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Chapter: Psychology: Personality

The Humanistic Approach: The Self

This discussion of self-actualization raises an important question: What exactly is the self that the humanists talked about, and where does it come from?

The Self

This discussion of self-actualization raises an important question: What exactly is the self that  the  humanists  talked  about, and  where  does  it  come  from?  More  than  a  century ago—well  before  the  humanists  such  as  Maslow  and  Rogers  came  onto  the  scene— William James (1890; Figure 15.23) distinguished two aspects of the self, which he called the “I” and the “me.” The “I” is the self that thinks, acts, feels, and believes. The “me,” by contrast, is the set of physical and psychological attributes and features that define who

you are as a person. These include the kind of music you like, what you look like, and the activities that currently give your life meaning. Half a century after James first made this distinction, the humanist Carl Rogers used similar language to talk about how  the  self-concept develops  in early  childhood  and eventually  comes  to  include  one’s  sense  of  oneself—the  “I”—as  an  agent  who  takes actions and makes decisions. It also includes one’s sense of oneself as a kind of object— the “me”—that is seen and thought about, liked or disliked (C. R. Rogers, 1959, 1961). Indeed, the  self-concept  was  such  an  important  aspect  of  Rogers’  approach  that  he referred to his theory as self theory, an approach that continues to inspire contempo-

rary  researchers  who  seek  to  explain  the  motives  that  activate  and  support  human behavior (Deci & Ryan, 2000).


For each of us, our sense of self is a key aspect of our personality, and each of us has a set of beliefs about who we are and who we should be, and a body of knowledge about our val- ues and our past behaviors. This knowledge about ourselves constitutes, for each person, a

self-schema(Markus, 1977; Figure 15.24). This schema is not just a passive record of ourprior experiences; instead, the schema actively shapes our behaviors, perceptions, and emo-tions. For example, a person might have a schema of himself as a smart person who does well at school. This self-schema will make certain situations, such as academic tests, seem more important and consequential. The self-schema will also guide many of his choices, such as opting to attend a more rigorous college rather than a “party school” or spending the extra hour polishing a term paper rather than heading off to get coffee with friends.


The self-schema is not just a random list of characteristics. Instead, it is a highly organized (although not always entirely consistent) narrative about who one is. McAdams and colleagues (McAdams, 1993, 2001; McAdams & Pals, 2006) refer to such personal narratives as personal myths—in essence, “stories” that provide a sense of direction and meaning for our lives. Moreover, given this important role for these nar-ratives, it cannot be surprising that these narratives are resistant to change, and, in fact, studies have shown that even people with negative self-concepts tenaciously cling to these views, and seek out others who will verify these views (Swann, Rentfrow, & Guinn, 2002).


Information relevant to our self-schema is also given a high priority. For example, in sev-eral studies, people have been shown a series of trait words and asked to make simple judg-ments regarding these words (e.g., Is the word in capital letters? Is it a positive word? Does it describe me?). When asked later to remember the traits that they previously saw, partici-pants were more likely to recall words presented in the “Does it describe me?” condition than in the other conditions, suggesting that material encoded in relationship to the self is better remembered (T. B. Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). These findings are buttressed by neuroimaging studies that show the portions of the medial prefrontal cortex are particu-larly active when people are engaged in self-referential processes (as compared to when they are making judgments about how the words are written, whether the words are good or bad, or even whether they are characteristic of a friend; Heatherton et al., 2006).


Interestingly, people seem to have schemas not only for who they are now, their actualselves, but also for who they may be in the future—mental representations of possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986; Figure 15.25). These include a sense of theideal self that one would ideally like to be (e.g., someone who saves others’ lives), and the ought self that one thinks one should be (e.g., someone who never lies or deceives others) (E. T. Higgins, 1997). According to E. Tory Higgins, when we compare our actual self to our ideal self, we become motivated to narrow the distance between the two, and we develop what he calls a promotion focus. When we have this sort of focus, we actively pursue valued goals—a pursuit that results in pleasure. In contrast, when we compare our actual self to our ought self, we become motivated to avoid doing harm, and we develop what Higgins calls a prevention focus. This kind of focus is associated with feelings of relief.


Notice, therefore, that schemas are not just dispassionate observations about our-selves; instead, they often have powerful emotions attached to them and can be a compelling source of motivation. This is why the schemas are typically thought of as an aspect of “hot” cognition (emotional and motivational) rather than “cold” cognition (dispassionate and analytical).




