Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
Self, Self-Concept and Identity
Kristen Elmore, George Smith
University of Michigan
Citation: Oyserman, D. & Elmore, K. & Smith, G. (2012) Self, self-concept, and
identity. J. Tangney and M. Leary (Eds). The Handbook of Self and Identity, 2nd
Edition, pp 69-104, New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Author’s note: With thanks to the funding support of the Alexander von Humboldt
Foundation to the first author. Address correspondence to Daphna Oyserman,
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
Want a burger and fries or softly steamed fish and fungi? How about offering a bribe to
win that contract? Feel like bungee jumping? People believe that they do not need to seriously
weigh the pros and cons of these choices before deciding, that their identities provide a meaning-
making anchor. They know who they are and who they are directs their choices. In that sense,
choices large and small feel identity-based and identity-congruent.
Identities are the traits and characteristics, social relations, roles and social group
memberships that define who one is. Identities can be focused on the past -- what used to be true
of me, the present -- what is true of me now, or the future – the person I expect or wish to
become, the person I feel obligated to try to become, or the person I fear I may become.
Identities orient us; they provide a meaning-making lens and focus our attention on some but not
other features of the immediate context (Oyserman, 2007; 2009a; 2009b). Together, identities
make up one’s self-concept – variously described as what comes to mind when one thinks of
oneself (Neisser, 1993; Stets & Burke, 2003; Stryker, 1980, Tajfel, 1981), one’s theory of one’s
personality (Markus & Cross, 1990), and what one believes is true of oneself (Baumeister, 1998;
Forgas & Williams, 2002). In addition to self-concepts people also know themselves in other
ways – they have self-images, self-feelings, as well as images drawn from the other senses – a
sense of what they sound like, what they feel like tactically, a sense of their bodies in motion.
Though these self-aspects were part of the initial conceptualization of what it means to have a
self (James, 1890), they have received less empirical attention. People feel that they know
themselves since they have a lot of experience with themselves and a huge store of
autobiographical memories (Fivush, 2011).
As we will outline in this chapter, this feeling of knowing is important even though the
assumptions on which it is based are often faulty. Feeling that one knows oneself facilitates using
the self to make sense and make choices, using the self as an important perceptual, motivational
and self-regulatory tool. This feeling of knowing oneself is based in part on an assumption of
stability that is central to both everyday (lay) theories about the self and more formal (social
science) theories about the self. Yet, as we describe in the second half of this chapter, the
assumption of stability is belied by the malleability, context-sensitivity, and dynamic
construction of the self as a mental construct. Identities are not the fixed markers people assume
them to be but instead are dynamically constructed in the moment. Choices that feel identity-
congruent in one situation do not necessarily feel identity congruent in another situation. This
flexibility is part of what makes the self a useful construct. As noted by William James (1890),
thinking is for doing. People are pragmatic reasoners, sensitively attuned to the contextual
affordances and constraints in their immediate surroundings, though not necessarily to the source
of these influences on their judgments and behavior (e.g., Schwarz, 2002, 2007, 2010). People do
not simply respond to contextual cues, rather, their responses are both moderated and mediated
by the effect of these cues on who they are in the moment (Oyserman, 2007; 2009a; 2009b;
Smeesters, Wheeler & Kay, 2010).
In this chapter, we consider these two core issues – the feeling of knowing oneself and
the dynamic construction of who one is in the moment. We suggest that the self is an important
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
motivational tool both because the self feels like a stable anchor and because the identities that
constitute the self are, in fact, dynamically constructed in context. The self is useful because
people look to their identities in making choices and because these identities are situated,
pragmatic and attuned to the affordances and constraints of the immediate context.
For ease, we divide this chapter into sections. In the first section (Setting the Stage), we
briefly operationalize what is meant by self and identity, drawing on other reviews from both
sociological and psychological perspectives (e.g., annual review and other large summaries
Brewer 1991; Callero, 2003; Elliot 2001; Markus & Wurf, 1987; Owens, Robinson, & Smith-
Lovin, 2010; Oyserman, 2007). In the second section (Understanding Process), we consider what
the self is assumed to be – a stable yet malleable mental construct, and what gaps remain in how
the self is studied. In the third section (Thinking is For Doing), we address the basis for future
research in the fourth section (Dynamic Construction) with predictions about what the pragmatic,
situated, experiential and embodied nature of mental processing imply for self and identity. Our
final section (Wrapping Up and Moving Forward) provides a bulleted summary and highlights
what we see as important new directions.
1. SETTING THE STAGE
A number of years ago McGuire and McGuire (1988) cheerfully noted that the academic
literature on the self is dull even though the topic is interesting; they call this the anti-Midas
touch. In a reversal of Rumpelstiltskin’s task, self-researchers somehow managed to spin piles of
boring hay from the sparkling gold of their topic. A generation later, readers of the literature may
still search for the gold in vain. Self and identity remain topics of high interest not only for
psychologists but across the social sciences – psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists,
political scientists and even economists make reference to self and identity. Google Scholar
yields three million citations, limiting focus to professional search engines (the Web of Science,
PsychINFO) still yields tens of thousands of articles in which self-concept or identity are
included as key words. This unwieldy mass includes both studies in which self and identity are
asserted as explanatory factors and studies in which something is empirically assessed or
manipulated and described as some aspect of self or identity.
So what is this self (or identity) that is so important? Self and identity researchers have
long believed that the self is both a product of situations and a shaper of behavior in situations.
Making sense of oneself – who one is, was and may become and therefore the path one should
take in the world -- is a core self-project. Self and identity theories assume that people care
about themselves, want to know who they are, and can use this self-knowledge to make sense of
the world. Self and identity are predicted to influence what people are motivated to do, how they
think and make sense of themselves and others, the actions they take, their feelings and ability to
control or regulate themselves (e.g., for conceptual models, Baumeister, 1998; Brewer, 1991;
Brown, 1998; Carver & Scheier, 1990; Higgins, 1987, 1989; Oyserman, 2007).
In this section we provide a set of brief operationalizations. Our goal is to provide some
clarity with a number of caveats. First, self and identity are sometimes used interchangeably and
other times used to refer to different things. Second, what self and identity refer to differs both
across and within publications. Third, this ambiguity extends to whether self and identity are
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
singular or plural -- selves, identities, and self-concepts. Relevant reviews highlighting these
issues from a sociological perspective (e.g., Callero, 2003; Owens, et al., 2010); from a social
identity perspective (e.g., Brewer, 1991; Ellmers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002) and from a social and
personality psychology perspective (e.g., Baumeister, 1998; Markus & Wurf, 1987; Sedikides &
Brewer, 2001; Swann & Bosson, 2010) provide some sense of the breadth of the topic. Our goal
is not to attempt to revisit all of the issues raised in these reviews but rather to provide a working
outline of the constructs in order to highlight ways forward in research. Like McGuire and
McGuire (1988) our goal is to shed light on the gold – what makes the self so indispensible to
understanding how people live in the world, make choices and make meaning of their
In common discourse, the term ‘self’ often used to refer to a warm sense or a warm
feeling that something is ‘about me’ or ‘about us’. Reflecting on oneself is both a common
activity and a mental feat. It requires that there is an ‘I’ that can consider an object that is ‘me’.
The term self includes both the actor who thinks (‘I am thinking’) and the object of thinking
(‘about me’). Moreover, the actor both is able to think and is aware of doing so. As the
philosopher John Locke famously asserted, “I think, therefore I am”, awareness of having
Another way to denote these three aspects (thinking, being aware of thinking and taking
the self as an object for thinking) is to use the term reflexive capacity (Kihlstrom, Beer, & Klein,
2003; Lewis, 1990). Rather than attempt to distinguish between the mental content (me) and the
aspects of the mental capacity of thinking (I), modern use of the term self includes all these
elements (Baumeister, 1998; Callero, 2003; Kihlstrom et al, 2003; Markus & Wurf, 1987; Owens
et al., 2010). While theories converge on the notion that reflexive capacity is critical to having a
self, theories diverge in how memory is considered in service of sustaining the self. On the one
hand, the self can be considered primarily a memory structure such that the ‘me’ aspect of self
has existence outside of particular contexts and social structures. In contrast, the self can be
considered primarily a cognitive capacity such that what constitutes the ‘me’ aspect of self is
created inside of and embedded within moment-to-moment situations. From the latter
perspective what is stable is not recalled content but rather the motivation to use the self to make
meaning; memory is used but the ‘me’ self is not stable.
While in some ways helpful, the shorthand ‘me’ can inadvertently limit focus of attention
to one way of conceiving the self -- what cultural and clinical psychologists might call an
immersed individualistic sense of self. While less studied, people can think of themselves in
different ways. An individualistic perspective focuses on how one is separate and different from
others, but people can also consider how they are similar and connected via relationships
(sometimes called a collectivistic perspective). An immersed perspective focuses on the self up
close and from inside the mind’s eye, but people can also consider themselves otherwise -- how
they might look from a distance and from the outside or in the eyes of others. Each perspective
highlights and draws attention to some aspects of me and makes other aspects less likely to come
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Cultural psychologists have focused attention on between-society differences in the
likelihood of focusing on the ‘me’ vs. the ‘us’ aspects of the self (Markus & Oyserman, 1989;
Oyserman, 1993; Triandis, 1989). For example, Americans are described as more likely to take a
‘me’ perspective than East Asians (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). In contrast, social identity
researchers demonstrate that whether one takes a ‘me’ or an ‘us’ perspective is not fixed by
culture but influenced by context (Brewer, 1991; Brewer & Gardner, 1996; Hogg, 2003, 2006).
More situated approaches demonstrate empirically that small shifts in contexts influence whether
everyone, American or East Asian, takes on a ‘me’ or ‘us’ perspectives (for reviews, Oyserman,
2007; Oyserman & Lee, 2008a, 2008b; Oyserman & Sorensen, 2009). Taking on a ‘me’ or an
‘us’ perspective influences perception and mental procedures more generally, as will be
discussed in the section on self-concept.
In addition to being able to take both a separated and a connected perspective on the self,
people can also consider themselves from immersed or distal perspectives (Kross, 2009; Kross,
Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005). That is, people can consider themselves as actors buffeted by others
and situations (Jones & Nisbett, 1972). Conversely, they can take a step back and can consider
themselves from a more distal perspective. People can consider what others might be observing
about them, seeing themselves, as it were, through the eyes of others (Cohen & Gunz, 2002).
Memories include both close and distal perspectives, termed field and observer memories by
Nigro and Neisser (1983). In observer memories, the actor takes the perspective of an observer,
seeing oneself from the outside; this is not the case for field memories. Switching perspective is
consequential. Thus, thinking about the self from a more distal perspective focuses attention on
one’s broader goals and values (Wakslak, Nussbaum, Liberman, & Trope, 2008). It also reduces
emotional investment in the self, reducing both rumination about the past (Kross, 2009) and
perceived overlap between the self one is now and the self one will become (Pronin, Olivola, &
Ecologically, the two axes of self-perspective are likely related (Cohen & Gunz, 2002).
Taking a relational ‘us’ perspective on the self is likely to co-occur with taking a more distal
perspective on the self to include what others’ might be seeing (for an applied review of the
interface between culture and autobiographical memory, see Schwarz, Oyserman, & Peytcheva,
2010). However, people can be induced to take any combination of these perspectives, including
the potentially less common combinations of separate ‘me’ and temporal distal observer
perspective, or relational ‘us’ and close immersed perspective. Because they are able to reflect on
themselves over time and from multiple perspectives, people can evaluate themselves using
multiple standards, predict how social interactions will go, and self-regulate by acting in ways
that facilitate future self needs and wants. In that sense, there is not a single me but multiple me’s
or at least multiple facets to each me. Rather than consider these multiple selves, we propose
considering each of these as structuring self-concepts, as we explain next.
