Manual Self and Identity: Personal, Social, and Symbolic

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These questions can be answered only by looking at those around us.

Self and Identity - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

The self has meaning only within the social context, and it is not wrong to say that the social situation defines our self-concept and our self-esteem. But what forms do these social influences take? It is to this question that we will now turn. We might feel that we have a great sense of humor, for example, because others have told us, and often laugh apparently sincerely at our jokes. In contrast, their perceived appraisal of European Americans toward them was only weakly related to their self-esteem.

This evidence is merely correlational, though, so we cannot be sure which way the influence is working. Maybe we develop our self-concept quite independently of others, and they then base their views of us on how we see ourselves.

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The work of Mark Baldwin and colleagues has been particularly important in demonstrating that how we think we are being perceived by others really can affect how we see ourselves. For example, Baldwin and Holmes conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that our self-concepts derive partly from the way we imagine that we would be perceived by significant others. In the first study, 40 women were instructed to visualize the faces of either two acquaintances or two older members of their own family.

Later they were asked to rate their perceived enjoyableness of a piece of fiction with sexual content, and they typically responded in keeping with the responses they perceived the people they had visualized would have had. This effect was more pronounced when they sat in front of a mirror remember the earlier discussion of self-awareness theory.

In the second study, 60 men were exposed to a situation involving failure, and their self-evaluations to this setback were then measured. At least some of the time, then, we end up evaluating ourselves as we imagine others would.


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Of course, it can work both ways, too. For example, we are often labeled in particular ways by others, perhaps informally in terms of our ethnic background, or more formally in terms of a physical or psychological diagnosis. Where things get really interesting for our present discussion is when those expectations start to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and our self-concept and even our behavior start to align with them.

The effects of this self-labeling on our self-esteem appear to depend very much on the nature of the labels. Labels used in relation to diagnosis of psychological disorders can be detrimental to people whom then internalize them. In other cases, labels used by wider society to describe people negatively can be positively reclaimed by those being labeled. However, the most meaningful comparisons we make tend to be with those we see as similar to ourselves Festinger, Social comparison occurs primarily on dimensions on which there are no correct answers or objective benchmarks and thus on which we can rely only on the beliefs of others for information.

We also use social comparison to help us determine our skills or abilities—how good we are at performing a task or doing a job, for example. When students ask their teacher for the class average on an exam, they are also seeking to use social comparison to evaluate their performance. The extent to which individuals use social comparison to determine their evaluations of events was demonstrated in a set of classic research studies conducted by Stanley Schachter Female college students at the University of Minnesota volunteered to participate in one of his experiments for extra credit in their introductory psychology class.

They arrived at the experimental room to find a scientist dressed in a white lab coat, standing in front of a large array of electrical machinery. The scientist introduced himself as Dr. Zilstein of the Department of Neurology and Psychiatry, and he told the women that they would be serving as participants in an experiment concerning the effects of electrical shock. Zilstein stressed how important it was to learn about the effects of shocks, since electroshock therapy was being used more and more commonly and because the number of accidents due to electricity was also increasing!

At this point, the experimental manipulation occurred.

Each of the women was then told that before the experiment could continue the experimenter would have to prepare the equipment and that they would have to wait until he was finished. He asked them if they would prefer to wait alone or with others. This was a statistically significant difference, and Schachter concluded that the women chose to affiliate with each other in order to reduce their anxiety about the upcoming shocks.

In further studies, Schachter found that the research participants who were under stress did not want to wait with just any other people. They preferred to wait with other people who were expecting to undergo the same severe shocks that they were rather than with people who were supposedly just waiting to see their professor. Schachter concluded that this was not just because being around other people might reduce our anxiety but because we also use others who are in the same situation as we are to help us determine how to feel about things.

In this case, the participants were expecting to determine from the other participants how afraid they should be of the upcoming shocks. Again, the power of the social situation—in this case, in determining our beliefs and attitudes—is apparent. Furthermore, Kulik and his colleagues found that sharing information was helpful: people who were able to share more information had shorter hospital stays. Although we use social comparison in part to develop our self-concept—that is, to form accurate conclusions about our attitudes, abilities, and opinions—social comparison has perhaps an even bigger impact on our self-esteem.

When we are able to compare ourselves favorably with others, we feel good about ourselves, but when the outcome of comparison suggests that others are better or better off than we are, then our self-esteem is likely to suffer. In these cases, you may have felt much better about yourself or much worse, depending on the nature of the change. You can see that in these cases the actual characteristics of the individual person have not changed at all; only the social situation and the comparison with others have changed.

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Because many people naturally want to have positive self-esteem, they frequently attempt to compare themselves positively with others. Downward social comparison occurs when we attempt to create a positive image of ourselves through favorable comparisons with others who are worse off than we are. When the other candidate was made to appear to be less qualified for the job, the downward comparison with the less-qualified applicant made the students feel better about their own qualifications.

As a result, the students reported higher self-esteem than they did when the other applicant was seen as a highly competent job candidate. These comparisons make them feel more hopeful about their own possible outcomes.

