Development of the Self-Concept

05.04.2023 |

Episode #3 of the course Psychology of the self by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! In the last lesson, we discussed the importance of memory in the development of the self. In this lesson, we are going to describe and expand upon what psychologists refer to as the self-concept.

“Who am I?” This is the overarching question at the core of the idea of the self-concept. Research on the self-concept began to increase rapidly in the 1970s. At first, the self-concept was conceived as the relatively simplistic view that a person has of themselves. Today, when psychologists describe the self-concept, it is envisioned as the complete whole of who we are as people, including our attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and our identity. As mentioned in the previous lesson, brain maturation is first required for self-recognition and the formation of early memories. From there, both our biology and our experiences with the world begin to shape our self-concept.

One of the prominent theories of how the self-concept develops was proposed by Stanford University Psychology Professor Hazel Markus. In the 1970s, Dr. Markus introduced the idea of the self-schema (Markus, 1977). The self-schema consists of our beliefs and attitudes about ourselves and how we fit into the world. As young children, the self-schema is quite simplistic, with most of our views about ourselves being focused on our physical attributes. For instance, a young boy may think that he is good at sports, and this becomes a part of who he is. He likely learns a lot of this from playing with other kids, and by receiving feedback from parents. As we age, though, the self-schema grows. In particular, our experiences in school contribute to the progression of the self-schema by providing exposure to novel ideas and new interests. Slowly, new skills, beliefs, and attitudes are integrated into the self-schema. By our teenage years, we begin to develop a sense of self-identity from these experiences.

In adulthood, the self-schema becomes more sophisticated, and the focus changes even more toward internal traits and values. For example, a young woman may learn through experience that she is witty, kind, and altruistic. She might think of instances where she displayed each of these traits, and these become part of her self-schema. Moreover, the feedback she receives from other people (e.g., friends telling her that she is witty) will strengthen her beliefs.

Lastly, Markus also emphasized the importance of culture in the formation of the self-schema. Cultural expectations shape how we see ourselves, not just our own individual experiences. For instance, in countries that are more collectivist (prioritizing the needs of the group over the needs of the individual), self-schemas will be more likely to focus on how a person fits into a group. Similarly, culture will also affect gender roles and how boys vs. girls will incorporate culturally preferred traits and attitudes into an individual’s self-schema (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

Another key theory of the self-concept was developed by the eminent psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory suggests that our behavior is influenced by how we think (cognition), and our social interactions are often focused on learning by watching others (Bandura, 1986). Within this theory, how we think about ourselves is shaped by the feedback we receive from other people, such as parents, siblings, and friends. Over time, we develop a sense of self-efficacy, which is essentially the belief in our ability to achieve what we set out to do (Bandura, 1997).

People with a high degree of self-efficacy are confident that they can achieve their goals. In contrast, low self-efficacy is associated with doubt in one’s abilities. Unsurprisingly, if you have higher self-efficacy in a particular area, you are more likely to have success. For example, let’s say that you are not very athletically gifted. You might have lower self-efficacy when it comes to team sports, and this would impact your desire to join or to try hard if you are forced to play (e.g., in a high school gym class). However, let’s say that you have found that you are good at solving puzzles and are able to visualize things quite well. In this case, you might have high self-efficacy when learning how to play chess. If so, this could be a way to fulfill a need for achievement and competition (outside of athletics). These traits could then be incorporated into your self-concept. This is a topic that we will revisit in more detail in a later lesson on self-esteem.

That brings this lesson to a close. In the next lesson, we are going to focus on how we use introspection, insight, and self-awareness to better understand our self-concept. See you again soon!


Recommended book

Clash! How to Thrive in a Multicultural World by Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner


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