Self-concepts are cognitive structures that can include content, attitudes or evaluative
judgments and are used to make sense of the world, focus attention on one’s goals and protect
one’s sense of basic worth (Oyserman & Markus, 1998). Thus, if the self is an ‘I’ that thinks and
a ‘me’ that is the content of those thoughts, one important part of this ‘me’ content involves
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
mental concepts or ideas of who one is, was, and will become. These mental concepts are the
content of self-concept.
While we focus on the structural aspect of self-concept (e.g., individualistic,
collectivistic, proximal immersed, distal other), much of the literature focuses on content and
evaluative judgment, asking what people describe when they describe themselves and how
positively they evaluate themselves. This focus on content plus evaluative judgment is quite
common in research on children and adolescents and typically involves close-ended rating scales
in a series of domain (e.g., physical appearance, athletic ability, emotional stability, peer
relationships, family relationships; see Harter, this volume; Marsh, 1990). However, content can
be studied separately from evaluative judgment, often with open-ended probes asking people to
describe their current, ideal and ought self-concepts or their desired and undesired possible
selves (for a review of measurement of possible self-concepts, see Oyserman & Fryberg, 2006).
In the same way, some research focuses explicitly on self-judgments or self-attitudes. These self-
judgments are typically operationalized as self-esteem or self-efficacy and are a distilled
evaluation of the person’s sense of worth and competence in the world (e.g., Bandura, 1977;
2001; Crocker, this volume; Rosenberg, 1979).
Self-concepts also differ in how they are structured. Researchers have documented
differences in which content domains are organized together, in complexity, in how positive and
negative information is stored, and in the likelihood that strategies for action are linked to self-
goals. Consider first the structural implications of how content is considered. People may
organize and structure their self-concepts around some domains which others commonly use to
make sense of them -- their race or ethnicity, their gender, their weight, their age, or their
academic standing in school. If this social information is used to organize self-concept, a person
may be said to be schematic for the domain, which implies that they will process information
that is relevant to it more quickly and efficiently and remember it better than information that is
irrelevant to it (Markus, Crane, Bernstein, & Siladi, 1982). It also implies that people will act in
ways that fit their schema (Oyserman, Brickman, Rhodes, 2007; Oyserman, 2008).
Beyond particular aspects of content, some people may feel that all aspects of the self
related; others may feel that many aspects of the self function independently (Linville, 1987).
Organization may hew to valence, so that people may compartmentalize positive and negative
self-views such that gaining evidence that one is a disorganized scholar does not disturb one’s
sense that one bound for great glory in academia (Showers, Abramson, & Hogan, 1998).
People may have multiple self-concepts, with some better organized and articulated than
others (Banaji & Prentice, 1994; Epstein, 1973; Greenwald & Banaji, 1989; Markus & Wurf,
1987; Oyserman, 2001, 2007). Structure matters, some self-concepts effectively facilitate self-
regulation and others leave one vulnerable to premature goal-disengagement and battered
feelings of worth and competence (Oyserman, Bybee, Terry, & Hart-Johnson, 2004; Oyserman,
Harrison, & Bybee, 2001; Schwinghammer, Stapel, & Blanton, 2006).
As we noted in the section on self, people can consider themselves from a number of
perspectives – individualistic ‘me’ self, the collectivistic ‘us’ self; the temporally near ‘now’ self,
the temporally distal ‘future’ self; the immersed ‘mind’s eye’ self and the observer’s ‘eyes of
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
others’ self. While much of the literature terms these ‘self’, we propose considering each of these
a self-concept structure. Multiple of these structures are available in memory for use, though
people are likely to differ in which structures are more chronically accessible. Self-concept
researchers have documented that whether people focus on social roles and relationships or
individuating traits and characteristics in describing themselves depends significantly on their
immediate situational cues. Researchers can easily “prime” (bring to mind) one way of thinking
about self-concept or the other.
For example, just reading a paragraph with first person singular (I, me) vs. plural (we, us)
pronouns, unscrambling sentences with these words, or considering differences vs. similarities to
one’s friends and family shifts self-concept content (Trafimow, Triandis, & Gotto, 1991;
Triandis, 1989; for a review of the evidence, Oyserman & Lee, 2007, 2008a, 2008b). Moreover,
priming self-concept structure in this way influences not only how people think about themselves
but how they think generally. For example, participants in one experiment were primed with me-
or us-relevant pronouns, shown 64 unrelated objects on a page and told they would be asked to
remember what they saw. They were equally good at that task but us-primed participants were
better at the surprise part of the memory task in which they were unexpected also asked to recall
where the objects were on the page (Kühnen & Oyserman, 2002). Me-primed participants
remembered what they saw but not the relationships among objects (see also Oyserman,
Sorensen, Reber & Chen, 2009).
Erikson (1951, 1968) developed a widely used model of identity development which
focuses on development of identity via exploration and commitment. Erikson uses the term
identity in ways synonymous with what others have termed self-concept. However, the term
identity can also be conceptualized as a way of making sense of some aspect or part of self-
concept (Abrams, 1994; 1999; Hogg, 2003; Serpe, 1987; Styker & Burke, 2000; Tajfel & Turner,
2004). For example, one can have a religious identity which contains relevant content and goals
– what to do, what to value, and how to behave.
The social psychological and sociological identity literatures contrast personal and social
identities, also termed collective identities (for a review, Brewer & Roccas, 2001; Hogg, 2003).
Social identities, as defined by Tajfel (1981), involve the knowledge that one is a member of a
group, one’s feelings about group membership and knowledge of the group’s rank or status
compared to other groups. Though this definition does not focus much on content of in-group
membership beyond knowledge, regard, and rank, other definitions have highlighted that social
identities include content (Oyserman, 2007; Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, Fryberg, Brosh, & Hart-
Just as there may be many self-concepts, identity theorists differ in how to conceptualize
how many identities a person is likely to have. Much as James (1890) described multiple selves,
predicting that people have as many selves as they have interaction partners, identity and social
identity theorists discuss multiple identities based in multiple situations. Identity theorists
(Stryker, 1980; Styker & Burke, 2000) focus on how cross-situational stability of identity content
emerges. From this perspective, identities are distinct parts of the self-concept, the internalized
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
meanings and expectations associated with the positions one holds in social networks and the
roles one plays. In contrast, social identity theorists (Abrams, 1999; Onorato & Turner, 2002;
Tajfel, 1981; Tajfel & Turner, 2004) focus on cross-situational malleability. In its strongest
formulation, social identity theorists predict that in each interaction people take on a different
identity (see Owens, et al., 2010 for a review from a sociological perspective).
In thinking about identity content and identity function, social identity researchers
sometimes focus on connection to and similarities with other in-group members (Brewer, 2001;
Oyserman, et al., 2003). Other times they focus on the distinction between in-group and out-
group (Brewer, 2001; Stapel & Koomen, 2001; Spears et al., 2004). The groups (gender,
nationality, race-ethnicity, religious heritage groups, or 1st year psychology majors) on which
identities are based are likely to differ in their longevity and how psychologically meaningful
they feel across time and situation (Brewer, 1991; Oyserman, 2007, 2009a; Sedikedes & Brewer,
2001). Social identity and identity theorists also study two other kinds of identities, role identities
and personal identities. Role identities reflect membership in particular roles (e.g., student,
parent, professional) which require another person to play a complementary role. One cannot be
a parent without children, a student without teachers, or a professional without clients or peers
who recognize one’s role. Personal identities reflect traits or characteristics that may feel
separate from one’s social and role identities or linked to some or all of these identities (for a
review, Owens et al, 2010).
Thus, personal identities refer to content quite isomorphic with what is typically referred
to as self-concept in the psychological literature. An advantage in using the term ‘identity’ rather
than ‘self-concept’ in this regard is that it reserves the term self-concept for broader perspectives
as we discussed previously – after all being a shy person is likely to mean something different
when considered as part of what makes one separate and different from others (individualistic
self-concept) or as part of what makes one related and similar to others (collectivistic self-
Self, self-concept, and identity can be considered as nested elements, with aspects of the
‘me’ forming self-concepts and identities being part of self-concepts. Yet scholars often use the
terms self and identity as if they were synonyms (Swann & Bosson, 2010). Sometimes the terms
are used in reference to the process of making sense of the world in terms of what matters to
‘me’ or to the consequences of social contexts on a variety of beliefs and perceptions about the
self or simply to refer to membership in socio-demographic categories such as gender or social
class (Frable, 1997). Other times what is meant is an implicit sense or a warm feeling of
relevance and inclusion rather than a cold feeling of irrelevance and exclusion (see for example,
Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005; Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002). Thus, the terms can and
often are used to explain what might be the process underlying outcomes but differ dramatically
in what or if anything is assessed or manipulated.
That said, theories converge in assuming that self, self-concept and identity come from
somewhere, are stored in memory and matter. We term these three core notions about self and
identity mental construct, social product, and force for action. Thus, self and identity are mental
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
constructs that are shaped by the contexts in which they develop and influence action. We
address each of these core notions next. To accommodate this heterogeneity and still move
forward in considering how self and identity may matter, in the rest of this chapter we use the
phrase ‘self and identity’ when this more general and vague usage is a better fit with the
literature we are citing and specific terms (e.g., identities) where relevant.
Self and identity are mental concepts
Self and identity theories converge in asserting that self and identity are mental
constructs, that is, something represented in memory. This capacity develops early. When shown
their face in a mirror, many children aged 18 months and nearly all children aged 24 months
touch their forehead to remove a smudge unobtrusively produced by smearing with some paint
on their forehead (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979). This response is interpreted to mean that
children know what they look like and know a smudge should not be on their foreheads. This
image-based self-recognition is not limited to the face; at this age toddlers also notice a sticker
secretly placed on their legs (Nielsen, Suddendorf, & Slaughter, 2006).
Thus children seem to have stored a visual image of who they are in memory. This image
is likely to be quite fine-grained. For example, people prefer the visual image of themselves they
are used to seeing (mirror image) to a non-mirror image (Mita, Dermer, & Knight, 1977). Other
senses are also involved in mental representations of self in memory. Consider that infants begin
to experience the self as physically distinct from context and as motorically acting in space
(Bronson, 2000). This visceral sense of the self as a physical object, having body parts and
controlling action is not unique to early development (Botvinik and Cohen, 1998; Lenggenhager
et al., 2007). Traces of the self are believed to exist in one’s handwriting, signature, bodily
posture and physical stance (Kettle & Häubl, 2011). Thus, as early argued by James (1890), at its
core the self is physical and the material.