The “hot” nature of self-schemas is also evident in the fact that these schemas play a pow-erful role in shaping a person’s self-esteem—a broad assessment that reflects the relative balance of positive and negative judgments about oneself (Figure 15.26). Not surprisingly, self-esteem is not always based on objective self-appraisals. Indeed, people in Western

cultures seem highly motivated to view themselves as different from and superior to other people—even in the face of evidence to the contrary (Sedikides & Gregg, 2008). This is manifest, for example, in the fact that most Americans judge themselves to be above average on a broad range of characteristics (see Harter, 1990). Thus, in 1976–1977 the College Board asked 1 million high-school students to rate themselves against their peers on leadership ability. In response, 70% said they were above average, and only 2% thought they were below. Similar findings have been obtained in people’s judgments of talents ranging from managerial skills to driving ability (see Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989). And it is not just high-school students who show these effects. One study of university pro-fessors found that 94% believed they were better than their colleagues at their jobs (Gilovich, 1991).


What is going on here? Part of the cause lies in the way we search our memories in order to decide whether we have been good leaders or bad, good drivers or poor ones. Evidence suggests that this memory search is often selective, showcasing the occasions in the past on which we have behaved well and neglecting the occasions on which we have done badly—leading, of course, to a self-flattering summary of this biased set of events (Kunda, 1990; Kunda, Fong, Sanitioso, & Reber, 1993).


In addition, people seem to capitalize on the fact that the meanings of these traits— effective leader, good at getting along with others—are often ambiguous. This ambigu-ity allows each of us to interpret a trait, and thus to interpret the evidence, in a fashion that puts us in the best possible light. Take driving ability. Suppose Henry is a slow, careful driver. He will tend to think that he’s better than average precisely because he’s slow and careful. But suppose Jane, on the other hand, is a fast driver who prides her-self on her ability to whiz through traffic and hang tight on hairpin turns. She will also think that she’s better than average because of the way she’s defined driving skill. As a result, both Henry and Jane (and, indeed, most drivers) end up considering themselves above average. By redefining success or excellence, we can each conclude that we are successful (Dunning & Cohen, 1992; Dunning et al., 1989).




Although the self-schema is important for all of us, the content of the schema varies from individual to individual and, it seems, from one culture to the next. When they think about themselves, Americans tend to think about their broad, stable traits, traits that apply in all settings, such as athletic, disorganized, and creative. Things are differ-ent for people living in interdependent, collectivist cultures. They also view themselves as having certain traits, but only in specific situations, and so their self-descriptions tend to emphasize the role of the situation, such as quiet at parties, or gentle with their parents (Ellemers, Spears, & Dossje, 2002; D. Hart, Lucca-Irizarry, & Damon, 1986; Heine, 2008). Similarly, people in interdependent cultures tend to have self-concepts that emphasize their social roles, and so, when asked to complete the statement “I am . . . ,” Japanese students are more likely to say things like “a sister” or “a student,” whereas American students are more likely to mention traits like “smart” or “athletic” (Cousins, 1989). Similar differences can show up within a single culture. Thus, as shown in Figure 15.27, Kenyans who were least westernized overwhelmingly described themselves in terms of roles and memberships and mentioned personal characteristics such as traits only 2% of the time. By contrast, Kenyans who were most westernized used trait terms nearly 40% of the time, and only slightly less than American under-graduates (Ma & Schoeneman, 1997).


There is also variation from one culture to the next in how people evaluate them-selves. In individualistic cultures, people seek to distinguish themselves through personal achievement and other forms of self-promotion, with the result of increased self-esteem. In collectivistic cultures, on the other hand, any form of self-promotion threatens the relational and situational bonds that glue the society together. Indeed, to be a “good” person in these cultures, one should seek to be quite ordinary—a strategy that results in social harmony and meeting collective goals, not increased self-esteem (Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, 1997; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004). For them, self-aggrandizement brings disharmony, which is too great a price to pay. Evidence for this conclusion comes from a study in which American and Japanese college students were asked to rank their abilities in areas ranging from math and memory to warmheartedness and athletic skill. The American students showed the usual result: Across all the questions, 70% rated them-selves above average on each trait. But among the Japanese students, only 50% rated themselves above average, indicating no self-serving bias, and perhaps pointing instead to a self-harmonizing one (Markus and Kitayama, 1991; Takata, 1987; also Dhawan, Roseman, Naidu, & Rettek, 1995).


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