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Chapter: Essentials of Psychiatry: Social Psychology

Social Psychology: The Self

Social psychology, defined broadly as the study of social influences on psychological functioning, is highly relevant to a biopsychosocial perspective in that it focuses on understanding the person–environment relationship.

Social psychology, defined broadly as the study of social influences on psychological functioning, is highly relevant to a biopsychosocial perspective in that it focuses on understanding the person–environment relationship. Environmental factors are presumed to influence psychological functioning. Individuals are defined as active interpreters of the environmental contexts in which they live such that individual construals of events influ-ence psychological life and behavior.



The Self


Theory and Research Findings


Historical Precedents


Current social psychological efforts to understand the self in the context of the person–environment relationship, particularly the social world of the individual, are not without significant historical precedence. For example, James (1890/1981) posited that one com-ponent of the self was a social self determined in part by rela-tionships with significant others. James maintained that because one’s social roles and impact on others are varied, each individual has multiple social selves (e.g., self at work, self with family) with varying degrees of integration and internal consistency. Cooley’s (1902) concept of the looking-glass self referred to the idea that the self emerges from one’s interpretations of the reactions of im-portant others in the social environment. Similarly, Mead’s (1934) symbolic interactionism approach posited that self-knowledge de-rives from a process of taking the role of the other in social inter-action. According to this view, the individual internalizes norms and expectations of the social group (the generalized other) in the course of social interaction. This internalization of the generalized other provides the basis for self-reflection, including the capacity to evaluate one’s gestures and deeds, and anticipate others’ responses to one’s behavior. Social psychological inquiries into the self in the middle decades of the 20th century were sparse, but over the past 20 years interest in self-functioning has dramatically increased, in part spurred by social cognition research (Taylor, 1998). While a comprehensive review of this now voluminous literature is beyond the scope of this discussion, a sampling of representative, contem-porary social psychological perspectives on self is presented here


Social Psychological Models of Self


Consistent with trends toward systematic examination and articulation of the person–environment relationship in personality functioning as a whole (Baumeister, 1999; Curtis, 1991; Mitchell, 2000), social psychological models presume that self-functioning is influenced both by intrapersonal and situational context factors (Baumeister, 1998; Tesser et al., 2000). From this perspective, self-functioning may be understood in terms of personal traits and dispositions (individual self), interpersonal roles and relationship patterns (relational self), and larger group identifica-tions (collective self) (Sedikides and Brewer, 2001).


Investigations of the self have produced myriad conceptu-alizations of self-functioning. To organize the diverse strands of theory and research on self, Baumeister (1998) has proposed three dimensions central to the construction of self, including reflex-ive consciousness, interpersonal being and executive function. Reflexive consciousness refers to the human capacity to reflect on personal thoughts, feelings and behavior, and is the mechanism that makes possible the construction of self-conceptions and self-knowledge. Interpersonal being connotes the relational com-ponent of self that develops within ongoing interpersonal trans-actions and serves the vital psychological function of negotiating the relational world. Executive function refers to the capacity for agency, decision-making and initiative in living, and is the basis for active engagement with the environment. Social psychologi-cal models of self-functioning typically presuppose and/or focus on one or more of these dimensions of self.


To illustrate current social psychological thinking with regard to self-functioning, a few examples of recent social psychological theories of self are outlined briefly in the table: the self-verification theory, self-evaluation maintenance, self-discrepancy theory and self-determination theory (Table 17.1). Each of these models represents a significant contribution to the social psychological perspective on self, and although not clinically derived, has significant relevance to the clinical situation.


Self-presentation, Impression Management and Personal Identity


Along with specific theoretical models of self, social psychology has examined the impact of self-presentation and impression management on self-functioning. Specifically, people are invested in presenting themselves in certain ways (performing) in social situations and endeavor to control the impressions that others have of them in those situations (Goffman, 1959; Leary, 1995). These modes of self-presentation have some degree of influence on self-definition and personal identity (Tice and Baumeister, 2001). Successful impression management requires an awareness of social expectations regarding behavior in a specific situation, a desire to act within social expectations, and a capacity to present oneself in such a way that the desired impression is conveyed. One’s behavior in social interactions also is guided by the impressions one forms of others. Generally speaking, it is adaptive to be cognizant of others’ views of oneself and to portray oneself in particular ways because these interpersonal strategies can enhance one’s capacity to comprehend, regulate and anticipate social interaction patterns (Schlenker and Pontari, 2000). In deciding how to present them-selves in a social interchange, people stress the commonalities between themselves and what is expected of them and present a personally and socially desirable public image to assure social compatibility, solidarity with others and social approval.