The emerging field of social neuroscience has attempted to pinpoint where in the brain
the self resides, demonstrating different locations for self-relevant processing that is associative
versus conscious and reflective (Beer, this volume; Lieberman, 2010). While specificity of
activity in particular neural regions is not a necessary feature of the self, the prefrontal cortex has
been associated with conscious processes and the medial wall is hypothesized to support
processes related to introspection – aspects of what the self is assumed to be and do. Thus,
current research programs point to frontal lobe activity as involved in cognitive processes related
to the self. Activation in the anterior cingulate cortex is associated with reflecting on whether a
trait is self-relevant or not (Macrae, et al., 2004) and with reflecting on one’s own performance
(Bengtsson, Dolan, & Passingham, 2010). Medial prefrontal activity connected to self-
representation tasks may be visual modality-specific, at least for sighted individuals (for a
review, Ma & Han, 2011). That is, among sighted individuals, medial prefrontal activation and
enhanced functional connectivity between the medial prefrontal and visual cortices occurs during
self-judgments (compared to other-judgments) when trait words are shown rather than heard (Ma
& Han 2011).
However, self-concept research typically focuses on semantic memory rather than
localization in the brain. Children rapidly develop both language and cognitive capacities and
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
with these capacities come language-based autobiographical memories (Fivush & Hammond,
1990). Organizing their memories with social norms of what matters and how to make sense,
children can begin to create a semantic rather than visceral sense of self – what one does, what
one is supposed to do (Fivush & Hammond, 1990; see also Harter, 2003 and Harter, this
volume). Self-concept research has typically focused on children’s capacity to describe and rate
themselves across multiple dimensions. For example, by second grade children can report on
multiple dimensions of their self-concept (Marsh et al., 1984). Teens are able to articulate that
they act and feel differently about themselves in different roles and contexts (Harter, Bresnick,
Bouchey, & Whitesell, 1997; McConnell, 2010). The method used, rating scales, implies that the
mental concept being studied is a set of ratings. Indeed, much self-concept research assumes that
explicit self-report of the self as an attitude object is useful, implying that self-concept is stable,
chronically accessible in memory, and accessed in the same way across situations. However, as
discussed in Section 3 (Thinking is for Doing) each of these assumptions is open to question
(Schwarz, 2007; Strack & Deutsch, 2004).
Self and identity are social products
Self and identity theories converge in grounding self and identity in social context.
Contextual effects on the self may be distal --parenting practices, schooling, the culture, the time
and place in which one lives, the experiences one has had early in life. Contextual effects on the
self also may be proximal – the psychological implications of the immediate situations one is in
(e.g., for reviews, Hogg, 2003, 2006, Oyserman & Markus, 1993, 1998, Tajfel & Turner, 2004).
Models differ in what context refers to. Some focus on macro-level contexts especially the
historical epoch, society and culture within which one lives. Empirical analysis of effects at this
level can involve historical and cross-group comparisons but is also amenable to experimental
priming techniques (see for example, Oyserman & Lee, 2007, 2008a, 2008b; Oyserman & Uskul,
2008). Contexts can also be at a mid-level, these contexts include family, school and
neighborhood and the family processes and socialization practices one grew up with. Here too
analyses may be descriptive, comparative, or experimental (see for example, Chen & Chen,
2010; Oyserman & Yoon, 2009). Finally context may be more micro-level, the day-by-day,
moment-to-moment situations one experiences because of these structures and institutions.
Each of these levels of analyses has roots in both psychological and sociological
perspectives as described early on by James (1890), Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934). Cooley’s
(1902) description of the looking glass self encapsulates James’s (1890) insight that how other’s
see the self matters, suggesting that reflected appraisals, whether they reinforce or undermine
one’s self images, are important building blocks for the self. A large body of research has
examined this assumption. Results support the social construction of self by showing that people
do generally incorporate what they think others’ think of them, though self views are typically
more positive than other’s views (for summaries and original research see Felson, 1993;
Shrauger & Schoeneman, 1979).
Generally speaking, self and identity are social products in at least three ways. First,
people do not create themselves from air, rather what is possible, what is important, what needs
to be explained all come from social context – from what matters to others. This means that
people are likely to define themselves in terms of what is relevant in their time and place -- group
memberships (e.g., religion, race, or gender), family roles, looks, school attainment or athletic
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
prowess, should matter more or less depending on what is valued in one’s culture and for people
in one’s place within social hierarchy. Second, being a self requires others who endorse and
reinforce one’s selfhood, who scaffold a sense that one’s self matters and that one’s efforts can
produce results. This means that people should feel better about themselves, more capable of
attaining their goals, and so on, in contexts that provide these scaffoldings than in contexts that
do not. Third, the aspects of one’s self and identity that matter in the moment are determined by
what is relevant in the moment.
Because getting others to endorse one’s identities matters, people change their behavior
to get others to view them as they view themselves (Oyserman, 2007, 2009a, 2009b). A clear
way to socially signal an identity is to act in ways that are (stereotypically) congruent with it. To
test whether this happens, researchers can look for or create situations in which an important
identity is ambiguous or actively undermined and see if people are more likely to act in ways that
fit stereotypes in these circumstances. For example, Black children who are worried that they are
not viewed as African American and Asian Americans who are worried that they are not viewed
as Americans may choose to act in ways that help them fit in. To test this prediction, in one set of
studies, the in-class behavior, friendship choices and school grades of African American and
Latino American middle school students were assessed (Oyserman, Brickman, Bybee, &
Celious, 2006). The prediction was that children who did not believe they looked like in-group
members would be more likely to act in ways (stereotypically) congruent with their racial-ethnic
identity because by acting like a (stereotypic) in-group member they could convince others that
they held the identity. Indeed, compared to dark skin-toned African Americans, light skin-toned
African Americans reported feeling less socially accepted. This felt lack of acceptance translated
to action; their report cards showed poorer academic attainment and teachers rated them as
misbehaving in class more. Similar effects were found for Latino children who said they did not
look Latino. These children chose less academically-oriented peers as friends, attained worse
grades and were more likely to misbehave in class. Friendship choice mediated effects of
‘looking Latino’ on academic performance. Fitting into the group they perceived as ‘acting’
(stereotypically) like the in-group mattered.
Rather than focus on school behavior, another set of studies focused on food choices
(Guendelman, Cheryan, & Monin, 2011). To test the prediction that people will act in ways that
(stereotypically) fit an ambiguous or undermined identity, these authors randomly assigned
Asian American college student participants to either be welcomed to the study without
comment or to first be queried as to whether they were American. The query regarding their
American identity mattered. Asian Americans who were first asked if they were American chose
more prototypically American foods to eat and said they liked these foods more than those who
were not first asked if they were American. This occurred even though the American foods were
less healthy than the Asian ones. Thus, the answer to one of our opening questions ‘Want a
burger and fries or softly steamed fish and fungi?’ was not fixed but depended instead on how
Asian American identity was constructed in context.
Effects are not limited to minority groups and can involve undesired as well as desired
identities. British undergraduates reported intention to drink less alcohol and engage in healthier
eating over the coming week after being induced to think of themselves as British rather than
American or as British people rather than college students (the latter groups were stereotyped as
unhealthy, Tarrant & Butler, 2011). American undergraduates reported that they had consumed
less alcohol the week after being told that graduate students (negatively stereotyped as nerdy)
were heavy alcohol users (Berger & Rand, 2008).
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
Self and identity are forces for action
A common theme of self and identity theorists is that the self matters for behavior. Yet
demonstrating that how one thinks about oneself produces action rather than simply being
associated with it has proven difficult. A clear way to demonstrate that the self does influence
behavior is to manipulate whether and how people think about themselves and to show that this
influences their subsequent behavior. To make the self salient, participants are asked to sit in
front of a mirror (Carver & Scheier, 1978) or asked to do something else to bring the self to mind
such as signing their name (Kettle & Häubl, 2011), or describing what makes them similar or
different from others (Markel, 2009; Trafimow et al., 1991) or circling first person singular
pronouns (Sui & Han, 2007). Each of these paradigms shifts response, but the specific nature of
the consequences of making the self salient for action depends on the interplay between which
aspects of the self are brought to mind in the context and on the task at hand (Oyserman, 2007).
To examine these processes more closely, researchers often manipulate the salience of a
particular aspect of the self. For example, in one study, participants were provided with rigged
feedback to induce them to believe that they were generally competent or incompetent. This
influenced their self-esteem and their self-esteem influenced their subsequent prejudicial
responses to others (Harmon-Jones et al., 1997, Study 1). In another study, psychology students
were reminded of their identity as psychology students then, using an elaborate cover story, were
led to believe that psychology students are neater (or less neat) than a comparison group
(economics students). Students acted in ways that fit how their psychology student identity had
been presented to them, coloring more neatly after reading stories about neatness ostensibly
written by psychology students and more messily if these stories were attributed to economics
students (Spears et al., 2004).
Some researchers go beyond documenting effects of context on self-concept or of self-
concept on behavior to predict that context affects behavior by affecting self-concept content
(self-concept change mediates the influence of context on behavior). For example Jiang, Cho,
and Adaval (2009) manipulated context by exposing Hong Kong Chinese participants either to
words and numbers related to having luck (e.g., ‘lucky’, number strings containing 8) or to not
having luck (e.g., ‘unlucky’, number strings containing 4) either subliminally or supraliminally
with a variety of cover stories. They demonstrated that both a self-rating ‘I am a lucky person’
(Studies 1, 2) and a risk preference (e.g., preferring a chance to save money to a sure thing,
Study 3) were significantly higher for participants randomly assigned to the lucky vs. the
unlucky condition. Moreover, when both self-rating and a risky behavior choice were measured
at the same time, the effect of condition on risk preference (e.g., willingness to pay to participate
in a gamble) was mediated by a change in self-rating (Studies 3, 4). Experiments such as these
clarify that small changes in contexts do shift at least some aspects of self-views and so are a
promising trend for the field. While necessarily artificial and not attempting to articulate what
exactly is meant by use of the terms self or identity, experiments of this type demonstrate how
contexts influence momentary perceptions about the self and identity.
To increase ecological validity, some experimenters conduct field research on the effect
of identity in context. One way to examine effects of context on behavior is by asking people to
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
consider an identity either before or after they engage in an identity-relevant behavior
(Oyserman, Gant & Ager, 1995, Study 2; Oyserman, et al., 2003, Studies 2 and 3). Another
possibility is to subtly prime a particular behavior as either relevant or irrelevant to a core
identity such as gender (Elmore & Oyserman, 2011) or, for college students, one’s major (Smith
& Oyserman, 2010).
For example, in a number of studies we asked students to complete a novel math task
either before or after we asked them about their racial-ethnic identity (what is it, what does it
mean in their everyday lives). In these studies, African American, Hispanic and American Indian
children mostly described their racial-ethnic identity in terms of connection to the in-group.
Some also described connection to larger society generally or specifically reported that school
attainment was part of racial-ethnic identity. Those who did describe connection to larger society
and school attainment worked harder on the math task, especially if they did the task after first
considering their racial-ethnic identity (Oyserman et al. 1995, Study 2; Oyserman et al., 2003,
Study 2). The results of this experimental manipulation of identity salience were replicated with
Arab Israeli middle and high school students (Oyserman et al., 2003, Study 3).
2. UNDERSTANDING PROCESS
As demonstrated in the previous section, effectively demonstrating that the self
influences action often involves manipulating which self-concept or identity comes to mind.
Perhaps one of the reasons that few such studies exist is that many theories assume that the self is
relatively stable. Stability can be assumed to emerge from early plasticity, that is, social contexts
may shape the self as it is developing, but once developed, the self may be difficult to change.
