12.6 Exploring the Self

LOQ 12-20 Why has psychology generated so much research on the self? How important is self-esteem to our well-being?

“The first step to better times is to imagine them.”

Chinese fortune cookie

Self your image and understanding of who you are; in modern psychology, the idea that this is the center of personality, organizing your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

We can think of our self-image as our internal view of our personality. Underlying this idea is the notion that the self is the center of personality—the organizer of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT . . . On the Food Network’s Chopped show, contestants are pitted against one another in stressful situations. The entertaining episodes do illustrate a valid point: Seeing how potential chefs behave in such job-relevant situations helps predict their job performance.
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Consider the concept of possible selves (Cross & Markus, 1991; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Your possible selves include your visions of the self you dream of becoming—the rich self, the successful self, the loved and admired self. Your possible selves also include the self you fear becoming—the unemployed self, the academically failed self, the lonely and unpopular self. Possible selves motivate us to lay out specific goals that direct our energy effectively and efficiently (Landau et al., 2014). Middle school students whose families struggle financially are more likely to earn high grades if they have a clear vision of themselves succeeding in school (Duckworth et al., 2013).

spotlight effect overestimating others’ noticing and evaluating our appearance, performance, and blunders (as if we presume a spotlight shines on us).

Carried too far, our self-focus can lead us to fret that others are noticing and evaluating us. One of our favorite psychology experiments demonstrated this spotlight effect by having Cornell University students put on T-shirts featuring soft-rock star Barry Manilow, then enter a room with other students. Feeling self-conscious, the T-shirt wearers guessed that nearly half their peers would take note of the shirt as they walked in. In reality, only 23 percent did (Gilovich, 1996). The point to remember: We stand out less than we imagine, even with dorky clothes or bad hair, and even after a blunder like setting off a library alarm (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999; Savitsky et al., 2001).

To turn down the brightness of the spotlight, we can use two strategies. The first is simply knowing about the spotlight effect. Public speakers perform better if they understand that their natural nervousness is not obvious (Savitsky & Gilovich, 2003). The second is to take the audience’s perspective. When we imagine audience members empathizing with our situation, we tend to expect we will not be judged as harshly (Epley et al., 2002).

The Benefits of Self-Esteem

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self-esteem our feelings of high or low self-worth.

If we like our self-image, we probably have high self-esteem. This feeling of high self-worth will translate into more restful nights and less pressure to conform. We’ll be more persistent at difficult tasks. We’ll be less shy, anxious, and lonely, and, in the future, we’ll be more successful and just plain happier (Greenberg, 2008; Orth & Robins, 2014; Swann et al., 2007). Our self-esteem changes as we age. In one study of nearly 1 million people across 48 nations, self-esteem increased from adolescence to middle adulthood (Bleidorn et al., 2016).

Self-esteem is a household word. College students even report wanting high self-esteem more than food or sex (Bushman et al., 2011). But most research challenges the idea that high self-esteem is “the armor that protects kids” from life’s problems (Baumeister, 2006, 2015; Dawes, 1994; Leary, 1999; Seligman, 1994, 2002). Problems and failures lower self-esteem. So, maybe self-esteem simply reflects reality. Maybe it’s a side effect of meeting challenges and getting through difficulties. Maybe kids with high self-esteem do better in school because doing better in school raises their self-esteem. Maybe self-esteem is a gauge that reports the state of our relationships with others (Reitz et al., 2016). If so, isn’t pushing the gauge artificially higher with empty compliments much like forcing a car’s low-fuel gauge to display “full”?

If feeling good follows doing well, then giving praise in the absence of good performance may actually harm people. After receiving weekly self-esteem-boosting messages, struggling students earned lower than expected grades (Forsyth et al., 2007). Other research showed that giving people random rewards hurt their productivity. Martin Seligman (2012) reported that “when good things occurred that weren’t earned, like nickels coming out of slot machines, it did not increase people’s well-being. It produced helplessness. People gave up and became passive.”


