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Knowing the Self: The Development of the Self-Concept

23 September, 2015 - 15:29

One of the important milestones in a child’s social development is learning about his or her own self-existence. This self-awareness is known asconsciousness, and the content of consciousness is known as the self-concept. The self-concept is a knowledgerepresentation or schema that contains knowledgeabout us, including our beliefsabout our personalitytraits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles, as well as the knowledgethat we exist asindividuals (Kagan, 1991). 1

Some animals, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and perhaps dolphins, have at least a primitive sense of self (Boysen & Himes, 1999). 2 In one study (Gallup, 1970), 3 researchers painted a re d dot on the foreheads of anesthetized chimpanzees and then placed each animal in a cage with a mirror. When the chimps woke up and looked in the mirror, they touched the dot on their faces, not the dot on the faces in the mirror. These actions suggest that the chimps understood that they were looking at themselves and not at other animals, and thus we ca n assume that they are a ble to realize that they exist as individuals. On the other hand, most other animals, including, for instance dogs, cats, and monkeys, never realize that it is they themselves in the mirror.

Infants who have a similar re d dot painted on their foreheads recognize themselves in a mirror in the same way that the chimps do, and they do this by about 18 months of age (Povinelli, Landau, & Perilloux, 1996). 4 The child’s knowledge about the self continues to develop as the child grows. By age 2, the infant becomes aware of his or her sex, as a boy or a girl. By age 4, self- descriptions are likely to be based on physical features, such as hair color and possessions, and by about age 6, the child is able to understand basic e motions and the concepts of traits, being able to make statements such as, “I am a nice person” (Harter, 1998). 5

Soon after children enter grade school (at about age 5 or 6), they begin to make comparisons with other children, a process known as social comparison. For example, a child might describe himself as being faster than one boy but slower than another (Moretti & Higgins, 1990). 6 According to Erikson, the important component of this process is the development of competence and autonomy—the recognition of one’s own abilities relative to other children. And children increasingly show awareness of social situations—they understand that other people are looking at and judging them the same way that they are looking at and judging others (Doherty, 2009). 7

Successfully Relating to Others: Attachment

One of the most important behaviors a child must learn is how to be accepted by others—the development of c lose and meaningful social relationships. The emotional bonds that wedevelop with thosewithwhom wefeel closest, and particularlythebonds that an infant develops with themother or primary caregiver, are referred to as attachment (Cassidy & Shaver, 1999). 8

As late as the 1930s, psychologists believed that children who were raised in institutions such as orphanages, and who received good physical care and proper nourishment, would develop normally, even if they had little interaction with their caretakers. But studies by the developmental psychologist John Bowlby (1953) 9 and others showed that these children did not develop normally—they were usually sickly, emotionally slow, and generally unmotivated. These observations helped make it clear that normal infant development requires successful attachment with a caretaker.

In one classic study showing the importance of attachment, Wisconsin University psychologists Harry and Margaret Harlow investigated the responses of young monkeys, separated from their biological mothers, to two surrogate mothers introduced to their cages. One—the wire mother— consisted of a round wooden head, a mesh of cold metal wires, and a bottle of milk from which the baby monkey could drink. The second mother was a foam-rubber form wrapped in a heated terry-cloth blanket. The Harlows found that, although the infant monkeys went to the wire mother for food, they overwhelmingly preferred and spent significantly more time with the warm terry-cloth mother that provided no food but did provide comfort (Harlow, 1958). 10