Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences

Living Edition
| Editors: Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Todd K. Shackelford


  • Astrid SchützEmail author
  • Theresa Fehn
  • Roy F. Baumeister
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1998-1



The self is a structured but dynamic system that comprises the perceptions and evaluations of one’s own personal features as well as the processes and mechanisms operating with these items.


The ability to reflect upon and evaluate one’s own acting, feeling, and thinking is what distinguishes humans from other species. People form a mental construct of being a unique entity, direct attention at their own psychological processes, evaluate these processes, and often attempt to regulate them (Leary and Tangney 2012). Even though the term “self” is not rare in everyday conversations, defining what “the self” is, exactly, has been a challenge. In 1890, William James introduced a distinction between two aspects of the self that was to influence decades of theorists and researchers: the “I,” the self as a subject and regulatory agent, and, the self as object or concept, the “Me.” The “I” is the knower; the “Me” is the known. James further posited three dimensions of the empirical self: the material self (one’s body and its extensions such as family or belongings), the social self (interpersonal relations), and the spiritual self (one’s personality and values). More specifically the self has been conceptualized as a set of interrelated, dynamically interacting cognitive and affective aspects that are coherently organized (Morf and Mischel 2012). The cognitive aspect of the “Me” constitutes the self-concept, i.e., the attributes someone ascribes to him- or herself, while the affective aspect corresponds to self-esteem, the evaluation of this self-relevant knowledge. The “I,” on the other hand, includes an agentic component with self- and environment-directed aspects of control. Important components include self-regulation and self-presentation. The self accommodates to and assimilates information from the social world and generates behavior. People construct, validate, and present images of themselves during social interactions. These self-perceptions in turn regulate future psychological processes and are influenced by feedback from these processes (e.g., Tice 1992).

Development of Self

The developmental emergence of a cognitive representation of self begins in early childhood. Children’s interactions with their family members, peers, or other caretakers have an important impact on self-representations (Harter 2012). The idea of “me,” implying a meta-representation of the self, forms in childhood. Around the age of 18 months, children are able to identify their bodily self as shown with the rouge test: a spot of rouge is put on a child’s face, and experimenters observe whether he or she touches that spot when placed in front of a mirror. The same strategy has been used for examining self-recognition in animals. Some apes pass the test but most fail.

In human children, the self-concept develops from a rather undifferentiated and simple structure to a more complex, organized, and coherent structure. Verbal self-descriptions are rather concrete at first (“I am three years old. I am a girl”) and later become increasingly abstract, such as including personality traits (Harter 2012). Typically, children’s self-views are often overly positive at first. Later, as they become more adept at perspective-taking, they more and more evaluate their own behavior on the basis of others’ standards, which are internalized and become self-regulatory guidelines.


The self-concept includes the full mass of information and beliefs that a person has with regard to him- or herself. It can be conceptualized as a cognitive schema that encompasses the knowledge and beliefs about oneself, including attributes, values, episodic, and semantic memories (Leary and Tangney 2012). In the following, the self-concept will be described with respect to its content and structure.


The self-concept contains what one believes to be true about oneself. It constitutes the descriptive component of the self, in contrast to the evaluative component, self-esteem. In other words, the self-concept is an individual’s mental model of his or her attributes. Such aspects can refer to how the person perceives him- or herself at a given time and to how the person would like to be or would not want to be. Markus and Nurius (1986) have described possible selves as guidelines to evaluate oneself, and Ogilvie (1987) has further elaborated on the relevance of undesired or feared selves. In self-discrepancy theory (Higgins 1987), the comparison of current selves with either an ideal (personal hopes and goals) or an ought self (perceived obligations) is relevant in guiding behavior and induces emotional and motivational reactions: an actual-ideal self-discrepancy typically prompts feelings of disappointment and depression, while an actual-ought self-discrepancy triggers guilt and anxiety.


Research has also been concerned with the question of how the self-concept is represented in memory. Is it stable and internally consistent? Are positive and negative aspects of the self-concept organized in different aspects of the self? Are all aspects similarly important? Many researchers share the idea that the self-concept consists of several facets that are structured hierarchically (Marsh et al. 1992) and that can be distinguished in domains, e.g., in the academic, social, and physical domain. The building blocks of the self-concept have been termed self-schemata (Markus 1977). They are specific beliefs that a person holds about him- or herself and can be considered relatively stable, enduring, and differentiated knowledge structures that individuals develop in order to understand and explain central aspects of the self (e.g., “I am an outgoing person.”). They also affect selection in information processing and thus have impact on memories, perception, and reasoning. Thus, self-schemata are stable elements of the self that contain information about the past and help to integrate new self-relevant information.

Self-complexity. The structure of the self-concept can be more or less complex. As posited in self-complexity theory (Linville 1985), individuals with a complex self-concept have organized their self-related knowledge into many different independent subdivisions. It was assumed that self-complexity serves as a buffer against stress, because stressors most often only concern one aspect of the self-concept. For example, if one’s self-concept concerning physical fitness were to be threatened, that should not influence self-aspects concerning one’s career or close relationships. However, the expected buffering effect for negative events was not supported in empirical research (for an overview see Rafaeli-Mor and Steinberg 2002). Instead, low self-concept complexity seems to be associated with a higher reactivity to negative as well as positive experiences. That is, individuals with low self-concept complexity react more strongly than others to both negative and positive events.