Narcissism excessive self-love and self-absorption.

There is, however, an important effect of low self-esteem. People who feel negatively about themselves also tend to behave negatively toward others (Amabile, 1983; Baumgardner et al., 1989; Pelham, 1993). Deflating a person’s self-esteem produces similar effects. Researchers have temporarily lowered people’s self-esteem—for example, by telling them they did poorly on a test or by insulting them. These participants were then more likely to insult others or to express racial prejudice (vanDellen et al., 2011; van Dijk et al., 2011; Ybarra, 1999). Self-image threat even increases unconscious racial bias (Allen & Sherman, 2011). But inflated self-esteem can also cause problems. When studying insult-triggered aggression, researchers found that “conceited, self-important individuals turn nasty toward those who puncture their bubbles of self-love” (Baumeister, 2001; Rasmussen, 2016). Narcissistic men and women forgive others less, take a game-playing approach to their romantic relationships, and engage in sexually forceful behavior (Blinkhorn et al., 2015; Bushman et al., 2003; Campbell et al., 2002; Exline et al., 2004).

The New Yorker Collection, 1996, Mike Twohy from cartoonbank.com. All Rights Reserved.

Self-Serving Bias

LOQ 12-21 What evidence reveals self-serving bias, and how do defensive and secure self-esteem differ?

self-serving bias our readiness to perceive ourselves favorably.

Imagine dashing to class, hoping not to miss the first few minutes. But you arrive five minutes late, huffing and puffing. As you sink into your seat, what thoughts go through your mind? Do you go through a negative door, thinking, “I hate myself” and “I’m worthless”? Or do you go through a positive door, saying to yourself, “At least I made it to class” and “I really tried to get here on time”?

Personality psychologists have found that most people choose the second door, which leads to positive self-thoughts. We have a good reputation with ourselves. We show a self-serving bias—a readiness to perceive ourselves favorably (Myers, 2010). Consider these two findings:

People accept more responsibility for good deeds than for bad, and for successes than for failures. When athletes succeed, they credit their own talent. When they fail, they blame poor weather, bad luck, lousy officials, or the other team’s amazing performance. Most students who receive poor grades on a test blame the test or the instructor, not themselves. On insurance forms, drivers have explained accidents in such words as “As I reached an intersection, a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision, and I did not see the other car” and “A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.” The question “What have I done to deserve this?” is one we usually ask of our troubles, not our successes. Although a self-serving bias can lead us to avoid uncomfortable truths, it can also motivate us to approach difficult tasks with confidence instead of despair (Tomaka et al., 1992; von Hippel & Trivers, 2011).

“If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is the average person doesn’t see herself as average.”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, 2006

Shannon Wheeler

Most people see themselves as better than average. Compared with most other people, how nice are you? How easy to get along with? Where would you rank yourself, from the 1st to the 99th percentile? Most people put themselves well above the 50th percentile, the middle of the pack. This better-than-average effect appears for nearly any common, socially desirable behavior. Most business executives say they are more ethical than the average executive. At least 90 percent of business managers and college professors rate their performance as superior to that of their average peer. This tendency is less striking in Asia, where people tend to value modesty (Heine & Hamamura, 2007). Yet self-serving biases have been observed worldwide: among Dutch, Australian, and Chinese students; Japanese drivers; Indian Hindus; and French people of most walks of life. In every one of 53 countries surveyed, people expressed self-esteem above the midpoint of the most widely used scale (Schmitt & Allik, 2005). Brain scans reveal that the more people judge themselves as better than average, the less brain activation they show in regions that aid careful self-reflection (Beer & Hughes, 2010). It seems our brain’s default setting is to think we are better than others.


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Most people even see themselves as more immune than others to self-serving bias (Pronin, 2007). That’s right, people believe they are above average at not believing they are above average. (Isn’t psychology fun?) We also are quicker to believe flattering descriptions of ourselves than unflattering ones, and we are impressed with psychological tests that make us look good.