Self in Health and Illness


Issues of physical health and illness influence both one’s self-definition and the quality and nature of one’s interpersonal world. In turn, one’s self-definition influences how one responds to health-related concerns. Self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), which connotes beliefs regarding one’s capacity to perform a required action, is an especially important variable in predicting individual responses to health-related concerns (Salovey et al., 1998). To heighten the extent to which individuals can exercise control over their own health behaviors and associated environmental stresses, individuals may be taught self-management and self-control tech-niques. Learning the array of cognitive and behavioral coping strategies that increase people’s ability to manage their illness and associated affective responses also enhances self-efficacy and overall capacity for effective self-regulation.


Mental Health Implications


Mental health professionals increasingly have appreciated the need to understand self-functioning in a relational context. This shift in focus has been influenced by attachment theory (Bowlby, 1982), interpersonal psychiatry (Sullivan, 1953), psychoanalytic object relations theory (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983), feminism (Jordan, 1997) and family systems theory (Gurman and Kniskern, 1981, 1991). For example, Sullivan’s (1953) clinical theory included a characterization of the self-system as composed of the good-me bad-me and not-me personifications, with the self-system defined interpersonally on the basis of perceived responses of significant others beginning early in life. Within the psychoanalytic tradition, adherents to object relations theory (Fairbairn, 1954; Guntrip, 1969; Winnicott, 1965), self-psychology (Kohut, 1977), and relational psychoanalysis (Mitchell, 2000) have underscored the importance of the interpersonal contributions to self-development and functioning. Each of these approaches emphasizes that the nature and quality of the relationship between the therapist and patient is centrally relevant to helping the patient make changes in self-functioning.


Models of Self and Clinical Intervention


Based on a synthesis of theoretical models and empirical research findings, Deaux (1992) has developed a social psychological model of relationships between self and mental health that re-volves around self-definition and the impact of challenges to self-definition on mental health functioning. In the model, self-definition is conceptualized as consisting of 1) specific domains of functioning (e.g., social and personal identities, life tasks) rather than as a global entity; 2) goals and aspirations as mo-tivational elements; and 3) active interpretations of experience and personal meaning constructions. Demographic and socio-cultural variables, social structure and socialization processes are viewed as distal influences on self-definition. Although the self-definition is presumed to be relatively stable, it is subject to challenge by internal factors (e.g., perceived discrepancies between the self-definition and internally defined expectations for oneself, negative social comparisons) and/or external factors (e.g., illness, change of employment status, changes in significant relationships). Challenge triggers a self-evaluation process to deal with information that is inconsistent with one’s predominant self-definition. Self-evaluation results in regulation and recon-struction activities focused internally on the self (e.g., self-esteem maintenance, self-affirmation, self-esteem protection, activities associated with alterations in self-definition) and/or externally on the external world (e.g., self-verification, self-monitoring, behavioral disconfirmation activities associated with presen-tation of the reformulated self-definition in the social world). Negative outcomes of the self-evaluation process are presumed in the model to be associated with adverse mental health outcomes.


Drawing from myriad theories and concepts from within social psychology, Deaux’s (1992) model acknowledges the cen-trality of self-regulation processes in the maintenance of overall mental health as individuals respond to challenges to existing self-definitions. Self-regulation processes are a core element of the social psychological theories of self summarized herein, including self-verification theory (Swann, 1983, 1997), self-evaluation main-tenance (Tesser, 1991; Beach and Tesser, 1995), self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987; Moretti and Higgins, 1999) and self-de-termination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2000; Ryan and Deci, 2000). Each of these models provides insights for the clinical under-standing and treatment of mental health problems as they relate to challenges to self-definition and the self-evaluation processes that ensue in response to such challenges. Examples of the clini-cal relevance and utility of these models for clinical work now will be considered.


Self-presentation and Impression Management in Clinical Perspective


While the maintenance of a specific social image through impression management can yield psychological benefit, certain patterns of self-presentation can also have a negative psychological impact. For example, preoccupation with presenting oneself as competent in a particular pursuit when realistic appraisal sug-gests otherwise can give rise to pursuit of goals for which one is not suited, generating impractical expectations for self and precipitating associated frustration and disappointment. Extreme efforts to present oneself in a particular light can lead to maladap-tive states of mind, response patterns and relationships (Shepperd and Kwavnick, 1999).


Impression management also has implications for the self-relevant social emotions of guilt and shame. Both guilt and shame are responses to perceived transgressions on the part of the self, but differ in that guilt involves condemnation of a particular behavior and is accompanied by remorse or regret, whereas shame involves condemnation of one’s self and is ac-companied by feelings of being exposed as objectionable and bad (Tangney and Salovey, 1999). Both guilt and shame are emotional experiences tied to one’s perceived failure to maintain a positive self-presentation, and each propels specific patterns of impres-sion management. For instance, guilt tends to spark interpersonal efforts to make reparation for one’s behavior, whereas shame may prompt social avoidance associated with a wish to hide the self from view (Tangney and Salovey, 1999). Although guilt and shame are expectable emotional dimensions of everyday psycho-logical life, their problematic manifestations can adversely affect both self-regulation and interpersonal relationships, and there-fore must be considered in clinical evaluation and treatment of psychological dysfunction.

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