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The Social Self: The Role of the Social Situation

15 January, 2016 - 09:17

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the concept of the looking-glass self and how it affects our self-concept.
  2. Explore the impact of the labeling bias, self-labeling, and internalized prejudice on people’s self-concepts, particularly in those from marginalized social groups.
  3. Define social comparison, and summarize how people use it to define their self-concepts and self-esteem.
  4. Give examples of the use of upward and downward social comparison and their influences on social cognition and affect.
  5. Explain the concept of social identity and why it is important to human behavior.
  6. Describe how self-evaluation maintenance theory helps to explain how we react when other people’s behaviors threaten our sense of self.
  7. Describe the concept of self-presentation and the various strategies we use to portray ourselves to others.
  8. Outline the concept of reputation management and how it relates to self-presentation.
  9. Discuss the individual-difference variable of self-monitoring and how it relates to the ability and desire to self-present.

To this point, we have seen, among other things, that human beings have complex and well-developed self-concepts and that they generally attempt to view themselves positively. These more cognitive and affective aspects of ourselves do not, of course, occur in a vacuum. They are heavily influenced by the social forces that surround us. We have alluded to some of these forces already; for example, in our review of self-verification theory, we saw how feedback from others can affect our self-concept and esteem. We also looked at ways that our sociocultural backgrounds can affect the content of our self-concept.

In this section, we will consider in more detail these and other social aspects of the self by exploring the many ways that the social situation influences our self-concept and esteem. The self is not created in isolation; we are not born with perceptions of ourselves as shy, interested in jazz, or charitable to others, for example. Rather, such beliefs are determined by our observations of and interactions with others. Are you rich or poor? Beautiful or ugly? Smart or not? Good or bad at playing video games? And how do you know? These questions can be answered only by looking at those around us. 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. We rely on others to provide a “social reality”—to help us determine what to think, feel, and do (Hardin & Higgins, 1996). But what forms do these social influences take? It is to this question that we will now turn.

The Looking-Glass Self: Our Sense of Self is Influenced by Others’ Views of Us

The concept of the looking-glass self states that part of how we see ourselves comes from our perception of how others see us (Cooley, 1902). 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. Many studies have supported a basic prediction derived from the notion of the looking-glass self, namely that our self-concepts are often quite similar to the views that others have of us (Beer, Watson, & McDade-Montez, 2013). This may be particularly so with people from our own families and culture. Perkins, Wiley, and Deaux (2014), for example, found that, in the United States, how members of ethnic minority groups believed other members of the same culture perceived them significantly correlated with their self-esteem scores. 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. 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 (1987) 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. As with the women’s study, the men’s self-evaluations matched those they perceived that the people they were asked to visualize would have made, particularly when they were more self-aware. At least some of the time, then, we end up evaluating ourselves as we imagine others would. Of course, it can work both ways, too. Over time, the people around us may come to accept the self-concept that we present to others (Yeung & Martin, 2003).

Sometimes, the influence of other people’s appraisals of ourselves on our self-concept may be so strong that we end up internalizing them. 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. The labeling bias occurs when we are labeled, and others’ views and expectations of us are affected by that labeling (Fox & Stinnett, 1996). For example, if a teacher knows that a child has been diagnosed with a particular psychological disorder, that teacher may have different expectations and explanations of the child’s behavior than he or she would if not aware of that label. 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. For example, when children are labeled in special education contexts, these labels can then impact their self-esteem (Taylor, Hume, & Welsh, 2010).

If we are repeatedly labeled and evaluated by others, then self-labeling may occur, which happens when we adopt others’ labels explicitly into our self-concept. 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. For example, Moses (2009) found that adolescents who self-labeled according to diagnoses they had received were found to have higher levels of self-stigma in their self-concepts compared with those who described their challenges in non-pathological terms. In these types of situation, those who self-label may come to experience internalized prejudice, which occurs when individuals turn prejudice directed toward them by others onto themselves. Internalized prejudice has been found to predict more negative self-concept and poorer psychological adjustment in members of various groups, including sexual minorities (Carter, 2012) and racial minorities (Szymanski & Obiri, 2011).

In other cases, labels used by wider society to describe people negatively can be positively reclaimed by those being labeled. Galinsky and colleagues (2013) explored this use of self-labeling by members of oppressed groups to reclaim derogatory terms, including “queer” and “bitch,” used by dominant groups. After self-labeling, minority group members evaluated these terms less negatively, reported feeling more powerful, and were also perceived by observers as more powerful. Overall, these results indicate that individuals who incorporate a formerly negative label into their self-concept in order to reclaim it can sometimes undermine the stigma attached to the label.