Self-serving bias often underlies conflicts, such as blaming a partner for relationship problems or an assistant for work problems. All of us tend to see our own group as superior (whether it’s our school, our ethnic group, or our country). Ethnic pride fueled Nazi horrors and Rwandan genocide. No wonder religion and literature so often warn against the perils of self-love and pride.

If the self-serving bias is so common, why do so many people put themselves down? For four reasons:

  1. Some negative thoughts—“How could I have been so stupid!”—protect us from repeating mistakes.

  2. Self put-downs are sometimes meant to prompt positive feedback. Saying “No one likes me” may at least get you “But not everyone has met you!”

  3. Put-downs can help prepare us for possible failure. The coach who talks about the superior strength of the upcoming opponent makes a loss understandable, a victory noteworthy.

  4. We often put down our old selves, not our current selves (Wilson & Ross, 2001). Chumps yesterday, but champs today: “At 18, I was a jerk; today I’m more sensitive.”

Despite our self-serving bias, all of us some of the time (and some of us much of the time) do feel inferior. As we saw in Chapter 10, this often happens when we compare ourselves with those who are a step or two higher on the ladder of status, looks, income, or ability. Olympians who win silver medals, barely missing gold, show greater sadness on the award podium compared with the bronze medal winners (Medvec et al., 1995). The more deeply and frequently we have such feelings, the more unhappy or even depressed we become. Positive self-esteem predicts happiness and persistence after failure (Baumeister et al., 2003). So maybe it helps that, for most people, thinking has a naturally positive bias.

Researchers have shown the value of separating self-esteem into two categories—defensive and secure (Kernis, 2003; Lambird & Mann, 2006; Ryan & Deci, 2004).

Retrieve + Remember

Question 12.13

What are the positive and negative effects of high self-esteem?

ANSWER: People who feel confident in their abilities are often happier, have greater motivation, and are less at risk for depression. Inflated self-esteem can lead to self-serving bias, greater aggression, and narcissism.

Question 12.14

The tendency to accept responsibility for success and blame circumstances or bad luck for failure is called _____- _____ _____

ANSWER: self-serving bias

Question 12.15

______ (Secure/Defensive) self-esteem is linked to more angry and aggressive behavior. _____ (Secure/Defensive) self-esteem is a healthier self-image that allows us to focus beyond ourselves and enjoy a higher quality of life.

ANSWERS: Defensive; Secure

Culture and the Self

LOQ 12-22 How do individualist and collectivist cultures differ in their values and goals?

The meaning of self varies from culture to culture. How much of your identity is defined by your social connections? Your answer may depend on your culture, and whether it gives greater priority to the independent self or to the interdependent self.


Individualism giving priority to our own goals over group goals and defining our identity in terms of personal traits rather than group membership.

If you are an individualist, you have an independent sense of “me,” and an awareness of your unique personal convictions and values. Individualists give higher priority to personal goals. They define their identity mostly in terms of personal traits. They strive for personal control and individual achievement.

Collectivism giving priority to the goals of our group (often our extended family or work group) and defining our identity accordingly.

Although within cultures we vary, different cultures tend to emphasize either individualism or collectivism (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Most Western countries, including the United States and Canada, lean toward individualism. Founded by settlers who wanted to differentiate themselves from others, Americans still cherish the “pioneer” spirit (Kitayama et al., 2010). Some 85 percent of Americans say it is possible “to pretty much be who you want to be” (Sampson, 2000). Being more self-contained, individualists also move in and out of social groups more easily. They change relationships, towns, and jobs with ease.