Stability can be assumed even in theoretical perspectives that articulate self-concept and identity
as memory structures -- updated and revised with each use. In this section, we consider people’s
experience of the self as stable and ask what the evidence for malleability and dynamic
A conundrum for the study and understanding how self and identity operate is that even if
self and identity change, people can still have an experience of stability so self-report may not be
helpful. Consider Plato’s analogy of a ship whose owner mends and repairs it, replacing planks
as needed. Eventually all the planks are replaced. Is it the same ship? Depending on what the
questioner means, the answer could be ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That is, the ship functions as always so it is
the same ship, even though all the components are new so it is a different ship. The self may be
considered in the same way. Over time self and identity do their job. Like Plato’s ship that keeps
its owner above water while getting him where he needs to go, self and identity do their job of
making meaning, focusing attention, and sustaining goal-focused self-regulation. But at the same
time, like the ever-changing planks, what self and identity mean may be dynamically
constructed. As a result, what one focuses on, what one’s goals appear to be, and how one works
toward them changes as well. Self and identity continue to function, thus feeling the same, even
though what the content is changes dramatically. Thus a feeling of stability can emerge whether
people have a motivation to perceive the self as stable or not.
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
The self as a stable essence
People assume that people, themselves included, have a stable essence or core that
predicts their behavior, that who they are matters for what they do and that what they do reflects
who they are (Arkes & Kajdasz, 2011; James, 1890). The assumption that deeper essences
constrain surface features or psychological essentialism is a basic cognitive organizing schema
that is at the core of categorization (Medin & Ortony, 1989).
Even preschool children aged 2 ½ infer stability of traits in inanimate and biological
categories from as little as one example (for reviews, Gelman, 1999; Gelman & Diesendruck,
1999). For instance, they infer that flamingos but not bats feed their young mashed up food after
learning that flamingos and blackbirds in the same category (birds) and being told once that
blackbirds feed their young mashed-up food. By age 5 children infer that both biological (e.g.,
has melatonin) and psychological (e.g., likes looking pretty) characteristics transfer across
instances of a social category (Diesendruck & Eldror, 2011). By age 10 children are as willing as
adults to use personality traits (e.g., generous) to predict behavioral consistency of individuals
over time (Aloise, 1993; Kalish, 2002; Rholes & Ruble, 1984).
Once established, the notion of essences feels intuitively obvious and adults are quick to
infer the existence of enduring dispositions motivating people's behavior (Ross, 1977) and to
infer traits from their behavior (Carlston & Skowronski, 1994). People often describe themselves
in terms of stable traits (e.g., sincere) and actions (e.g., give loose change to homeless people)
(Cousins, 1989; English & Chen, 2011, Semin, 2009). This essential sense of self appears
universal although whether people use adjectives or action-verbs to describe their traits and
whether they assume their traits apply within particular situations or across situations may vary
cross-culturally (English & Chen, 2011, Semin, 2009; see also Cross this volume).
Is the self stable?
Separate from people’s perceptions, it seems reasonable to ask if the self is a stable
mental construct. Most comprehensive social science theories of the self articulate both stability
and fluidity as aspects of the self. Thus, identity and social identity theories describe the self as
including both a stable set of evaluative standards and a fluid, ever-changing description in the
moment (Turner, 1956). In some formulations, both stability and changability have been viewed
as part of maintaining a stable and positive sense of self-esteem (Tesser & Campbell, 1983,
Tesser, 1988) or a stable sense of self more generally (Swann, 1983; Swann this volume). Since
maintaining a self-image requires doing “face work” to convince others of one’s self-
presentation (Goffman, 1959), some sociological perspectives have argued for stability of the
self over time as a result of stability of social interactions (Serpe, 1987; Stryker, 1980). There is
some support for this interpretation. For example, Serpe (1987) found that college students did
not vary in how they rated six college-role identities (e.g., coursework, dating) over three data
points in their first semester of college, presumably because the context (college) remained the
One way to ask this question is whether a healthy or effective self is essentially stable and
invariant across time and situation. Some psychologists have argued that this is the case noting
that the self protects itself from change (for reviews, Greenwald, 1980; Markus & Kunda, 1986),
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
changing only when the conditions of life require it (Gecas, 1982; Kihlstrom & Cantor, 1984;
Rosenberg, 1979; Swann 1983, 1985). If this is the case, then there should be individual
differences in self-stability and these differences should be consequential. Indeed, Kernis and
colleagues (Kernis, et al., 1993; Kernis et al., 2000) present evidence that people differ in how
stable their self-esteem is and that stability is associated with well-being. Feeling that the self is
not stable is in fact one of the diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder (Lieb et al.,
To examine resistance to change, researchers can manipulate feedback experimentally or
follow people over time or compare responses of people across age groups to make inferences
about time. Experimental methods typically involve two steps. Researchers first obtain self-
ratings then provide unexpected feedback. The goal is to see if people refuse to accept feedback
that does not fit their self-image. Non-experimental methods also involve more than one step.
Either the researcher tracks the same participants over time or sample participants at different
ages or points in their life course to make inferences about stability.
Experiments typically indicate that people go to great lengths to protect the images they
have of themselves, ignoring or reinterpreting contradictory information and distancing
themselves from the source of such information (Markus, 1977; Swann, 1983, 1985). Similar
stability is inferred from longitudinal and cross-sectional studies. For example, Marsh and his
colleagues have examined the stability of domain-specific self-concepts, asking children,
adolescents and young adults to respond to a battery of self-report measures ratings of their
abilities in a number of domains (e.g., school, peer relationships, and problem solving). Reports
are relatively stable in that participant’s relative ranks remain similar over time. They also show
some fluctuation such that higher ratings are reported on average by children and later
adolescents than middle adolescents (Marsh, 1989; Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 1998).
Research on identity development (Erikson, 1951, 1968) assumes growth toward
stability. That is, though children have identities, the adolescent to adulthood transition is
theorized as involving re-examination of important identities. After trying on various
possibilities, adolescents and young adults are predicted to stake a claim to an identity which
then remains stable. Although cognizant that identity is a context-dependent mental construct,
research in this tradition neither manipulates social context to test effects on identity nor
manipulates identity to test effects on behavior. Instead, the focus is on empirically testing
whether identity changes over time as expected and whether once an identity is committed to, it
is stable. Researchers focus on opertationalizing the process of committing to an identity and
testing if this process is best described linearly (progress toward identity commitment) or
cyclically (exploration and commitment are followed by return to exploration, e.g., Bosma &
Kunnen, 2001; Waterman, 1999). Rather than test for stability by assessing the extent to which
children, adolescents, and young adults rate their self-concepts of abilities in various domains
consistently over time, these researchers use close-ended scales of self-reported extent of
exploration and engagement either in specific identities (e.g., ethnic identities, Ong, Fuller-
Rowell, & Phinney, 2010) or in identity as a whole (e.g., Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008).
So-called ‘stage theories’ of identity development posit a fixed attitude about the self,
something that is difficult to document in the attitude field as a whole (Schwarz, 2007). Indeed,
these theories have generally failed to find support when tested over time (Cross, Smith &
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
Payne, 2002). That is, people who seemed to be at one stage of identity development often report
being at an earlier stage at later points in time (Cross, et al., 2002; Strauss & Cross, 2005).
However, stage-theory research continues. For example, research on racial and ethnic identity
commonly asks if adolescents move from exploration to commitment as would be predicted by
the theory (e.g., Kiang & Fuligni, 2010; Matsunaga, Hecht, Elek, & Ndiaye, 2010).
The self as context-sensitive
Even though lay and theoretical perspectives focus on stability, it is possible that a stable
self is not necessarily an effective self. To the extent that the self is a tool for meaning making,
maintaining sense of worth and regulating behavior, then an effective self should be sensitive to
new information and so malleable and variant across change in features of the external (time,
situation) and internal (motivation) environment. The appearance of stability in empirical studies
may be deceptive. Self and identity may appear quite stable or quite changeable depending on
how they are assessed. For example, if features of the situation matter, then if situation is stable,
self and identity will appear stable making it impossible to learn if they are context-dependent.
Moreover, since people tend to experience the self in context, they may experience stability even
though which aspects of the self are salient may depend on what makes one distinctive in the
moment (McGuire and McGuire, 1988), what makes one similar to others in the moment
(Brewer, 1991), and one’s immediate feelings about being similar or distinct (Markus & Kunda,
Empirically, it is possible to disentangle situation-based invariance from situation-based
variance by manipulating situations prior to assessing self and identity. Effects can be subtle. In
an early test, Markus and Kunda (1986) used an elaborate cover story to manipulate whether
their white female American college student participants experienced their tastes and preferences
(e.g., about colors, objects, clothes) as being different from or just like the tastes and preferences
of others like them. They were then shown words and asked to click a button marked ‘me’ if the
word described them and a button marked ‘not me’ if it did not. Mixed with neutral words were
words evoking difference (e.g., unique, different) and similarity (e.g., average, follower). Lastly,
participants were asked to provide their associations to six words – three relevant to being
different and three to being the same as others. The manipulation did not influence how people
rated themselves. They chose just as many similarity words and just as many difference words as
‘me’ no matter whether they had just experienced their tastes and preferences as being different
or just like others. If the researchers had only measured the number of ‘me’ responses, these
results would support the prediction that self-concept is stable. Indeed, most evidence that self-
concept is stable comes from repeated assessment using a measure such as used in this study.
But, the researchers in this study also obtained reaction time (how long it took to respond
‘me’ or ‘not me’. The manipulation did influence speed of response. Participants made to feel
similar to others were faster to endorse as ‘me’ words relating to being distinct. What comes to
mind quickly may well influence behavior in the moment more than what comes to mind more
slowly so that reaction time may matter in real world settings. Yet if the goal of research is to
make predictions about how the self and identity function in real ecologies, it might be useful to
study real situations rather than artificial ones.
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
Studying context-sensitivity in school for example, would require sampling students as
they enter varying situations (e.g., the hallway, homeroom, after school activities, see Oyserman
& Packer, 1996) or move through their social networks (e.g., Kindermann, 1993). Naturalistic
studies often find surprising stability in self-concept content and high predictive power of this
content over time. For example, Altschul, Oyserman, and Bybee (2006) found both stability and
predictive power in their assessment of three elements of racial-ethnic identity (Connectedness,
Awareness of Racism, Embedded Achievement) over four measurement points. Their data
collection covered two school years and the transition from middle to high school. Not only were
the three elements of racial-ethnic identity stable over time, but higher endorsement of these
three elements of racial-ethnic identity predicted better performance over time (controlling for
prior performance). In another study (Oyserman, 2008), content of racial-ethnic identity in 9th
grade predicts academic performance and in-class behavior four years later (controlling for prior
performance and behavior).
These studies clearly demonstrate that self and identity matter for behavior but do they
also mean that self and identity are basically stable and not context-sensitive? We argue that
naturalistic studies typically do not allow inferences about context-sensitivity (or context-
insensitivity). It is possible that racial-ethnic identity as assessed in these studies is highly
sensitive to context but that the contexts did not feel psychologically different even though
assessments were obtained across different classrooms, schools, and school years. Experiments
allow researchers to manipulate those aspects of context predicted to be psychologically
meaningful; natural settings do not. Thus, naturalistic and experimental research on identity
provides information on different questions – does the self appear stable and can the self be made
How strong is empirical support?
