As we have seen, the self-concept is a rich and complex social representation of who we are, encompassing both our internal characteristics and our social roles. In addition to our thoughts about who we are right now, the self-concept also includes thoughts about our past self—our experiences, accomplishments, and failures—and about our future self—our hopes, plans, goals, and possibilities (Oyserman, Bybee, Terry, & Hart-Johnson, 2004). The multidimensional nature of our self-concept means that we need to consider not just each component in isolation, but also their interactions with each other and their overall structure. Two particularly important structural aspects of our self-concept are complexity and clarity.
Although every human being has a complex self-concept, there are nevertheless individual differences in self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves (Linville, 1987; Roccas & Brewer, 2002). Some selves are more complex than others, and these individual differences can be important in determining psychological outcomes. Having a complex self means that we have a lot of different ways of thinking about ourselves. For example, imagine a woman whose self-concept contains the social identities of student, girlfriend, daughter, psychology student, and tennis player and who has encountered a wide variety of life experiences. Social psychologists would say that she has high self-complexity. On the other hand, a man who perceives himself primarily as either a student or as a member of the soccer team and who has had a relatively narrow range of life experiences would be said to have low self-complexity. For those with high self-complexity, the various aspects of the self are separate, as the positive and negative thoughts about a particular self-aspect do not spill over into thoughts about other aspects.
Research has found that compared with people low in self-complexity, those higher in self-complexity tend to experience more positive outcomes, including higher levels of self-esteem (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002), lower levels of stress and illness (Kalthoff & Neimeyer, 1993), and a greater tolerance for frustration (Gramzow, Sedikides, Panter, & Insko, 2000).
The benefits of self-complexity occur because the various domains of the self help to buffer us against negative events and enjoy the positive events that we experience. For people low in self-complexity, negative outcomes in relation to one aspect of the self tend to have a big impact on their self-esteem. For example, if the only thing that Maria cares about is getting into medical school, she may be devastated if she fails to make it. On the other hand, Marty, who is also passionate about medical school but who has a more complex self-concept, may be better able to adjust to such a blow by turning to other interests.
Although having high self-complexity seems useful overall, it does not seem to help everyone equally in their response to all events (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002). People with high self-complexity seem to react more positively to the good things that happen to them but not necessarily less negatively to the bad things. And the positive effects of self-complexity are stronger for people who have other positive aspects of the self as well. This buffering effect is stronger for people with high self-esteem, whose self-complexity involves positive rather than negative characteristics (Koch & Shepperd, 2004), and for people who feel that they have control over their outcomes (McConnell et al., 2005).
Just as we may differ in the complexity of our self-concept, so we may also differ in its clarity. Self-concept clarity is the extent to which one’s self-concept is clearly and consistently defined (Campbell, 1990). Theoretically, the concepts of complexity and clarity are independent of each other—a person could have either a more or less complex self-concept that is either well defined and consistent, or ill defined and inconsistent. However, in reality, they each have similar relationships to many indices of well-being.
For example, as has been found with self-complexity, higher self-concept clarity is positively related to self-esteem (Campbell et al., 1996). Why might this be? Perhaps people with higher self-esteem tend to have a more well-defined and stable view of their positive qualities, whereas those with lower self-esteem show more inconsistency and instability in their self-concept, which is then more vulnerable to being negatively affected by challenging situations. Consistent with this assertion, self-concept clarity appears to mediate the relationship between stress and well-being (Ritchie et al., 2011).
Also, having a clear and stable view of ourselves can help us in our relationships. Lewandowski, Nardine, and Raines (2010) found a positive correlation between clarity and relationship satisfaction, as well as a significant increase in reported satisfaction following an experimental manipulation of participants’ self-concept clarity. Greater clarity may promote relationship satisfaction in a number of ways. As Lewandowski and colleagues (2010) argue, when we have a clear self-concept, we may be better able to consistently communicate who we are and what we want to our partner, which will promote greater understanding and satisfaction. Also, perhaps when we feel clearer about who we are, then we feel less of a threat to our self-concept and autonomy when we find ourselves having to make compromises in our close relationships.
Thinking back to the cultural differences we discussed earlier in this section in the context of people’s self-concepts, it could be that self-concept clarity is generally higher in individuals from individualistic cultures, as their self-concept is based more on internal characteristics that are held to be stable across situations, than on external social facets of the self that may be more changeable. This is indeed what the research suggests. Not only do members of more collectivistic cultures tend to have lower self-concept clarity, that clarity is also less strongly related to their self-esteem compared with those from more individualistic cultures (Campbell et al., 1996). As we shall see when our attention turns to perceiving others in Chapter 5, our cultural background not only affects the clarity and consistency of how we see ourselves, but also how consistently we view other people and their behavior.