Over the past several decades, U.S. individualism has only increased. American high school and college students in 2012 reported greater interest in obtaining benefits for themselves and lower concern for others than ever before (Twenge et al., 2012). People in competitive, individualist cultures have more personal freedom (TABLE 12.5). They take more pride in personal achievements, are less geographically bound to their families, and enjoy more privacy. But the benefits of individualism may come at a cost: more loneliness, divorce, homicide, and stress-related disease (Popenoe, 1993; Triandis et al., 1988). People in individualist cultures also demand more romance and personal fulfillment in marriage, which puts relationships under more pressure (Dion & Dion, 1993). In one survey, “keeping romance alive” was rated as important to a good marriage by 78 percent of U.S. women but only 29 percent of Japanese women (American Enterprise, 1992).

Table 12.4: TABLE 12.5 Value Contrasts Between Individualism and Collectivism
Concept Individualism Collectivism
Self Independent (identity from individual traits) Interdependent (identity from belonging to groups)
Life task Discover and express your own uniqueness Maintain connections, fit in, perform your role
What matters Me—personal achievement and fulfillment; rights and liberties; self-esteem Us—group goals and solidarity; social responsibilities and relationships; family duty
Coping method Change reality Adjust to reality
Morality Defined by the individual (self-based) Defined by social networks (duty-based)
Relationships Many, often temporary or casual; confrontation is acceptable Few, close and enduring; harmony is valued
Attributing behavior Behavior reflects the individual’s personality and attitudes Behavior reflects social norms and roles

Sources: Information from Thomas Schoeneman (1994) and Harry Triandis (1994).

COLLECTIVIST CULTURE Although the United States is largely individualist, many cultural subgroups remain collectivist. This is true for many Alaska Natives, who demonstrate respect for tribal elders, and whose identity springs largely from their group affiliations.
Sam Harrel/ZUMApress/Newscom

If you are a collectivist, your identity may be closely tied to family, groups, and loyal friends. These connections define who you are. Group identifications provide a sense of belonging and a set of values in collectivist cultures. In return, collectivists have deeper, more stable attachments to their groups—their family, clan, or company. Elders receive great respect. In some collectivist cultures, disrespecting family elders violates the law. For example, the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Elderly states that parents aged 60 or above can sue their sons and daughters if they fail to provide “for the elderly, taking care of them and comforting them, and cater[ing] to their special needs.”

Individualist motto: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Collectivist motto: “The quacking duck gets shot.”

Collectivists are like athletes who take more pleasure in their team’s victory than in their own performance. They find satisfaction in advancing their groups’ interests, even when at the expense of personal needs. Preserving group spirit and avoiding social embarrassment are important goals. Collectivists therefore avoid direct confrontation, blunt honesty, and uncomfortable topics. They value humility, not self-importance (Bond et al., 2012). Instead of dominating conversations, collectivists hold back and display shyness when meeting strangers (Cheek & Melchior, 1990).

Collectivist cultures place less expectation or value than individualist cultures do on having a consistent, coherent self-concept. One’s identity depends on others in this social context (Heine & Buchtel, 2009). Even if East Asians report inconsistency in their self-concept across different relationship partners, they generally still feel authentic (English & Chen, 2011). In contrast, European-Americans are less likely to feel authentic if their self-concept changes across relationship partners.


CONSIDERATE COLLECTIVISTS Japan’s collectivist values, including duty to others and social harmony, were on display after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Virtually no looting was reported, and residents remained calm and orderly, as shown here while waiting for drinking water.

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From Freud’s psychoanalysis and Maslow’s and Rogers’ humanistic perspective, to the trait and social-cognitive theories, to today’s study of the self, our understanding of personality has come a long way! This is a good base from which to explore Chapter 13’s questions: How and why do some people suffer from disordered thinking and emotions?

Retrieve + Remember

Question 12.16

How do people in individualist and collectivist cultures differ?

ANSWER: Individualists give priority to personal goals over group goals and tend to define their identity in terms of their own personal attributes. Collectivists give priority to group goals over individual goals and tend to define their identity in terms of group identifications.