A rich array of social science theories assume that the self matters for life choices and
behavior, but a similarly robust body of evidence that this is so has yet to be assembled. The
theory-evidence gap means that, to date, self and identity theories may or may not provide robust
models of what self and identity do and how they function. This problem has been noted in some
(e.g., Banaji & Prentice, 1994; Baumeister, 1998; Markus & Wurf, 1987) but not all reviews
(e.g., Callero, 2003; Stets and Burke, 2003). However, given the large number of publications
evoking self and identity as explanatory factors, failing to attend to the theory-evidence gap
means that the field as a whole has not made as much progress as might be hoped in
understanding self and identity as mental constructs and as forces for action. This means that
context effects on self and identity may or may not work as theories describe and self and
identity may be more or less powerful as meaning-making lenses and motivators of action than
theories describe. At worst, the self may not matter at all.
While research on autographical memory is continuing to grow (Fivush, 2011), the
structure of self-concept(s) in memory is less understood (Greenwald & Banaji, 1989;
McConnell, 2011). A main tension is between theories that assume a single hierarchically
organized self-concept and theories that do not. The alternative to a single self hierarchically
organized in memory could be that people have multiple, only loosely associated self-concepts
stored in memory. But it could also be that people dynamically create a new self-concept each
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
time one is called for. While appealing to a lay sense that the self must be a single entity, a single
structure model does not fit well with how memory and cognition works generally, as we
consider in Section 3 (Strack & Deutsch, 2004; Wyer & Srull, 1989). Therefore, rather than
focus on how a single self-concept might be structured in memory, much of the literature now
focuses on ‘working,’ ‘on-line,’ or ‘active’ self-concept, one’s salient theory about oneself in the
moment, or focuses on particular self-concept content rather than attempting to study all of self-
concept (e.g., for reviews, see Fishbach & Ferguson, 2007; Oyserman, 2007; Smeeters, et al.,
2010; Wheeler & DeMarree, 2009). By rooting their formulation of the self in situated and social
cognition perspectives (Smith & Semin, 2004, 2007; Schwarz, 2007, 2009, 2010; Wyer & Srull,
1989), these theorists attempt to leverage social science knowledge about how the mind works to
make predictions about the self as a mental construct (Oyserman, 2007; Oyserman & Destin,
2010; Wheeler, Demaree, & Petty, 2007).
Social comparison as contrast
A large body of research has examined the contextualized nature of self-evaluations by
setting up social comparisons. Early formulations assumed that people generally contrast
themselves with others and that this can lead to better or worse self-evaluations (see Blanton,
2001; Collins, 1996 for reviews). A large number of experiments randomly assigned people to a
no comparison control, an upward comparison condition (someone more successful) or a
downward comparison condition (someone less successful). Compared to no comparison
participants, those in the upward comparison condition reported more negative self-evaluations
(Mussweiler, Ruter, & Epstude, 2004; Taylor & Lobel, 1989) while those in the downward
comparisons conditions reported more positive self-ratings (e.g., Pelham & Wachsmuth, 1995).
These results fit with social identity theorists’ argument that downward out-group
comparisons contribute positively to social identity (Tajfel, 1981) and imply that people may be
motivated to find downward comparisons. But, as it turns out, people do not always contrast
themselves with others. Consider the experiments conducted by Lockwood and Kunda (1997).
They randomly assigned participants to either read materials about a ‘superstar’ student or not
and then judge their current and future selves. If people always contrast themselves to others,
then the superstar comparison should have resulted in more negative self-evaluations whether
considering oneself now or in the future. Indeed, students in the superstar condition did rate their
current self more negatively. However, these same students rated their future possible self more
positively. Why were the results different when considering one’s future possible self rather than
one’s current self? One possibility is that in the present, participants could clearly see that they
were not like the superstar so the superstar was then a comparison standard. However, in the
future, the superstar might be a role model; that is participants might become like the superstar
so the superstar could be included in one’s self-judgment (see also Tesser & Collins, 1996).
Incorporating others into the self
Thus, rather than assume that people contrast themselves with others, a more appropriate
question seems to be under what circumstances are people likely to contrast themselves with
others and under what circumstances are people likely to include others in their self-judgments?
Consider the social context of school. In many urban school districts, failure rates are high such
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
that students are likely to be aware of many other students who are doing poorly in school. If
people routinely contrast themselves with others, then students in these schools should have
plenty of downward social comparison opportunities and consequently judge themselves quite
positively. Oyserman, Gant and Ager (1995, Study 3) tested this prediction in a sample of
students attending an urban middle school. Boys in the control condition (not assigned to a social
comparison) did indeed judge themselves quite positively, rating themselves as highly likely to
succeed in school in the coming year. Academic identities were just as highly positive for boys
assigned to imagine someone they knew who was succeeding in school and how they were
similar to this student (assimilate positive) or to imagine someone they knew who was failing in
school and how they were different from this student (contrast negative). Effects were less clear
for girls who seemed more likely to simply include the other into their self-ratings, reporting less
optimism when considering others who were failing and more optimism when considering others
who were succeeding.
One possibility is that girls were more likely to perceive themselves as connected and
related to others (have a relational self-concept; Cross & Madson, 1997; Markus & Oyserman,
1989). This interpretation was supported in a number of studies with college students which also
found that women tended to incorporate others academic outcomes into their academic identities
(Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001a Study 1, 2). Women, whether sampled from an urban
campus with predominantly first generation college students or from an elite public university,
rated their academic identities more negatively if they were randomly assigned to first consider
their similarities with someone they knew who had failed (rather than consider their differences
from this target other or make no comparison at all). These effects were especially strong if the
comparison other was also a woman. Effects were in the same direction but weaker for men.
To test the possibility that these effects were due to relational self-concept, Kemmelmeier
and Oyserman (2001b) assessed participants’ relational self-concept (sample question: ‘My close
relationships are an important reflection of who I am’) before assigning them to either an upward
comparison condition or a no comparison control. The expected gender difference in relational
self-concept was obtained (females reported being more relational than males). However, what
previously seemed to be a gender effect was really a relational self-concept effect. Relational
self-concept fully moderated the effect of upward comparison. Among participants low in
relational self-concept, those in the experimental condition (think of someone who is succeeding
in school) rated themselves more negatively than those in the control (no comparison) condition.
The reverse occurred for participants high in relational self-concept; those in the experimental
condition rated themselves more positively than those in the control condition.
These effects were replicated using a priming paradigm (Stapel & Koomen, 2001). After
circling the words I, me, and my in a paragraph or unscrambling sentences including these
words, participants were quicker to focus on differences between themselves and others. The
reverse occurred after circling the words we, our, us in a paragraph or unscrambling sentences
including these words; then participants were quicker to focus on similarities between
themselves and others. When primed to consider themselves relationally, participants included
negative as well as positive information about the other in their self-judgments. When primed to
consider themselves individualistically, participants excluded positive as well as negative
information about the other from their self-judgments. Thus effects did not seem to be motivated
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
by a desire to enhance or feel good about the self.
Outside the lab, people may automatically include others with valued attributes in self
and identity. For example, Cialdini and his colleagues (Cialdini, Borden, Thorne, Walker,
Freeman, & Sloan, 1976) tracked college students over a series of football weekends. On
weekends in which the team won, students were more likely to wear school-themed clothing and
refer to their university as ‘we.’ On weekends in which the team lost, students were less likely to
wear school-themed clothing and were more likely to refer to their university as ‘they.’ People
have been found to include in self successful sports teams (Boen, Vanbeselaere, & Feys, 2002;
Bernhardt, Dabbs, Fielden, & Lutter, 1998), winning politicians (Boen, Vanbeselaere,
Pandelaere, Dewitte, Duriez, Snauwaert, Feys, Dierckx, & Van Avermaet, 2002), and successful
marketers (Arnett, German, & Hunt, 2003). While in these studies, people include successful
and not failed others in their self-concepts, as we noted above, when made to feel connected,
people do include both positive and negative features of others in the self.
Self and identity have been argued to be stable as well as context sensitive. Evidence for
both predictions is available. Yet, simply providing supporting evidence does not address
questions about process. We have just summarized evidence that people sometimes assimilate
others into their self-concepts and identities, sometimes contrastingly compare themselves to
these others, and sometimes seem to do neither. Thus the real question seems to be not whether
context influences self-concept and identity but how this happens. To address these issues, we
return to the notion that thinking is for doing and articulate what is known about social cognition
as relevant to the task of predicting how and when contexts construct on-line identities and how
these identities shape behavior.
3. THINKING IS FOR DOING
A recurrent theme within social psychology is that cognition is pragmatic, contextualized
and situated. That is, people think in order to act; how one thinks is profoundly shaped by the
options available and what one is trying to do (Fiske, 1992). People think in contexts which are
made up of others, human artifacts, physical spaces, tasks, and language (Smith & Semin, 2004).
People are sensitive to meaningful features of their immediate environment and adjust their
thinking and doing to what seems contextually relevant (Fiske, 1992; Ferguson & Bargh, 2004).
Taken together this means that far from being easily predictable from prior attitudes and
judgments, human judgment is greatly influenced by the information accessible at the moment of
decision making and what that information is taken to mean (Schwarz, 2007). Like other
judgments, judgments about oneself are situated.
Moreover, mental construal matters; people act based on how a situation feels and what it
seems to be ‘about’ (Cesario, Grant, & Higgins, 2004; Higgins, 1998; Schwarz et al., 2003;
Schwarz, 2007; Schwarz, et al., 2007). This implies that which identity comes to mind and what
it means is dynamically constructed. While experiments manipulate salient information to test
particular processes, outside the lab, information can become accessible through rapid,
associative networks and spreading activation as well as through deliberative reflection on
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
images, semantic content, goals, rules, and feelings (Lieberman, 2007; Strack & Deutsch, 2004).
As will be discussed in the section on dual processing, repeatedly accessed identities may
become part of the associative network and so become rapidly accessed, however, features of the
immediate situation influence which other elements of the associative network are cued. Thus,
what an identity actually means is likely to differ from situation to situation.
Cognitive and behavioral adjustments to what contexts seem to be about are often
automatic and outside of conscious awareness (Smith & Collins, 2010; Smith & Conrey, 2010;
Smith & Semin, 2004, 2007). This means that people may experience self and identity as stable,
failing to notice sensitive adjustment of identity to pragmatics of the situation. However, the
effects of contextually-salient information on judgment can be profound (Schwarz, et al., 2003;;
Wyer & Srull, 1989). Implications for self and identity research are addressed throughout this
and the final section.
Inclusion - Exclusion
In the previous section, we reviewed evidence that people sometimes compare
themselves to others and sometimes incorporate others into identity. People were assumed to
automatically use others as a standard of comparison. Yet the evidence did not support this
assumption; people sometimes included and sometimes excluded others from their judgments.
To understand when people include contextually salient information into their judgments about
themselves and when they exclude this information, using it to form a standard against which to
judge themselves, we now turn to the social cognition literature. The inclusion-exclusion model
makes predictions for when each process is likely to occur (Bless & Schwarz, 2010; also termed
the assimilation-contrast model: Blanton, 2001; Schwarz, et al., 2003).
The inclusion-exclusion model makes the general prediction that information that feels
relevant to the judgment task can either be used in formulating a standard for judgment or in
formulating the target of judgment itself. People are likely to include social information into self-
judgment unless the social information is marked as different enough from the self that it becomes
excluded and used as a contrasting standard. Sufficient difference from the self may be cued by
information that is non-normative or extreme and by information referring to a particular instance
or exemplar rather than to a broader category. Given that a specific other person is not oneself,
people will include specific others in their self-judgments only if the other feels close or similar
Consider a person listening to a lecture. She begins to wonder about herself, to what
extent has she been successful in life so far, how likely is she to succeed in the future? Whatever
comes to mind is likely to be used in her self-assessments. As reviewed in Bless and Schwarz
(2010), the direction of the contextual influence can be classified as assimilation or contrast.