Personal and Social Identity

Upward comparison may lower our self-esteem by reminding us that we are not as well off as others. Thinking back to our case study at the beginning of this chapter, this power can sometimes be strongly felt when looking at social networking sites. What would your prediction be about how that person would feel? The research on upward social comparisons to similar others would suggest the latter, and this has been demonstrated empirically. Sure enough, making more upward comparisons predicted increased rumination, which in turn was linked to increased depressive symptoms. The power of upward social comparison can also be harnessed for social good.

When people are made aware that others are already engaging in particular prosocial behaviors, they often follow suit, partly because an upward social comparison is triggered.

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As with downward comparisons, the effects of looking upward on our self-esteem tend to be more pronounced when we are comparing ourselves to similar others. If, for example, you have ever performed badly at a sport, the chances are that your esteem was more threatened when you compared yourselves to your teammates as opposed to the top professional athletes in that sport.

The outcomes of upward and downward social comparisons can have a substantial impact on our feelings, on our attempts to do better, and even on whether or not we want to continue performing an activity. When we compare positively with others and we feel that we are meeting our goals and living up to the expectations set by ourselves and others, we feel good about ourselves, enjoy the activity, and work harder at it. When we compare negatively with others, however, we are more likely to feel poorly about ourselves and enjoy the activity less, and we may even stop performing it entirely.

Although everyone makes social comparisons, both upward and downward, there are some sources of differences in how often we do so and which type we tend to favor. As downward social comparisons generally increase and upward ones generally decrease self-esteem, and the pursuit of high self-esteem, as we have seen, is more prominent in Western as opposed to Eastern cultures, then it should come as no surprise that there are cultural differences here.

White and Lehman , for example, found that Asian Canadians made more upward social comparisons than did European Canadians, particularly following failures and when the opportunity to self-improve was made salient. These findings, the authors suggest, indicate that the Asian Canadians were using social comparisons more as a vehicle for self-improvement than self-enhancement.

There are also some age-related trends in social comparison.

In addition to these cultural and age differences in social comparison processes, there are also individual differences. In our discussion of social comparisons, we have seen that who we compare ourselves to can affect how we feel about ourselves, for better or worse. Another social influence on our self-esteem is through our group memberships. For example, we can gain self-esteem by perceiving ourselves as members of important and valued groups that make us feel good about ourselves.

Normally, group memberships result in positive feelings, which occur because we perceive our own groups and thus ourselves in a positive light. If you are an Arsenal F. The list that follows presents a measure of the strength of social identity with a group of university students. If you complete the measure for your own school, university, or college, the research evidence would suggest that you would agree mostly with the statements that indicate that you identify with the group.

This item scale is used to measure identification with students at the University of Maryland, but it could be modified to assess identification with any group. The scale was originally reported by Luhtanen and Crocker For each of the following items, please indicate your response on a scale from 1 strongly disagree to 7 strongly agree by writing a number in the blank next to the question. As you can see in Table 3. The categories that they listed included ethnic and religious groups e. You can see that these identities were likely to provide a lot of positive feelings for the individuals.

Identity can also be heightened when it is threatened by conflict with another group—such as during an important sports game with a rival team. We each have multiple social identities, and which of our identities we draw our self-esteem from at a given time will depend on the situation we are in, as well as the social goals we have. In particular, we use occasions when our social groups are successful in meeting their goals to fuel our self-worth. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues Cialdini et al. To test this idea, they observed the clothes and clothing accessories that students at different U.

However, they were significantly less likely to wear university clothing on the Mondays that followed a football loss. When people in our ingroups perform well, social identity theory suggests that we tend to make intergroup social comparisons, and by seeing our group as doing better than other groups, we come to feel better about ourselves. When threats occur, the theory states that we will typically try to rebuild our self-esteem using one of three main strategies.

The first is distancing, where we redefine ourselves as less close to the person in question. For example, if a close friend keeps beating you at tennis, you may, over time, seek out another playing partner to protect your bruised ego. The second option is to redefine how important the trait or skill really is to your self-concept. The third strategy is try to improve on the ability in question.

In the current example, this would mean practicing more often or hiring a coach to improve your tennis game. Notice the clear parallels between these strategies that occur in response to threats to our self-esteem posed by the behavior of others, and those that are triggered by feelings of self-discrepancy, discussed earlier in this chapter. In both cases, we seek to rebuild our self-esteem by redefining the aspect of ourself that has been diminished.

It is interesting to note that each of the social influences on our sense of self that we have discussed can be harnessed as a way of protecting our self-esteem. The final influence we will explore can also be used strategically to elevate not only our own esteem, but the esteem we have in the eyes of others. Positive self-esteem occurs not only when we do well in our own eyes but also when we feel that we are positively perceived by the other people we care about. Because it is so important to be seen as competent and productive members of society, people naturally attempt to present themselves to others in a positive light.

The tendency to present a positive self-image to others, with the goal of increasing our social status , is known as self-presentation , and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life. A big question in relation to self-presentation is the extent to which it is an honest versus more strategic, potentially dishonest enterprise.