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The Self: Understanding What and Who We Are


Studies have indicated that chimps, orangutans, and dolphins are capable of recognizing themselves in the mirror. This ability to acknowledge one's body and externally recognize that body is limited to only a few species in the world. The self can be broken up into two different aspects. The actual content of one's self, their character and being, is called self concept. When one contemplates about their self it is called self-awareness. Together these two things form the thoughts, beliefs, and understandings we have about who and what we are. They give us identity.


Mental structures that organize information about ourselves are called self-schemas. Everything we choose to notice or remember is dictated by our self-schemas. Lets imagine two people go to a convention. One person loves books and the other loves video games. The bookworm will most likely remember conversations, images, or text from the convention that has to do with books, while the video gamer will remember anything having to do with video games. People naturally remember things that relate to themselves. In one simple experiment, subjects were divided into two groups. They were both read a list of adjectives and asked to remember as many as possible, except one group was told to remember adjectives that would explain their own personalities while the other group tried to remember words related to other people. The group memorizing adjectives about themselves were able to remember more. This is an example of the self-reference effect, which is the tendency for a person to remember something better if it is related to their self.


Humans are able to plan for the future and change their behavior and choices. This is not something that many animals are capable of. In fact, humans are the only species capable of planning events so far in advance and modifying ourselves to the extent that we do. This ability is called self-regulation. We are capable of imagining things that have not happened yet so that we can change something about ourselves, such as whether or not we smoke cigarettes. Of course, quitting something like cigarette smoking or drugs is very difficult. It requires a great deal of self control, and social psychologists' have spent a lot of time researching self control in relation to self-regulation.

Self-Regulatory Resource Model

The ability to succeed and attain goals is directly dependent on motivation and self control. After a number of studies it was proposed that self control is limited. The self-regulatory resource model states that self control is akin to a muscle which can get tired after constant usage. Lets imagine someone has anger management and alcoholism problems. This person has exerted a lot of self control at work so that they would not get angry with their boss, whom they hate, will be less likely to have the self control to stop themselves from drinking alcohol. If this person gets along well with their boss will probably have the self control later on to keep from drinking any alcohol.

One study involved participants having to use self control so that they wouldn't think of something for a certain period of time. Immediately afterward they were told not to laugh during a comedy movie they were shown. The group that had been asked to ignore thoughts were more likely to laugh during the movie than those who had not been asked to suppress their thoughts. This supports the idea that self control is strong at first but gets weaker as time goes on, making it harder to control behavior and feelings. Stress and fatigue are the factors which weaken self control. Studies have found that people are more likely to lose self control at nighttime, after they have been up all day. They've also discovered that self control is strongest in the morning after a person has woken up.

Self and Culture

How we view ourselves can be shaped by the society and culture we grow up in. Western and eastern cultures have different attitudes and values about the self. In western cultures people tend to have an independent view of the self, which means that they define themselves by their internal thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is common to grow up being told that you are unique, individual, and separate from other people. Eastern cultures tend to instill an interdependent view of the self, which means that a person defines their self in terms of relationships they develop with other people. They value interconnectedness over independence and uniqueness. As a result, people raised in eastern cultures are more likely to mention family than people from western culture.

Of course, the above explanations are overgeneralizing. There are many exceptions to the 'norm', as westerners can value interdependence and easterners can value independence. For the most part, however, easterners place a lot of importance in groups while westerners put importance in the individual.

Gender and Self

Men and women definitely have differences in the things they like to discuss or think about. Studies have found that women have a self-concept that is linked to relational interdependence, meaning they focus on close relationships with friends, loved ones, and family. Men have self-concepts that are linked to collective interdependence, meaning they focus on large scale groups like belonging to a football team or country. Women are therefore better at discussing intimate feelings and maintaining close relationships than men who are less likely to disclose their inner feelings or focus on individual relationships.

When asked to describe positive emotional events during their lives, men talked about sports games or things involving group members and success (winning a championship game), whereas women talked about personal relationships (getting engaged).