Assimilation occurs when the implication of salient information has a positive relationship with
the resulting judgment. Contrast occurs when the implication of salient information has a
negative relationship with the resulting judgment.
Returning to our example, contextually salient information may influence either what she
understands success to mean in the moment (the standard of comparison) or which self-attributes
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
come to mind in making the judgment (aspects of the target). Information that informs the
standard results in a mental process of contrasting the target with the information that comes to
mind. For example, the speaker may be boring or interesting; the audience may be following
along avidly or nodding off apathetically. If she is at or above the standard set by the focus of her
attention, she will see success as likely for her and recall her past as being pretty successful as
well. Information that informs the target results in a mental process of assimilating the target to
the information that comes to mind. In this case, the same speaker and audience traits will be
included into her own judgment. For example, the audience may include students from her
cohort or her major, the speaker may be an alumnus of the same undergraduate institution as she
is or they may share other attributes (a birthday, initials, favorite color) that facilitate
assimilation. Then the speaker’s vitality and the audience’s capacity can inform her about
herself. Thus, whether a person uses contextual information as a contrasting standard on which to
judge the self or assimilates contextual information into self-judgment is not a feature of the
information but rather a result of how the information is construed in the moment. One important
way in which this has been studied is by demonstrating that people are more likely to assimilate
when primed to use a collectivistic (relational ‘us’) self-concept and are more likely to contrast
when primed to use an individualistic (separate ‘me’) self-concept. Thus, on-line sense of
identity is importantly influenced by whether information in the situation is included or
contrasted with the identity.
Meta-cognitive experiences -- the feelings that emerge while thinking and one’s
interpretation of these feelings are another major source of construal. People assume that feelings
of fluency (ease) or disfluency (difficulty) that arise in the judgment context are informative for
the judgment itself. Often this may be the case. However unless provided a reason to consider
source, people are not sensitive to the source of their meta-cognitive experiences. This means
that they are likely to use even irrelevant meta-cognitive experiences to inform judgment
(Schwarz, 2004; Schwarz & Clore, 1996).
For example, if people experience difficulty thinking of reasons they are satisfied with
their marriage, they infer that they are not satisfied; if they experience difficulty reading a recipe,
they infer that it is more difficult to make; if they experience difficulty reading a question, they
infer that they are not confident of the answer (Schwarz 2004; Song & Schwarz, 2008a, 2008b).
While these inferences may often be correct, in these experiments, difficulty was manipulated to
be external to and irrelevant for the judgment – sometimes the print font was difficult to read,
other times participants were asked to list a standard deviation more reasons than the average
person did. Unless their attention was drawn to the extraneous source of their experienced
difficulty, people assumed that their meta-cognitive experience was informative.
Much as meta-cognitive experience influences judgment in other domains, meta-
cognitive experience is likely to matter in judgments of self and identity. The meaning attributed
to fluency and disfluency matters and fluency and disfluency will have different effects on
judgments about self and identity depending on how these feelings are interpreted. What feels
right in the moment often takes on the characteristics of a percept; that is, because it is
effortlessly experienced, it feels necessarily true. This feeling of effortlessness, in turn, leads to a
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
sense that one has accessed a ‘true’ aspect of self or identity with the implication that the self is
stable. As outlined in the next section on dual process models, this feeling of effortlessness may
arise as a result of associative (System 1) reasoning rather than the ‘truth’ value of the on-line
identity. Implications of mental construal for identity are drawn out in detail in Section 4
Dual Processing Models
While not used in theories of self and identity, dual-process models of automatic and
controlled cognition have been proposed in nearly every other domain of psychology (Chaiken &
Trope 1999). Dual processing models distinguish between two processing systems, one that is
effortful and controlled and another that is effortless and automatic (Chaiken & Trope, 1999).
The effortless reflexive system involves associative links which are turned on via spreading
activation. The effortful reflective system involves systematic and sequential processing of
information (Lieberman, 2007; Strack & Deutsch, 2004). These systems have been variously
labeled System 1 and System 2 (Stanovich & West, 2000), intuition and reasoning (Kahneman,
2003), and impulsive and reflective (Strack & Deutsch, 2004), among other terms.
Earlier formulations often postulated that thinking occurs in one or the other system. This
left open the question of how thinking would shift from one system to the other. Emerging
evidence clarifies that thinking occurs simultaneously in both systems. That is, System 1, the
reflexive system, is always at work. System 2, the reflective system, may or may not be active. It
becomes active when one has the time, resources and desire to consider carefully (Strack &
Deutsch, 2004). When both systems are working, each processes with its own style and whether
a judgment or action is produced by the processing outcome of System 1 or 2 will depend on
whether outputs happen to be congruent or incongruent and whether action takes place
immediately or later among other constraints.
Associative, reflexive thinking, the results of System 1 reasoning, feels intuitive,
spontaneous and effortless. These are the “I just feel it in my gut” kinds of thoughts. In contrast,
reflective thinking, the results of System 2 reasoning, feels effortful, like the result of thinking
about and applying a set of rules or explicit strategies to solve a problem. Although intuitive
reasoning is sometimes associated with heuristic processing, with errors in judgment or
reasoning, with emotion-based and with nonconscious processing, the two systems differ not in
consciousness or accuracy but in speed, flexibility, and it seems, in the neural networks involved
(Chaiken & Trope, 1999; Kahaneman, 2003; Lieberman, 2007).
Because reflexive processing seems to occur without intention or effort, it has been called
natural assessment (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983). Natural assessments include assessment of
physical properties (e.g., size, distance, loudness) as well as assessment of some abstract
properties including similarity, causal propensity, surprisingness, affective valence (e.g., whether
something is good or bad), and mood (Kahneman & Frederick, 2002). These natural
assessments are immediately available as bases for choice and action.
In contrast, in the reflective system, behavior is elicited as a consequence of a decision
process. This decision process is often assumed to take on an expectancy-value framework
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
(Feather, 1982). Thus, before acting, a person can bring to mind how much an outcome is valued
and how likely action is to produce the outcome of choice. This formulation is consistent with a
number of psychological theories about goal pursuit, including theories of reasoned action
(Ajzen & Fishbein, 1977), theories of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1988), theories of goal pursuit
(Gollwitzer, Fujita, & Oettingen, 2004; Gollwitzer & Kirchhof, 1998), self-efficacy theories
(Bandura, 1977, 2001) and expectancy-value theories (Eccles et al., 1983) which describe how
the self is involved in action. It is certainly likely that sometimes people effortfully consider who
they are, what their goals are and therefore what they should do in the moment (reflective,
System 2 processing). However, it also seems likely that people will often go with the flow – the
typically timid may suddenly agree to bungee jumping if the associative network firing of the
moment include both ‘me’ and ‘not like that old foggy’ (reflexive, System 1 processing). Since
System 1 is always working and System 2 takes effort, people under cognitive load often process
only with System 1 unless they are motivated to do otherwise, if perhaps a particularly important
self-goal comes to mind.
Dual process models make predictions for moment-to-moment processing of information.
At any moment in time, both reflexive and reflective processing may be occurring. Intentions to
act in accordance with one’s identity are unlikely to be carried out unless they come to mind in
the moment. While planned intentions to act are likely part of the reflective system, behavior can
arise from either system. Generally, percepts (either external or internally imagined) effortlessly
and automatically cue a cascade of spreading activation to percepts stored in memory and
associatively linked to the current percept. What comes to mind is likely to depend on which
associative links have been recently activated. For example, seeing a homeless woman can cue
images of one’s own mother, a feared future image of oneself without tenure, or fears of crime.
Both the reflexive and reflective systems are involved in processing this information. While the
self was initially predicted to be located only in neural systems involved in the reflective system,
the neural evidence now suggests that the self is located in neural systems involved with both
reflexive and reflective processing as dual process models would predict (Lieberman, 2007).
Sometimes people effortfully consider whether an identity describes them – drawing content
from memory and planning behavior that fits who they are and who they want to become. Other
times effortful processing does not occur or is beaten to the punch line by quicker associative
processing. In these situations, an identity associatively cued through spreading activation will
lead to a behavior that feels right in context.
Pragmatic, contextualized and situated approaches make two critical points. First,
cognitive processes are context sensitive and second, context sensitivity does not depend on
conscious awareness. Thinking and action are influenced by what comes to mind and feels relevant
in the moment. What comes to mind is a subset of all one’s existent knowledge. This means that
psychologically meaningful situations influence cognition; “cognition emerges from moment-by-
moment interaction with the environment rather than proceeding in an autonomous, invariant,
context-free fashion” (Smith & Semin, 2004, p. 56). Thinking is influenced by the context in
which it occurs, including physical and social features of the external context as well as the
experience of thinking itself. Human thinking is not invariant and context free; rather people
think flexibly and are responsive to the immediate environment. The context sensitivity
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
highlighted by situated approaches does not depend on conscious awareness of the impact of
psychologically meaningful features of situations on cognition. Not only do situational effects
not require explicit justification, but drawing attention to the potential influence of context can
change the response (e.g., Fiske, 1992; Schwarz, 2007; 2010).
The pragmatic contextualized and situated nature of cognition and its reliance on dual
processing has a number of important implications for self and identity. First, what people think
about themselves is influenced by meaningful features of their immediate environment. Like
other judgments, judgments about the self are formed in the moment. Features of the
environment simultaneously cue associative and more systematic processes, both yielding clues
as to who one is and why that matters in the moment. Second, the behavioral consequences of
salient aspects of identity are influenced by what the situation seems to be about. Both the
content and behavioral implications of an on-line identity are dynamically constructed in the
moment. The implications of dynamic construction for how self-concept and identities matter are
articulated in more detail in the next section.
4. DYNAMIC CONSTRUCTION
We began our chapter with a number of core precepts, noting that self and identity
theories converge in asserting that the self, self-concept and identity are mental construals, social
products and forces for action that feel stable yet are malleable. We outlined how the terms have
been used, provided examples of the evidence marshaled for each and called into question the
field’s ability to move forward if it does not better integrate with emerging understanding of how
the mind works, as outlined in the last section, Thinking is For Doing. In this section, we
consider the possibility that self-concepts and identities are not only malleable but actually
dynamically constructed with each use and consider the implications of this possibility for the
impact of self-concepts and identities on how people think and what they do. We summarize our
thoughts using the identity-based motivation model as our organizing framework (Oyserman,
2007, 2009a, 2009b).
People interpret situations in ways that are congruent with their currently active identities,
prefer identity-congruent actions over identity-incongruent ones, and interpret any difficulties
they encounter in light of identity-congruence. When action feels identity-congruent,
experienced difficulty in engaging in relevant behaviors simply highlights that the behavior is
important and meaningful. Conversely, when action feels identity-incongruent, the same
difficulty suggests that engaging in these behaviors is pointless and “not for people like me.”
These perceptions have important downstream effects on meaning making and behavior both in
the moment and over time.
The identity-based motivation model has three core postulates that can be termed
dynamic construction, action and procedural readiness and interpretation of ease and difficulty.
