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The psychosocial components of self and self-esteem

When evaluating the psychosocial components of self and self-esteem, it is vital to recognize that western psychologists and sociologists socially constructed these concepts within the last century.

The study of self and self-esteem originated from a psychosocial perspective.  Actually, the concept first arose in psychology and it can be traced back to the writings of William James in the late 19th century.  James was the first social scientist to develop a clear professional definition of the self (Turner 343).  In his typology of self, James’s description of the social self acknowledged that people’s feelings about themselves arise from interaction with others; he recognized that humans have the capacity to view themselves as objects and to develop self-feelings and attitudes toward themselves (Turner 344).

According to James, “Self is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our successes: thus, self-esteem=successes/pretentions.  Such a fraction may be increased as well by diminishing the denominator as by increasing the numerator (p. 296).  This ratio depicts our behaviour (or successes) as the numerator and our values and goals (pretensions) as the denominator (Mruk p. 12).  According to this definition, the concept of self-esteem is dynamic; thus, the outcome can be manipulated (Mruk 12).  Many of James’s original ideas remain theoretically and methodically relevant to social psychologists today (Smith-Lovin 120). 

Sociologists Charles Cooley (1902) and Herbert Mead (1934) expanded upon earlier studies in the psychosocial development of the self.  Cooley used the term “looking glass self” to suggest that the others serve as a mirror in which we see ourselves.  Elaborating further on this idea, George Herbert Mead added that we often come to know ourselves by imagining what significant others think of us and, later on, incorporating these perceptions into our self-concept.  Thus, these scholars, as well as other contemporary symbolic interaction theorists, emphasize the way the self is socially constructed in interaction, based on people’s shared understandings of social roles, rules, symbols and categories.

After the Immigration Act of 1965, immigrants arrived in the United States (mainly from Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba and El Salvador) in great numbers.  The passage of this Act ended the national origins quota system and opened the gates for individuals and their families to enter the United States as immigrants under various categories.  It also allowed naturalized citizens to sponsor the immigration of their siblings and parents (Ramisetty-Mikler 36).  During this historical period, American social psychologists began to explore self-esteem in depth.  One of them is Morris Rosenberg who is considered the main contributor in the rebirth of self-esteem in Social Psychology, which had been dormant since the turn of the twentieth century (Mruk 13).  Rosenberg’s Self-esteem Theory relies on two factors:  (1) reflected appraisals and (2) social comparisons.  As far as reflected appraisals are concerned, Rosenberg acknowledges that: “Human communication depends on seeing matters from other people’s perspectives.  In the process of “taking the role of the other”, we become aware that we are objects of others’ attention, perception and evaluation.  We, thus, come to see ourselves through the eyes of others (XX).

In recent years, social psychologists have broken new ground in their efforts to understand the social self.  Some of these studies consider four sources:  introspection, perceptions of our own behaviour, influences of other people and autobiographical memory.

Self-knowledge is derived from introspection, a looking inward at one’s own thoughts and feelings.  Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson (1977) found that research subjects often cannot accurately explain the causes or correlates of their own behaviour.  Additionally, Wilson (1985) contends that introspection can sometimes impair self-knowledge, for in a series of studies, he found that the attitudes subjects reported having about different objects corresponded closely to their behaviour towards those objects.  To elaborate further, the more subjects said they enjoyed a task, the more the time they spent on it.  Furthermore, the more attractive they found a scenic landscape, the more pleasure they revealed in their facial expressions.  However, after subjects had been told to analyze the reasons for how they felt, reported attitudes no longer corresponded to behaviour.

Regardless of what one learns from introspection, Daryl Bem (1972) posits that people can learn about themselves by watching their own behaviour.  Bem’s Self-perception Theory attempts to explain that when internal states are weak or difficult to interpret, people infer what they think or how they feel by observing their own behaviour and the situation in which it takes place.  According to Bem, there are limits to self-perception, in that people do not infer their own internal states from behaviour that occurred in the presence of compelling situational pressures, such as reward or punishment.  Extensive research supports the Self-perception Theory:  when people are gently coaxed into doing something, and when they are not otherwise certain about how they feel, they come to view themselves in ways that are consistent with the behaviour.  (Chaiken & Baldwin, 1981; Fazio, 1987; Schlenker & Trudeau, 1990).