Introspection involves looking in at one's self to examine and evaluate thoughts, feelings, and motives. Research has shown that people spend very little time engaged in introspection. One study continually asked 107 people their moods, thoughts, etc. at random times of the day for one week. They discovered that people spend more time thinking about things like work, time, chores, and leisure than they do thinking about themselves. Self-awareness theory states that when people do engage in introspection they will evaluate and compare their behavior to internal standards and values. [read] This self consciousness leads to objective judgment of the self, eventually leading to changes in behavior if actions do not match up with inner values.

Escaping the Self

People who are unhappy with themselves often seek behaviors that will help them escape reality and avoid introspection. Such behaviors include using drugs, drinking alcohol, binge eating, and cutting wrists. Avoiding self-focus can help people feel better if they are unhappy about aspects of their behavior and lives. But avoiding introspection will eventually lead to more destructive behavior. People who are self-focused and self-aware tend to be happier and engage in less harmful activities than those who are not.

Judging Emotion

Being introspective only gets you so far, especially when you don't why you might feel a certain way. Sometimes our feelings and emotions are extremely difficult to understand or define. This can make it hard to be in touch with your self. Sometimes we may attribute emotions to the wrong things. For instance, someone may be angry and figure it is because of something their significant other did when in fact the anger is coming from something else, such as unconscious feelings of inadequacy.

People form causal theories to try to explain their feelings and behaviors. These theories are often times based on things we've learned from our culture or upbringing. These may be simple theories like a penny saved is a penny earned (saving money is hard and happens one penny at a time) or idle hands are a devil's tools (having nothing to do leads to trouble making). Relying on these theories does not always help us make the right decisions or come to the right conclusions about why we feel like we do.

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Self-Perception Theory

Sometimes we have attitudes or opinions about things and are not consciously aware of them. When we have attitudes that are uncertain or ambiguous we can infer new attitudes by observing behavior and the situation it occurs. This is called the self-perception theory.

Comparisons to Others

Interaction with other people is very important to the establishment and development of self. Talking and observing other people gives us an idea about how we are different from them and therefore unique. It gives us our understanding of self. Social comparison theory states that we learn about our abilities and attitudes by comparing ourselves to other people. Research shows that people will compare themselves to others when there is no objective standard to measure themselves against and they feel uncertainty about themselves in a specific area. Whenever we are in a new social situation we first compare ourselves to anybody who is immediately around us. Once we have evaluated the people around us we will home in on a couple of people with whom we feel best comparable. Usually the people we choose to compete against are those who appear better or brighter than us. In other words, it is human nature to want to be the very best at things, which is why we set the bar high for those we compare ourselves to. This is called upward social comparison. [read]

When we compare ourselves to someone who is worse than we are at any trait or ability then we are using downward social comparison. This helps us feel better about ourselves because it reminds us of our strengths. We also make ourselves feel better by comparing our current performance to past performance. Usually we get better at skills over time, which is why it boosts self esteem to consider how much we've grown or excelled. [read]


Self-enhancement is the tendency for people to focus on and present positive information about themselves and to minimize the negative information. [read] By flattering the best aspects of their personalities and behavior, people are able to stay in a positive mood and constructively move forward in life. Ignoring the negative aspects helps keep bad habits at bay. Presenting the best parts of one's self will ultimately lead to healthy relationships and a better overall lifestyle. Some research shows that self-enhancement may be more prevalent in western culture, while other research suggests that it is universal across all cultures.


DON BALDERAS on April 12, 2014:

I am so thankful to have read this hub which I consider to be very much helpful in understanding the self and the selves of others. Truly, it takes a reflective mind to understand people most importantly one's self in relation to others. It is most helpful in finding peace and happiness, diminishing conflicts and cultivating harmonious relationships. It is also self communication that enables one to make amendment in whatever conflict that has been boggling him to finally find better solutions and make peace with one another. Thank you for sharing this wonderful hub hoping others will find pleasure and peace with this.

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