Self-concept plays an important role in information processing by facilitating the processing of self-relevant information, enhancing retrieval of relevant information, and influencing interpretations of information. As the more comprehensive construct, “self ” includes identity, relationships, roles, personality, and the physical body, as well as notions of agency and consciousness. “Self-concept” refers to one’s personal identity or the body of knowledge that an individual holds about himself or herself, including self-esteem or self-evaluation. Varying attributes and conceptions of the self can explain differing responses in social situations.
Concern with the self and self-concept is generally traced to the symbolic interactionists of the early 1900s. In Human nature and the social order, Cooley (1902) introduced the notion of the “looking glass self,” which arises in response to the opinions of others about the self. In constructing a self, the individual imagines his or her image in the mind of another person, imagines the other’s judgment of the self, and responds emotionally in a positive or negative way. George Herbert Mead, author of Mind, self, and society (1934), argued that the structure of the self is a reflection of social processes. Each interaction partner calls forth a different “self ” as a result of the unique responses that are communicated by the other. An individual’s self-concept is, at least in part, a function of how the individual believes that others view him or her. In Identities and interactions (1966), McCall & Simmons distinguished between personal and social identities. They highlighted the role of the social actor in devising a role-identity, which has a conventional dimension (the role) and an idiosyncratic dimension (identity). The conventional dimension is tied to generic expectations of social roles whereas the idiosyncratic dimension is the actor’s unique interpretation of the role.
The self and self-concept are important concepts for communication researchers. In the 1970s and 1980s, theorists recognized the role of individuals in the communication process. The self-concept was identified as a mechanism that gives regularity to interpersonal communication. Research investigated self-concept and self-esteem in public-speaking situations, ethnic identities, self and the use of technology, individuallevel variables such as communication apprehension, and the role of speech in the development of self-concept. This research and theorizing revealed that variables related to the self and self-concept mediate communication and information processing.
Influence Of The Self On Information Processing
The self and self-concept influence information processing in several specific ways. First, information that is relevant to the self-concept is retrieved more rapidly and successfully than other information. Second, the self-concept is used as a frame in person perception. Traits that are important to the self are used in judging others. Third, individuals actively seek situations and relational partners who provide feedback consistent with their self-concepts. Fourth, individuals interpret information in a way that is consistent with their self-concepts and personalities.
Individuals are motivated to maintain their self-concepts because the self is central to their understanding of the world. They do so using a combination of behaviors and cognitions called self-verification processes (Swann 2005). Research on self-verification reveals that social actors maintain their sense of self by seeking out interaction partners who perceive them the way they perceive themselves. For example, individuals with negative self-views prefer partners who give them negative feedback. When their interaction partners do not confirm their sense of self, individuals engage in behaviors designed to shape the perceptions of the partners so that those perceptions will be consistent with the social actor’s own view of self. Finally, if social actors are unsuccessful at conveying their self-concepts to their interaction partners, they may withdraw from the situation. College students, for example, are more likely to leave roommates who do not validate their self-conceptions.
The Role Of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is one of the most highly investigated components of the self-concept. Self-esteem refers to an individual’s affective evaluation of the self as positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) (Baumeister et al. 2003). Self-esteem is relatively stable (a trait dimension) but fluctuates around a baseline in response to success and failure (a state dimension). Self-esteem is positively related to self-reported communication competence. Individuals with higher self-esteem are happier and more satisfied with their lives than those with low self-esteem, who experience more depression. Individuals with high self-esteem report better interpersonal relationships than individuals with low self-esteem, but objective measures do not provide evidence for their assessments. Self-esteem is positively related to academic success; it appears to be a consequence of success rather than a cause of it. Individuals seek out relational partners and contexts consistent with their self-evaluations. Psychological research reveals that high self-esteem can have negative consequences, such as a greater susceptibility to ego threats. Individuals with high self-esteem become less likeable when threatened, seemingly because they become more independent. High self-esteem is also associated with higher levels of prejudice and derogation of out-group members. In response to ego-threats, individuals with low self-esteem become more likeable, perhaps because they become more interdependent following a threat.