Leon Festinger (1954) proposed in his Social Comparison Theory that people evaluate their own abilities and opinions by comparing themselves to others.  This means that, when objective information is not available, they evaluate themselves by drawing comparisons with similar others.

The Social Comparison Theory has been put to the test by social psychologists who focused on two key questions: (1) when do people turn to others for comparative information?  (2) of all the people who inhabit the Earth, to whom do we choose to compare ourselves? (Suls & Wills, 1991; Wood, 1989).  The reply to the “when” question appears to be that people engage in social comparison in states of uncertainty, when more objective means of self-evaluation are not available.  As for the answer to the “to whom” question, it seems that when we evaluate our own taste in music or value on the job market, we look towards others who are similar in relevant ways (Goethals & Darley, 1977; C.T. Miller, 1984;  Wheeler et al; 1982)

Autobiographical Memory:  memory of one’s life’s events is critical to the self-concept.  There are three ways in which the self guides our recollections.  First, it is the self-reference effect that people are more likely to remember something if it relates to the self than if encountered in other contexts.  On some trials, subjects were told to consider whether the words were self-descriptive, while on others, they were to judge the word’s length, sound or meaning.  When later tested, subjects remembered more words that they had considered in relation to themselves than for other purposes (Rogers et al., 1977).  Second, is that autobiographical memory is shaped by an egocentric bias, as people overemphasize their own roles in past events.  According to Anthony Greenwald (1980), egocentric bias colours one’s autobiographical memory as people tend to overemphasize their own role in past events.  As Greenwald put it, “The past is remembered as if it were a drama in which the self was the leading player” (p. 604).  Third, the hindsight bias leads people to revise their

personal histories in light of new information about themselves.  In addressing this question, Michael Ross and his colleagues (1981) changed the subjects’ attitudes on an issue and then asked them to report on their past behaviours.  In one experiment, for example, subjects listened to a medical expert argue convincingly for or against the wisdom of brushing teeth after each meal.  Later, supposedly as part of a different experiment, those who had heard the favourable argument reported that they brushed their teeth more often in the previous two weeks than did those who had heard the unfavourable argument.

Cultural orientations  influence the way we perceive, evaluate and present ourselves in relation to others.  Some cultures make more deliberate distinctions between how boys and girls are treated. Whiting and Edwards studied children’s socialization in many parts of the world, including the ways in which gender is marked.  The extract that follows supports who has been stated:

“….. One of the most obvious symbols of gender in all societies is the style of clothing of males and females.  One of the ways in which mothers can accentuate differences is by making a distinction in the clothes, hairstyles, and adornments of girls and boys ….. For example, in Juxtlahuaca (Mexico) the ears of little girls are pierced during the first few weeks of life, and all females wear earrings.  Young female knee children already have miniature rebozas (shawls) and little boys wear their sombreros with pride….”

In many societies in the world, the care of large animals is the task that is considered masculine, and young boys can participate in this work beginning at the age of 4 or 5.  In Tarong, the care and use of the carabao (water buffalo) are considered to be in the domain of men, and all three of the 4- and 5-year-old boys in the sample were observed watering and grazing carabao.  No girls were observed caring to these animals.  (Whiting and Edwards, 1988, pp. 219-25)

In Western societies, many parents are attempting to raise their children in a non-sexist way.  However, this is an arduous task given the images as well as the messages passed on to children through the media from wider society, the pressure from peers who may have different views and parents with different approaches to the gender socialization of their children.  As a matter of fact, Sandra Bem (1983), in an extension of her work on gender schema theory, has suggested that attempts to counteract gender stereotypes in society are difficult to succeed as they do not seem to place enough emphasis on giving children alternative ways of organizing and assimilating gender-related information.  The obstacles encountered in this process, she attributes to the fact that, apart from becoming aware of individual differences between people, children need to appreciate cultural relativism i.e. that “different people, believe different things”.  Once this approach is adopted and cultivated in societies, it will allow children to accept that the contradictory beliefs frequently co-exist, so that, for example, the rules and values of their family may be quite different from the family who lives next door, but both are valid.