From the first postulate (dynamic construction) comes the prediction that which identities come
to mind, what these identities are taken to mean, and therefore, which behaviors are congruent
with them are dynamically constructed in context (even though identities feel stable and separate
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
from contexts). From the second postulate (action and procedural readiness) comes the
prediction that identities cue readiness to act and to make sense of the world in terms of the
norms, values, and behaviors relevant to the identity. Which actions are relevant and what sense
to make of situations depends on identity content, which itself is dynamically constructed.
The third postulate, interpretation of ease and difficulty, involves two aspects. With
regard to the meta-cognitive experience of ease, the prediction is that ease in bringing to mind an
identity or in performing a behavior will be interpreted as affirming the centrality of the identity
and the identity-relevance of the behavior. “If it feels right, it must be the true me.”
Unfortunately, important identities are not always easy to bring to mind and persistently
engaging in identity-relevant behaviors is rarely simple. Thus, a straightforward prediction from
the identity-based motivation model is that, all things being equal, people will often fail in their
pursuit of self-change. Whichever identities come to mind in the moment and whichever
behaviors are easily linked to them are the ones a person will pursue. However, the second aspect
of meta-cognitive experience is the interpretation of experienced difficulty. An identity-based
motivation model predicts that the consequence of experienced difficulty will depend on the
questions an experience of difficulty is used to answer, as detailed next.
The identity-based motivation model proposes that people are motivated to interpret
situations and act in ways that feel congruent with their identities. But identities are dynamically
constructed and so what an identity means depends on how it is comes to mind in the moment
and what difficulties working on it are taken to mean. Consider racial-ethnic identity. On the one
hand, identity content is associated with larger social structure. For example, a study of the
relationship between neighborhood relative segregation and racial-ethnic identity among low
income African American and Latino youth in Detroit found that segregation is associated with
content of racial-ethnic identity (Oyserman & Yoon, 2009). Living in a neighborhood with
higher than city-average segregation was associated with less and living in a neighborhood with
lower than city-average segregation was associated with more endorsement of the three
components of racial-ethnic identity relevant to academic performance (Connectedness,
Awareness of Racism, and Embedded Achievement).
On the other hand, what racial-ethnic identity is taken to mean is also actively
constructed in the moment as demonstrated in the following study. In this study, also involving
low income students, researchers randomly assigned children to attend their regular elective class
or an alternative elective twice a week over the first weeks of the fall marking period (Oyserman,
Bybee & Terry, 2006). Children in the alternative elective participated in group activities
designed to dynamically create a feeling that school-focused possible identities were congruent
with other important identities and a means to attain desired and avoid undesired adult identities.
As predicted, the school-focused possible identities and congruence of these identities with racial
identity increased in intervention, not control youth, and these school-focused possible identities
predicted change in behavior. Increased school-focused possible identities predicted more in-
class participation, more time spent doing homework, better grades and attendance.
Another set of studies, also involving low income African American and Latino children,
directly tested the impact of dynamically creating a sense that school-focused possible identities
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
are a means of attaining desired possible selves (Destin & Oyserman, 2010, Studies 1 and 2). In a
first study, low-income students were asked to consider themselves ten years in the future.
Responses were content-coded for whether they reported attaining their future self as dependent
on or independent of school. Students who saw their future self as depending on school success
worked harder in school and got better grades. In the second study, a new sample of low-income
students were randomly assigned to either receive Census information showing the connection
between educational attainment and average earnings in their state or Census information on
average earnings for top athletes and entertainers – future selves described in Study 1 as
independent of school success. As predicted compared with children in the education-
independent future self, children in the education-dependent future self condition not only said
that they would spend more time on homework that night, they were actually eight times more
likely to hand in an extra credit assignment.
Thus, which identities come to mind and what they mean in context is a function of both
chronic and situational cues, with some situations more likely to cue particular identities or
constellations of identities than others. People's interpretation of cued identities (or identity
constellations) depends on the pragmatic meaning of these identities in the particular context.
The identity-based motivation model shares with social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 2004),
self-categorization (Turner, et al., 1987), and symbolic self-completion (Wicklund & Gollwitzer,
1981) theories the notion that people act to increase felt similarity to salient social identities,
particularly when membership might feel threatened. Like many theories in cultural psychology
(Triandis, 1989, 1995), the identity-based motivation model predicts that differences in identity
expression reflect differences in the relative salience of organizing self-concept structures,
including individual and collective self-concepts.
However, by arguing for dynamic construction, the identity-based motivation model
moves beyond these prior formulations in a number of ways. It predicts that what an identity
means and, therefore, what is congruent with it is dynamically constructed in the moment and
can motivate both positive and self-undermining or even self-destructive behaviors. It also
predicts that when behavior feels identity congruent then the experience of difficulty in working
on the behavior is likely to be interpreted as meaning that the behavior is an important part of the
process, not an indication that the behavior is impossible or unnecessary.
Evidence for the first premise comes from a series of studies examining the shifting effect
of identity on health (Oyserman, Fryberg, & Yoder, 2007). In are series of studies we (Oyserman
et al., 2007, Studies 1 and 2) demonstrated that minority and majority groups held the same
baseline beliefs about the efficacy of a healthy lifestyle in reducing health risks. Nevertheless,
minority group members were more likely to identify unhealthy behaviors like eating fried foods,
drinking soda and adding salt as in-group behaviors and less likely to identify healthy behaviors
like flossing teeth or exercising as an adult as in-group defining. These differences were striking
because participants were college students at an elite private university. More important, their
perceptions of what is or is not an in-group thing to do made their correct baseline beliefs about
the efficacy of a healthy life-style vulnerable to identity-based motivational concerns.
When we primed minority (e.g., Latino, African American, or American Indian) and low-
income identities, participants’ access to information about health and belief in the preventive
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
capacity of health behaviors was undermined. Latino and African American children randomly
assigned to consider their social identities reported higher fatalism about their future health as
adults than children in the control group (Oyserman et al., 2007, Study 3). They were also less
successful in accessing their health knowledge, making more mistakes on a health knowledge
quiz than children in the control group for whom social identities were not primed (Oyserman et
al., 2007, Study 4). Moreover, smoking, weight gain, and high sugar consumption were rated as
less likely to negatively influence health among African American and Native American
participants randomly assigned to a social identity salient condition rather than a control
condition (Oyserman et al., 2007, Studies 5-7).
Action and procedural readiness
When an identity is cued, what comes to mind is not simply the content of the identity but
also relevant actions and ways of thinking about the world. Consider research demonstrating that
chronic or momentarily primed relational (‘us’) self-concept results in assimilating other’s
characteristics as part of the self (Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001a; Stapel & Koomen, 2001).
More generally, priming people to consider themselves as separate and distinct influences how
they process information generally. The idea is that what comes to mind when an identity is
cued is not simply content but also a general way of making sense of the world. Recall that self-
concepts can be structured to focus on ‘me’ or ‘us’, to focus on the actor’s perspective ‘mind’s
eye’ or the observer’s perspective ‘eye of another’. Identities take on these structural aspects.
Thus, identities are predicted to include not only content, but also a mindset or way of
making sense of the world. People asked to describe how they are separate and distinct from
their family and friends or to circle singular ‘me’ or plural ‘us’ first person pronouns in a
paragraph do not just describe relevant personal or social-relational self-traits and characteristics
but also apply the primed mindset or self-concept structure to other tasks (Oyserman, et al.,
2009). Those primed with a collectivistic mindset are better at tasks in which integrating helps –
they remember where objects were located in space better than those primed with a
individualistic mindset. Those primed with an individualistic mindset are better at tasks in which
separating helps – they are quicker at Stroop-tasks requiring that one ignore some perceptual
cues while processing others (saying out loud the color the word ‘red’ is printed in requires
ignoring the semantic meaning as irrelevant).
Of course everyone has an array of identities some personal ‘me’ self-concept and others
social ‘us’ self-concept identities. At the same time, as discussed in previous sections, there is
some evidence of chronic between-group differences in the propensity to for ‘me’ and ‘us’ self-
concepts to be well-articulated. Markus and Oyserman (1989) reviewed and synthesized the
extant literature on gender differences in mathematical and spatial abilities. Men and women,
they found, differed in how they navigated and made sense of three-dimensional space. Men
were more likely to report mental imagery separated from their own perspective, seeing the
world as the crow flies rather than as they traversed it. These gender differences mapped onto
differences in performance on tasks that involved rotation of objects in three-dimensional space.
Markus and Oyserman (1989) proposed that self-concept structure could predict these
effects. Although both men and women can have social identities based in gender, men and
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
women may differ in the propensity to use social and relational information in articulating
identities and therefore in the likelihood of accessing ‘me’ or ‘us’ self-concepts. Men were
predicted to be more likely to define the self as separated from contexts and relationships, and
women were predicted to be more likely to define the self as embedded in contexts and
relationships. Gender differences in self-concept structure should have implications for which
cognitive procedures are accessible and this in turn should predict differences in spatial tasks
benefiting from different cognitive procedures. In particular, separate ‘me’ self-structure should
make separating cognitive procedures generally accessible, which should make context easier to
ignore and therefore make tasks involving three-dimensional rotation in space easier.
Whereas Markus and Oyserman’s (1989) argument was based on a review of the gender
literature on cognitive style, subsequent focus shifted to cross-national differences arguing for
cultural differences in personal versus social focus of self-concept (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).
At the same time, cross-national differences in judgment and decision making were also
emerging that seemed to parallel the previously describe gender differences in self-concept
structure (for a review, see Oyserman, Coon, Kemmelmeier., 2002). For example, European
Americans seem to focus on the figure and ignore background in processing visual information
generally, whereas Chinese (Nisbett, 2003) and Japanese (Kitayama, et al., 2003) people seem to
focus on the relationship between figure and background, congruent with a social identity focus
on the self as connected and related. While none of these models directly tested mediation, all
implied an important role of self-concept structure.
Triandis and his colleagues (Triandis, 1989; Trafimow, et al., 1991) provided an initial
demonstration that these effects may be due to dynamic construction of identity. They
demonstrated that they could reliably predict whether people would use more personal or social
identities to describe themselves by shifting participants’ in-the-moment focus on themselves as
similar to or different from friends and family. They also showed that once a personal or social
identity focus was cued in one situation, it was likely to be used again in another situation. In the
past 20 years, this basic finding has been replicated using a variety of situational cues, showing
that people in the East and the West describe themselves using more or fewer social identities
depending on which is cued in a given situation (for a review, Oyserman & Lee, 2008a, 2008b).
How identity is cued matters for behavior. The answer to one of our opening questions
‘How about offering a bribe to win that contract?’ has been demonstrated to vary depending on
whether people considered the question after being primed with a ‘me’ or an ‘us’ self-concept
(Mazer & Aggarwal, 2011, Study 2). People were randomly assigned to condition, read a
paragraph and circled ‘me’ first person singular or ‘us’ first person plural pronouns. They took
on the role of a sales agent competing against other agents to win a contract and had to decide
whether to offer or not offer a bribe. Those in the ‘me’ condition were less likely to do so. This
replicated the authors’ secondary analyses of large cross-national data sets showing that bribery
is more common in collectivistic compared to individualistic countries (Mazer & Aggarwal,
2011, Study 1). Thus, shifts in identity focus shifts readiness to act, even in ways people
generally view as dishonest.