Research on self-esteem is complicated by the diversity of individuals with high self-esteem. The category includes narcissists and individuals with defensive self-esteem as well as those who genuinely accept their shortcomings as well as their strengths. In addition, the effects of self-esteem on ego threats may depend on the bases for self-esteem. One approach to the bases of self-esteem suggests that individuals with contingent self-esteem ground their appraisals on meeting external expectations or standards; their self-esteem is fragile and associated with conflict and anxiety. Noncontingent self-esteem reflects unconditional self-acceptance and is associated with intrinsic motivation and effective coping following failure.
Another approach to the bases of self-esteem suggests that individuals base their appraisals on specific domains or contingencies of self-worth (e.g., on academic competence or God’s love), and that these contingencies vary from internal (e.g., virtue) to external (e.g., approval from others) (Crocker et al. 2006). Individuals are motivated to validate themselves in the domains or contingencies of their self-worth, but the motivation may also be a source of stress and actually undermine their success. Communication research examining self-esteem has not incorporated concerns with negative consequences or explored the complex nature of self-esteem.
Self-Schemas And Self-Categorizations
Two competing views of self-concept are self-schemas and self-categorizations. The concept of self-schema is rooted in schema theory; a self-schema is a collection of memories or a knowledge structure about the self that allows individuals to understand their social experiences (Markus 1977). Individuals are “schematic” with respect to a trait if they perceive the characteristic to be true of them and important to their self-definition. Thus, a self-schema is a relatively stable structure composed of characteristics that are most important to an individual’s self-definition. More recent formulations of the self-schema incorporate a working self-concept in addition to the self-schema. The working self-concept is more variable and influenced by situational constraints whereas the self-schema is a more stable and chronically accessible self-definition.
In contrast to the self-schema approach, the self-categorization approach (Turner 1987) draws a distinction between personal identity and social identity. Personal identity refers to the characteristics that define an individual when compared to other members of the same group (e.g., a woman perceives herself as competitive compared to other women). Social identity refers to the characteristics that define an individual when compared to members of a relevant “outgroup” (e.g., as a woman, she sees herself as less competitive than men). According to this formulation, self-concept is the identity (personal or social) that is salient at any given time; it is dependent on situational cues rather than simply a function of a stable knowledge structure about the self. The self-categorization approach has roots in social identity theory, which assumes that individuals strive to evaluate themselves positively. Because individuals are members of groups, they generally assign positive values to their groups in order to achieve a positive social identity. Individuals are inclined to favor their own group and, under certain conditions, discriminate against outgroups.
Self-construal (Markus & Kitayama 1991) is another dimension of the self that may be implicated in information processing. Underlying the concept of self-construal is the idea that individuals have multiple selves that concern their relationships with others and their individuality. According to this approach, the cultural dimension of individualism– collectivism is manifested in the self-construals of independence and interdependence. Individuals with independent self-construals view themselves as unique and autonomous. These self-construals are associated with individualistic cultures, such as that of the US. In contrast, individuals with interdependent self-construals define themselves in terms of their reference groups. Interdependent self-construals are associated with collective cultures, such as those in Asia. Research examining this concept has provided mixed results, most likely because of problems with measuring self-construals (Levine et al. 2003).
Whereas much research on self-concept focuses on the content of the self-definition (e.g., as outgoing or a member of a particular group), the concept of self-complexity is concerned with the structure of the self-concept. Self-complexity refers to the extensiveness of the self-concept, conceptualized as the number of unique characteristics used to define the self. Individuals who are more sensitive to feedback are higher in self-complexity (Edwards 1990), and most groups of teenagers who watch high levels of television are lower in self-complexity (Harrison 2006). Self-complexity is implicated in information processing by serving as a buffer against stressful events (Linville 1987).
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