In  western cultures, individualism is a prominent value where “children are socialized as agents through culturally significant images of stories of men who are masters of their fates and captains of their ships, lone cowboys, and boys who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” (Heine et al. 769).  Despite the fact that American boys are socialized to be independent, American girls are socialized to be interdependent in a way that corresponds to the difference between North American and East Asian cultures.  These findings are supported further through the work of Markus & Kitayama (1991) who report on two interesting differences. First, American college students perceive themselves as less similar to others than do Asian Indian students, reinforcing the idea that people with independent conceptions of the self believe they are unique.  Second, Americans are more likely to express jealousy and other “ego-focused” emotions that affirm the self as an autonomous entity whereas non-westerns are more likely to experience “other focused” emotions that promote social harmony.

The ability to understand that gender remains constant throughout life does not seem to emerge as early as the ability to label oneself as a girl or a boy.  Researchers in the cognitive development tradition, encompassing Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development, have examined the stability of gender by asking children such questions as:

  • Are you a boy or a girl?
  • When you’re ten, will you be a boy or a girl?
  • When you’re grown up, will you be a man or a woman?
  • If you have children when you grow up, will you be a daddy or a mummy?

They found that most children answered the questions assessing the stability of gender accurately, by the age of four.

Proponents of the above cognitive model view the child as developing through distinct stages of understanding in interaction with the environment.  The first stage is to recognize oneself as a boy or a girl, followed by an understanding of gender stability and then, finally, of gender constancy.  In each stage, there is a qualitatively different organization of the world, such that a child’s gender role concepts represent developing ways of viewing and understanding the differences between the sexes.  Kohlberg and Zigler suggest that:

            The child’s basic sex-role identity is largely the result of a self-categorization as a male or

a female made early in development …. The reality judgement, “I really am and will always be a boy”, or, “I really am and will always be a girl” are judgements with a regular course of age development relatively independent of the vicissitudes of social labelling and reinforcement. (Kohlberg and Zigler, 1967, p. 103)

Whiting and Edwards (1988) have examined the ways in which young children in different parts of the world become fully integrated into their culture and develop an understanding of the rules for behaviour considered appropriate for that culture.  Gender socialization plays a protagonistic part in this process as, through it, children become aware of the behaviour considered appropriate for girls and boys.  One important finding of this study is that children in many parts of the world understand, at an early age, the differential power of men and women in their society.  Whiting and Edwards draw the reader’s attention to the struggles engaged in by “yard boys” with their mothers, where these 7 to 10-year-olds try to dominate their mothers and get away from their authority by leaving the home as much as possible, choosing same-sex playmates and refusing to carry out tasks which they consider as “women’s work”.  The researchers found these conflicts especially in Northern India, where, “as the young boy becomes aware of this identity and the power of males, he tries out his relative power with his mother, who has been, along with all the other adult women in the courtyard, the person who has hand fed him and bathed him since he was born” (p. 237).