Interpretation of Difficulty
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
This formulation of identity as including both content (what one thinks about when one
thinks about one’s self) and interpretation of accompanying meta-cognitive process (reflection
on how thinking feels) first appeared in the writing of William James (1890). More recently,
social cognition research has demonstrated the importance of considering both the content of
thoughts and the meaning attributed to feelings of ease or difficulty associated with these
thoughts (see Schwarz, 2002, 2004, 2010). Images of oneself having current and future identities
are inextricably linked with feelings of ease or difficulty, and what these feelings mean depends
on the question one asks oneself in regards to the feeling. If the question is “Is this important to
me?” then experienced difficulty may be interpreted as meaning that the answer is “Yes, this is
important to me. Otherwise, why am I working so hard?” Conversely, if the question is “Is this
the real me?” then experienced difficulty may be interpreted as meaning that the answer is “no”
because feelings of ease are commonly interpreted as truth and genuineness.
Common interpretations of felt difficulty are that if it is hard to think of or hard to do it is
less likely to be true (Higgins, 1998; Schwarz & Clore, 1996). This would imply that the
experience of meta-cognitive difficulty can easily be understood to mean “not true for me.”
However, a number of studies have documented that other interpretations are possible (Schwarz,
2004, 2010). Sports stories abound with reinterpretation of the meaning of experienced difficulty
(e.g., “no pain, no gain”) and the need to keep trying (e.g., “you miss 100% of the shots you
don’t take”). Similarly, when attempting to attain a school-focused identity, the meta-cognitive
experience of difficulty is generally interpreted as “not the true me,” but could be reinterpreted to
mean other things. Difficulty can be viewed as a normative part of the process (e.g., “success is
1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”). Difficulty can also provide evidence of progress (e.g.,
“the important things in life are the ones you really have to work for”). If difficulty and failures
along the way are viewed as critical to eventual success, then difficulty is evidence of striving.
This means that interpretation of difficulty is critical if identities are to actually influence
behavior over time. Consider the behaviors required to attain a ‘good student’ identity or a
‘healthy person’ identity. To be or become a good student, one would need to pay attention in
class, bring home and do homework, take notes and study for exams but also forsake or at least
limit activities that might interfere with these choices. What difficulty means depends on the
questions the experience of difficulty is assumed to answer. Consider the ‘good student’ identity.
A student experiencing difficulty in school-work might ask a number of questions. If the
question is “Have I studied enough?” then difficulty could be taken to mean that one had not
studied enough. In this case, difficult should result in increased effort. But if the question is “Is
this really the true me?” then difficulty could be taken that one cannot become a good student. In
this case, difficulty should result in reduced effort.
To test this notion, elementary school children in an after-school program for children
with difficulties in school were randomly assigned to one of two conditions (difficulty without
interpretation, difficulty with interpretation), asked to describe their possible selves for the
coming year, and given a novel math task (Novin & Oyserman, unpublished data). All children
were reminded that they were participating in the after school program. In the no interpretation
condition, children were asked to give an example of a time that a school task was difficult for
them. In the interpretation condition, children were asked to give an example of a time that a
school task was difficult for them but kept trying because school is important to them. As
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
predicted, interpretation mattered. Children in the interpretation condition described more
possible selves and were more persistent at the novel math task.
The common interpretation of difficulty as meaning low ability fits well with Americans’
belief that intelligence and many other abilities are fixed rather than malleable (Dweck, 2002;).
For effort to matter, one must believe that ability is malleable and can be incrementally improved
rather than believe that it is a stable trait or entity (Dweck, 2002;). Students holding incremental
theories are more likely to persist over time, as do students convinced to hold an incremental
theory (Dweck, 2002). The identity-based motivation model provides a framework within which
to understand entity and incremental formulations as naïve theories explaining what difficulty
means. If effort matters (incremental theory of ability), then difficulty is likely to be interpreted
as meaning that more effort is needed. However if effort does not matter (an entity theory of
ability) then difficulty is likely to be interpreted as meaning that ability is lacking so effort
should be suspended.
Identity-based motivation is the readiness to engage in identity-congruent action
(Oyserman, 2007; Oyserman, et al., 2006; Oyserman, et al., 2007) and to use identity-congruent
mindsets in making sense of the world (Oyserman, et al., 2009). Although often experienced as
stable, identity is highly malleable and situation-sensitive so that which aspect of identity comes
to mind is a dynamic product of that which is chronically accessible and that which is
situationally cued. Moreover, because what is cued is a general mindset rather than a specific
content list, identity’s impact on action- and procedural-readiness is likely to occur outside of
conscious awareness and without systematic processing.
When situations cue an identity (e.g., female), what the cued identity carries with it is not
a fixed list of traits (e.g., warm, energetic). Rather, the cued identity carries with it a general
readiness to act and make sense of the world in identity-congruent terms, including the norms,
values, strategies and goals associated with that identity as well as the cognitive procedures
relevant to it. What exactly this readiness looks like is dependent on what the cued identity
comes to mean in the particular context in which it is cued. Being female is likely to mean
different things in different contexts -- a job interview, a date, at the hairdressers. This does not
imply that identities do not predict behaviors over time but rather that the predictive power of an
identity depends on the stability of the contexts in which it is cued. Because differing contexts
cue different aspects of an identity and differing intersections with other identities, the identity to
behavior link may be opaque. The effect of an identity will be stable over time to the extent that
individuals repeatedly encounter psychologically isomorphic situations because in each instance
the situation will engender readiness to take the same actions (For a related discussion of the
stability of attitudes see Schwarz, 2007). Once a choice becomes identity linked, it is
automatized. If it feels identity syntonic, it feels right and does not require further reflection. On
the other hand, if it feels nonsyntonic to identity, it feels wrong and this feeling also does not
invite further reflection.
5. WRAPPING UP AND LOOKING FORWARD
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
We began this chapter with the proposition that self and identity feel stable though they
are probably not really stable in the way people experience them to be but that identities are
dynamically constructed in context. We argued that both experienced stability and context-based
dynamic construction are helpful. Experienced stability allows people to make predictions based
on their sense that they know themselves and increases their willingness to invest in their own
futures. At the same time context-based dynamic construction facilitates sensitive attunement of
behavior to contextual affordances and constraints. We articulated how this might happen by
using the identity-based motivation model.
We also summarized core terms, noting that while self and identity are often used
interchangeably, some clarity can be attained by considered them as a series of nested constructs
with self as the most encompassing term, self-concepts being embedded within the self, and
identities being embedded within self-concepts. The self is reflexive capacity; the ability to
consider oneself as an object and to become aware that one is doing so. Like other object
categories (cats, tables) the self is a fuzzy construct. That means that people have a sense that
they know what their self is, even though what exactly it refers to differs from situation to
situation. Just as cats vary -- some are softer and friendlier than others, but share an essential
‘catness’ people do not always act the same but in some essential way still are the same. Though
one may be disappointed in the antics of one’s messy, rude, or disorganized self, or surprised at
the abilities of one’s self under fire, and people may even say ‘I did not know I had it in me’,
they still refer to some essence of ‘me’. Firmly separating oneself into truly different entities,
having multiple personalities is rare and is considered a form of mental illness.
The mental content included in the various ‘me’ selves can be called self-concept. Self-
concepts include content as well structure and evaluative judgment. These evaluative judgments
about the self are typically termed self-esteem or self-efficacy. Self-esteem and self-efficacy
research dominated American self-concept research for many years but the field has now
broadened substantially. Self-concept structure has been studied in a number of ways but two
main lines of research focus on what we term mindsets and hierarchy. Hierarchy research starts
with the assumption that diverse content about the self must be ordered in some hierarchy and
focuses on factor analysis of evaluative judgments about the self in an array of content domains.
The goal is to determine whether self-concepts are nested, overlapping, or basically orthogonal
(independent of one another). Other research on structure examines structure of positive and
negative self-concept content and complexity or number of self-perceived self-concept domains.
While not uninteresting, we find hierarchy research currently less exciting that the second main
branch of research on self-concept structure, which we term mindset research.
Mindset researchers assume that people have multiple self-concepts distinguished by
difference in organizing frame, content, and downstream consequences for judgment, perception,
and behavior. This research is dominated by research on individualistic as compared to
collectivistic self-concepts, but also includes research on perspective-taking (immersed, distal)
and temporal focus (near, far). Research on mindsets is a particularly exciting new frontier for
self researchers because it demonstrates that people have multiple self-concept structures
available to them which can be easily cued but which differ in their content and consequences.
For example, an individualistic mindset entails not only using more abstract language to describe
oneself and thinking of oneself as separate and distinct, but also has consequences for perception
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
and mental construal. Specifically, an individualistic mindset increases the likelihood that objects
in the world will be perceived as separate rather than related and that contextual information will
be used as a standard of comparison or ignored completely rather than assimilated into self-
Moving to what is meant by identity, we suggested that identities include content and
readiness to act and employ mindsets to make meaning. Personal identities are a person’s traits,
characteristics and attributes, goals and values and ways of being. Confusingly, these are often
termed ‘selves’ in the social science literature. Social identities are a person’s roles, interpersonal
relationships, and group memberships and the traits, characteristics, attributes, goals and values
congruent with these roles, relationships and memberships.
To better understand where these identities come from and how they matter for judgment
and behavior both in the moment and over time, we proposed a better integration of study of the
self, self-concept and identity with study of mental processes. Three core predictions emerge
from this integration, which we term: Dynamic construction, action and procedural readiness,
and interpretation of ease and difficulty. As clarified by modern dual process models of
cognition, thinking involves both reflexive and reflective processing. Reflexive processing is
rapid and effortless, the result of spreading activation of associative networks. This form of
processing is posited to be always operating in the background, yielding quick responses that feel
fluent. The other form of processing, reflective or System 2 processing is slower and more
effortful, the result of systematic consideration of content and application of rules. This form of
processing operates when people have the time, motivation, and mental capacity to engage it.
Given that people have a large store of autobiographical knowledge in memory, almost
any associative network is likely to eventually link to some aspect of autobiographical
knowledge. This implies that reflexive processing is likely to yield an association with some
aspect of self so that an identity or aspect of identity will frequently come to mind as part of
ongoing System 1 processing whether or not System 2 processing is engaged. However what that
identity means in the moment depends in large part on what else also comes to mind in this
moment of reflexive processing. Mostly information is assumed to be relevant and people
assimilate whatever comes to mind into their on-line identity judgments, using this information
as a standard to judge the self only under certain circumstances. That is once an identity comes to
mind through reflexive processing, what it means is depends on the other information that comes
to mind in context. This information is included in the identity unless there is reason to use it as a
standard of comparison for the identity.
Returning to the Midas touch that makes self, self-concept and identity feel interesting;
we recommend three avenues for future research. First, self, self-concept and identity are
interesting because they seem to predict behavior over time. How does this actually happen?
Second, self-concept and identity are interesting because whatever comes to mind feels real and
stable yet, as we have demonstrated, self-concept and identity are highly malleable and even can
be dynamically constructed in the moment, so stability often is more seeming than real. How do
these two experiences co-exist and under what circumstances does awareness of shifts,
malleability and dynamic construction improve well-being? Third, self-concept and identity are
interesting because the self exists over time. People can and do imagine the self continuing over
Self, Self-Concept and Identity,
time and from childhood can imagine some desired and undesired future identities. Though
people sometimes invest current effort to attain these future identities, often they underperform,
failing to attain their aspirations perhaps because they misinterpret feelings of difficulty as
meaning that goals are impossible or feelings of ease as meaning that they do not need to try.
What predicts current investment in the future self, whether particular future identities or the
well-being of the future self more generally (e.g., savings for retirement, practicing healthy
lifestyles to reduce future risk) is thus a third important venue for future research.
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