Self Concept in Social Psychology


The concept of self in social psychology is a complex matter that has been thoroughly studied. The self and identity are formed by interaction with social entities, such as other people, groups and organisations. These groups exist within the social world that contains rules and norms that regulate the being of self. Therefore, the research on the concept discusses both the inner-self and the relational self. The present paper reviews and evaluates the works of the most respected thought leaders in social psychology about the concept of self and identity.

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Self-Perception Theory

One of the most well-known social psychological theories considering the concept of self is Bem’s Self-Perception Theory. Bem (1972, p. 2) believed that “individuals come to “know” their own attitudes, emotions, and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behaviour.” In other words, an individual can explain his or her actions by observing oneself, similar to other people. These observations help to understand what may have caused such behaviour if inner states are ambiguous. The theory implies that people can engage in activities for extrinsic reasons like praise, esteem, money, or because of intrinsic considerations, such as interest, challenge or enjoyment (McDougall 2015). Even though the theory was confirmed by multiple experiments and extensive research, it received significant criticism.

The Self-Perception theory was originally created as an alternative to cognitive dissonance theory to explain a phenomenon that was observed during experiments. Bem (1972) described the false-confession experiment where people felt aroused when telling the truth. Such behaviour was treated as confirmation of the theory as people had difficulty recalling the events due to the ambiguousness of the inner state. However, the phenomenon receives a more natural explanation through cognitive dissonance, which will be discussed further in the present paper.

Even though the attention to the theory dropped due to criticism, it is still utilised in different spheres. While being initially used for psychotherapy, the method was revisited for marketing (Roehm & Roehm 2016). According to the theory, if a person agrees to complete a small task, such as filling a questionnaire, they are more likely to respond to the original task, which is to buy a product. The theory was revisited partially because of the controversial features of Bem’s position (Dico 2017). In summary, while the theory is heavily criticised, it still applied in marketing and psychotherapy.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The cognitive dissonance theory was introduced before the Self-Perception Theory by Leon Festinger and explained the phenomenon of agitation that appears when actions are inconsistent with beliefs. Festinger (1957) calls inconsistency “dissonance” and claims that when such a situation happens, something must change either the behaviour or the attitude. In other words, individuals always seek to reduce dissonance using one of the three methods: reduce the importance of beliefs, add more consonant beliefs or change the belief (Harmon-Jones, Haslam & Bastian 2017). Another way of addressing the issue is to change the behaviour, which is a more laborious endeavour. The theory is used for attitude formation and change while being especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving. Even though there is an alternative to the Cognitive Dissonance Theory, it remains attractive for scientists in various spheres.

Social Comparison Theory

Leon Festinger was famous not only for discussing the inner-self but also for referring to the relational self. Since people live with a constant feeling of inequality, they tend to evaluate one’s abilities and opinions by comparing themselves with individuals with a similar status (Festinger 1954). This phenomenon is called “social comparison” and is defined as a human inner drive to compare his or her actions and belief with similar others when objective measures are unavailable (Crosby & Hamilton 2017). At the same time, people can compare themselves to someone better or worse, which is called upward and downward comparison, respectively. Festinger (1954) explained that the phenomenon was crucial for seeking self-enhancement and improving self-esteem. The theory was proven by multiple experiments where people were asked to keep track of comparisons they make during the day (Festinger 154). However, Festinger’s work was heavily criticised by Deutsch and Krauss (1965), since they believed that comparing to dissimilar others was more important for seeking self-knowledge. Even though the Social Comparison Theory remains relevant until today, it finds a limited application.

Social Identity Theory

The development of thought about the relational self led to the emergence of the social identity theory. The theory was initially formulated by Tajfel and Turner between 1979 and 1986 (McDougall 2015). It claims that every person needs to belong to a group, such as family, country, social class and sports team. Such a tendency leads to dividing the world into in-group or “us” and out-group or “them” (Hogg 2016). Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image. Such discrimination leads to positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, the phenomenon may become a reason for conflicts. On the other hand, it helps to improve an in-group member’s self-esteem and shield him or her from outside dangers. The theory is increasingly used in business and international relations since it helps to explain the nature of conflict.

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In brief, the social identity theory is still of immediate interest due to the process of globalization.

Evaluation and Conclusion

The concept of self in social psychology is a well-studied topic that has been approached by multiple researchers from various angles. The theories developed by Festinger in the middle of the 20th century are still relevant today. On the one hand, the cognitive dissonance theory explains the inner mechanisms people use to change their behaviour and attitude. On the other hand, the social comparison theory explains how society may support or obstruct these changes by discussing the concept of the relational self. Even though the research was proven by multiple experiments, Bem (1972) tried to find alternative explanations for their results by introducing the self-perception theory. The development of thought and extensive criticism of Bem’s theory leads to understanding that Festinger’s answer is more coherent and natural. However, the results of the research are open to discussion since there is no practical way to distinguish what was the reason for the feeling of agitation described by both Festinger and Bem.

Festinger’s works were also used as the basis for the social identity theory, which is crucial for explaining conflicts and discrimination. The theory is essential for addressing the problems of the modern world connected with globalisation. Even though the theory minimises individualism, making the theory open to discussion, it still a valuable addition for understanding the concept of self and identity in social psychology.

Reference List

Bem, D 1972, ‘Self-perception theory’, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Volume, vol. 6, pp.1-62.

Crosby, F & Hamilton, V 2017, ‘Social comparison theory’, in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, pp.1-2.

Festinger, L 1954, ‘A Theory of social comparison processes’, Human Relations, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 117–140.

Festinger, L 1957, A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

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Deutsch, M & Krauss, RM 1965. Theories in social psychology, vol. 2, Basic Books, New York, NY.

Dico, G 2017, ‘Self-perception theory, radical Behaviourism, and the publicity/privacy issue’, Review of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 9 no. 2, pp. 429-445.

Harmon-Jones, C, Haslam, N & Bastian, B 2017, ‘Dissonance reduction in nonhuman animals: Implications for cognitive dissonance theory’, Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, vol. 1, no.12, p.4.

Hogg, M 2016, ‘Social identity theory’, in S McKeown, R Haji & N Ferguson (eds), Understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory, Springer, Los Angeles, CA, pp. 3-17.

McDougall, W 2015, Introduction to social psychology, Taylor and Francis, London.

Roehm, M & Roehm, H 2016, ‘Utilizing self perception theory to explain social media behavior relative to print advertisement 2-D codes’, Business and Economic Research, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 33-45.

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