So far, we have considered some of the main steps in the development of a self-concept. Once formed, the self-concept provides a person with a sense of continuity and a framework for understanding the past and present and for guiding future behavior. In adults, the self-concept is a structure made up of building blocks of knowledge about the self, a multidimensional collection of knowledge about the self: "Am I responsible, athletic, cooperative, attractive, caring, and assertive?"
The self-concept is like a network of information in memory , which or ganizes and provides coherence to the ways in which we experience the self (Markus, 1983). The self-concept also guides how each person processes information about him- or herself (Markus & Nurius, 1986). For example, people more easily process information that is consistent with their self-concepts; if you see yourself as highly masculine, then you will quickly agree with statements such as the following: "I am assertive" and "I am strong."
The term self-schema (schema is singular; schemata is plural) refers to the specific knowledge structure, or cognitive representation, of the self-concept. Self schemata are the networks of associated building blocks of the self-concept. For example, a person might have a schema about what it means to be masculine, and this schema might include such attributes as assertiveness, strength, and independence. A person with a masculine self-schema would then apply this to understanding himself, using it to make sense out of his past experiences and to or ganize current, self-relevant information. Such a self-schema would guide this person to pay attention to certain kinds of information, such as evidence that he is assertive, strong, and independent. In conversations, for example, he might enjoy when others comment on his assertiveness or say something about his being strong and independent. As such, self-schemata are cognitive structures that are built on past experiences and that guide the processing of information about the self, particularly in social interaction.
Self-schemata usually refer to past and current aspects of the self. However , there are also schemata for future selves, which people are able to imagine. The term possible selves describes the many ideas people have about who they might become, who they hope to become, or who they fear they will become (Markus & Nurius, 1987). People often have specific desires, anxieties, fantasies, fears, hopes, and expec tations about their own futures selves. Although possible selves are not based on actual past experiences, they nevertheless are part of the overall self-concept. That is, possible selves are some of the building blocks of the general self-concept. For example, are you the kind of person who could become a movie actor—that is, is this a possible self for you?
Because they play a role in defining the self-concept, possible selves may infl ence a person' s behavior in certain ways. For example, a high school student may have no idea what it would be like to be an astronaut. Nevertheless, because this is one of her possible selves, she has many thoughts and feelings about this image of herself as astronaut. Information about astronauts, the space agency , aviation science, and so forth has personal significance for he , and she seeks it out every chance she gets. Thus, this possible self will influence her here and now in terms of her curren decisions (e.g., to take an extra math course). Possible selves are like bridges between our present and our future, they are our working models of ourselves in the future (Oyserman & Markus, 1990). Such a working model might lead to problem behaviors, however, as when the possible self is a poor role model. In studying a group of juvenile delinquents, Oyserman and Saltz (1993) found that a high proportion had a possible self of criminal, and relatively few had such conventional possible selves as having a job or getting along well in school.
Possible selves allow us to stay on schedule, to work toward self-improvement. Behaviors that stem from possible selves (desired or undesired) can activate a host of intense feelings and emotions. For example, to a person who does not have a possible self with coronary artery disease, missing a few days of an exercise program will not be as distressing as it is to a person who has such a possible self.
Psychologist Tory Higgins (1987, 1997, 1999) has elaborated on the possible selves notion by distinguishing the ideal self, which is what persons themselves want to be, from the ought self, which is persons' understanding of what others want them to be. The ought self is built on what people take as their responsibilities and commitments to others, what they ought to do. The ideal self is built on one's own desires and goals, what one wants to become. Higgins refers to the ought and the ideal selves as self-guides, standards that one uses to or ganize information and motivate appropriate behavior . The self-guides get their motivating properties from emotions. Higgins argues that these two types of possible selves are at the root of dif ferent emotions. If one's real self does not fit one s ideal self, then one will feel sad, despondent, and disappointed. If, on the other hand, one' s real self does not fit one s ought self, then one will feel guilty , distressed, and anxious.
Self-guides also influence our motivation by changing what we pay attention t (Higgins, Shah, & Friedman, 1997). The ideal self guides us to focus our attention on achievement and goal accomplishment, what Higgins calls a promotion focus. Alternatively, a prevention focus is motivated by the ought self-guide, shifting our attention to avoiding harm and seeking safety . Achieving goals associated with the promotion focus results in pleasure, and achieving goals associated with the prevention focus is associated with relief. Some people are more intent on promotion focus; they guide their behavior according to which goals they want to achieve. Other people are more prevention focused; they guide their behavior according to what they do not want to happen.
To summarize, self-schemata are cognitive knowledge structures about the self-concept, and they consist of past, present, and future aspects of the self. The self-concept is the sum of people's self-schemata, what they know and believe about themselves. An important part of the self-concept concerns possible selves, which can be ideals that people desire or undesired selves that people strive to avoid. Who have I been, what am I like now , and what do I want to be like in the future—the answers to these questions define the self-concept
There are two ways to conceptualize the self. One way is to focus on the content, on what it is that makes up the self-concept for each person—the person' s self-schemata and possible selves. The other way to conceptualize the self is in terms of the person's own evaluation of self-concept. Does she like who she has been and who she is now? Is he generally satisfied with himself? Does she feel worthwhile? Doe he generally value the attributes he has? These questions all pertain to self-esteem, an important topic to which we now turn.
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