideas and contributions of an individuals. If, for example, an individual is able to easily observe and compare himself to a group along a certain metric, and he is in the middle range of this comparison, he will have a more stable and stronger view of the metric. By building up this level of analysis, Festinger is lending a view into how being a member of a group can act as a feedback to modify ones views. So one chooses a group to identify with for certain reasons, this group affects one’s views, one in turn influences this group’s positions, and so on. It is a dynamic and never-ending process of equilibrium and disequilibrium.


James, W. (1890/1983). Principles of Psychology. (Chapter 10: The consciousness of self, pp. 279-325). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Tajfel, H. & Turner, J.C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchell & W.G. Austin (eds.), Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Chicago: Nelson-Hall (pp. 7-24).

Ashforth, B.E. & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14: 20-39.

Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion and motivation. Psychological Review, 98: 224-253.

Brewer, M.B. (1991). The social self: On being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 17: 475-482.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7: 114-140.

Samuel Phineas Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]