Theorists from several perspectives within psychology have suggested different means by which children come to appreciate what behaviour is deemed by their culture to be appropriate to their gender.  The Psychodynamic tradition, developed from Freud’s work which focuses on our psychosexual development, stresses how significant it is for the child to identify with the same-sex parent through the resolution of the Oedipus/Electra complex – the consequences of the boy’s desire for his mother and the girl’s desire for her father.  Once this is achieved, the child commences aspiring to the behaviours and characteristics of this parent and, in this way, adopts the culturally approved models of masculinity and femininity.  Furthermore, Object-relations Theorysuggests that the quality of the early relationships, especially with the mother (as she is usually the main caretaker), establishes a pattern for future close relationships and, therefore, constitutes a template as to how to relate to other people.  It seems that, girls do not have particular difficulty to break away from this “template” as they grow up, for their model of relating is based on a woman like themselves.  As a result, they come to see femininity and closeness in relationships as inextricably bound together.  On the other hand, this task is much harder for boys as they have to distance themselves from the model they come to attach to for a number of years.  Consequently, masculinity becomes defined in terms of a lack of closeness in relationships as cultural norms dictate that they distance themselves from the nurturing model offered by the mother.  Apart from the foresaid, the Social Learning Theory suggests that gender-role learning occurs through the imitation of models.  Parental reaction to the child’s behaviour and other models of male and female behaviour are, therefore, important influences on the child’s developing sense of gender identity.

The word self-esteem comes from the Latin “aestimare”, which means “to estimate or appraise”.  Thus, by self-esteem, we refer to the evaluation which the individual makes and customarily maintains with regard to himself; it expresses an attitude of approval or disapproval, and indicates the extent to which the individual believes himself to be capable, significant, successful and worthy (Coopersmith, 1967, p.5 quoted in Harter 1983, p.321).  Research suggests that people who have an unstable, fluctuating self-esteem react more strongly to positive and negative life events than do people whose sense of self-worth is stable and secure (Kernis & Wascholl, 1995).

William James believed that our evaluation of our achievements and competence was the main factor determining our sense of self-esteem, especially our achievements in areas where success is important to us (James, 1896, p. 310, quoted in Maccoby, 1980 p. 272).

According to the Self-discrepancy Theory of E. Tory Higgins (1989), our self-esteem is defined by the match between how we see ourself (actual self), how we think we “ought to be”, characteristics that would enable us to meet our sense of duty, obligation and responsibility and, finally, how we want to see ourself (ideal self).  Research shows that these three traits (comprising a plethora of characteristics) can be used to predict one’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.  The first is your self-concept while the other two represent your personal standards or “self-guides”.  Discrepancies between the actual and ideal selves are related to feelings of disappointment and depression.  On the other hand, discrepancies between the “actual” and the “ought” selves are related to shame, guilt and anxiety.  However, the emotional effects depend on the amount of discrepancy and whether it is accessible to awareness (Higgins et al., 1986; Scott & O’Hara, 1993; Strauman, 1992).

Another important factor determining self-esteem is the respect given to the child by significant others such as parents, teachers and peers.  Rosenberg (1979) asked children how much they cared about what a variety of people thought about them, including parents, classmates, teachers, siblings and friends.  He found that younger children relied heavily on adults for evaluations of themselves, a finding consistent with the literature on moral development which follows Piaget’s observations concerning children’s understanding of rules and of adult authority.  Older children began to place more weight on the judgement of their peers, with adolescents caring most about what their best friends thought of them. 

Global self-esteem measures mask important differences within the domains of self-concept that contribute to self-esteem (Knox 61).  As already pointed out, culture influences self and systematically biases responses to Likert measurement scales.  Research carried out by Carpenter and Johnson 2001, Knox 1998 and Smith 1999, using the collective self-esteem scale or the possible selves questionnaires, instead of a global self-esteem scale, indicates that self-esteem is multidimensional for girls:  they report more contradictory or opposing self-attributes (Knox 74).  Furthermore, women’s self-esteem is more strongly related to social acceptance and inclusion than to accomplishments (Carpenter and Johnson 254).  In brief, female self-esteem is more dependent on a collective rather than individual orientation. 

It is important to note that gendered roles are in the process of changing:  fathers that consider themselves “new men” are more involved in childrearing practices and domestic activities, children are wearing unisex clothing, and men and women are enjoying similar, if not the same, education which leads them working at the same jobs (Lorber 14).  However, gender equality has not been achieved.  On the contrary, it is maintained through practices of boundary maintenance that uphold differences between dominant and subordinate groups (Lorber 32;  Schwalbe 430-431; Thorne 86).


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