Compartmentalization. Another distinction concerns the structure of negative and positive self-aspects. The degree to which positive and negative traits are organized into separate self-aspects has been termed evaluative compartmentalization (Showers 1992). Compartmentalization means that positive and negative beliefs about the self are separated into different realms (e.g., a person holds negative self-views with regard to the sphere of work but positive ones with regard to leisure), whereas evaluative integration implies that all self-aspects contain positive as well as negative beliefs. While a compartmentalized structure promotes well-being only as long as positive self-aspects are activated, an integrated self-concept structure decreases vulnerability to ego-threats, because negative and positive attributes concerning the threatened aspect are triggered simultaneously. In contrast, a negative compartmentalized structure, meaning that individuals rate purely negative aspects as being important for their self-concept, seems particularly detrimental for self-esteem and well-being (e.g., Zeigler-Hill and Showers 2007).


Whereas the self-concept is the cognitive component of the self, self-esteem can be described as the affective component. Self-esteem, sometimes also termed self-confidence or self-worth, is the global evaluation of the self. Self-esteem is partly genetically influenced and partly shaped by experiences (Neiss et al. 2002). While research on levels of self-esteem (i.e., low vs. high self-esteem) has a long tradition, self-esteem stability (i.e., changes in self-esteem over time) or the congruency between reflected and spontaneous attitudes toward oneself has only been discussed in recent years (e.g., Schröder-Abé et al. 2007).

Level of Self-esteem

The overall significance of self-esteem level has been shown in studies finding that individuals with stable high self-esteem report higher well-being, optimism, emotional stability, and lower depression than others. Low self-esteem is associated with negative affect and difficulties in social and performance-related areas. As low self-esteem implies negative to moderate attitudes toward oneself, individuals with low self-esteem tend to be cautious, modest, and self-critical. This self-view often impairs performance, as people tend to set low goals and approach tasks with apprehension. Moreover, self-doubts often sabotage social relations, because people with low self-esteem tend to doubt the quality of their relationships and their interaction partners’ affection. Unfortunately, such insecurity and consequent repeated requests for affirmation of affection often result in a severe strain on relationships (Murray and Holmes 2000).

The question of whether low self-esteem actually causes poorer outcomes in life has been hotly debated, and for a time many parents, educators, and others sought to increase children’s self-esteem in the hope that it would lead to better outcomes in life. An extensive literature review by Baumeister et al. (2003) concluded that the benefits of high self-esteem (and corresponding costs of low self-esteem) were genuine but far less than usually supposed. Specifically, they reported high self-esteem increases positive emotion and bolsters initiative but has few other benefits. They concluded that self-esteem is more a result than a cause of objective outcomes. Given the widespread interest in self-esteem, this has stimulated a search for positive outcomes. Orth et al. (2012) reported from longitudinal data that self-esteem predicted positive outcomes but mainly subjective ones. For example, high self-esteem led to higher satisfaction with one’s work but not to more success or attainment at work. This fits the view that high self-esteem feels good but does not produce much in the way of objective benefits.

Self-esteem Stability

Apart from the level of self-esteem, there are also interindividual differences concerning how stable one’s self-esteem is (Kernis and Goldman 2003). People with unstable self-esteem typically react very sensitively to feedback. Especially when self-esteem is high and fragile, feedback that is perceived as threatening often elicits anger, justifications, or defensive and hostile attempts to protect or restore one’s feeling of self-worth. Stable self-esteem, in turn, is typically linked to emotional stability, the acceptance of one’s weaknesses, and moderate attempts to bolster one’s self-esteem by external validation or self-presentation (Kernis and Goldman 2003).

Contingencies of Self-worth

Level and stability of self-esteem partly depend on the individual’s contingencies of self-worth, i.e., factors that are relevant to the question of which events will have an impact on a person’s self-esteem (Crocker and Wolfe 2001). Typical contingencies are success, others’ approval, competition, physical appearance, family support, as well as living up to one’s own ethical guidelines. The more pronounced a specific contingency is for a person, the more events in that domain affect self-esteem. External and unstable contingencies or sources of self-esteem that may erode over time, such as others’ approval or physical appearance, put the person’s self-esteem at risk.

Collective Self-esteem

Finally, next to individual self-esteem, a sense of collective self-esteem has been identified which describes evaluations of oneself derived from being member of a group. As such, the collective self is comprised of the attributes that are ascribed to the self and other group members. In line with social identity theory, threats to one’s in-group typically increase in-group favoritism and prejudice as well as hostile feelings toward the out-group (Crocker and Luhtanen 1990).


Self-enhancement refers to raising one’s self-evaluation, including the cultivation of unrealistically positive self-views. Most people harbor overly positive self-views and easily forget self-threatening feedback (Sedikides et al. 2016), a tendency that may promote well-being and happiness (for a summary see Schütz and Baumeister 2017). Still, it is often difficult to disentangle objectively warranted positive views from illusory self-enhancement. Recent research that addressed this problem (Humberg et al. in press) suggests that positive effects of self-enhancement may be smaller than previously thought.

Nevertheless, there is broad consensus that biased perceptions do occur, that they are stronger under certain conditions and larger in some people than in others, and that their effects are mixed. Self-enhancement seems functional in promoting well-being, but there may be some costs to that. For example, positive biases may make people feel good but may impede performance (at least in the long run) or may disturb social relations (for an overview see Schütz and Baumeister 2017). For instance, overestimating one’s abilities makes one feel good in the short run but bears the risk of feeling bad after negative outcomes. In a study with retired people, positive expectations about their physical and social situation were related to short-term well-being but negatively to well-being one year later when symptoms and current self-views were controlled for (Cheng et al. 2009).

Implicit Self-esteem

Self-esteem has predominantly been measured by self-report questionnaires, but these mainly reflect conscious views of self. Based on dual process models, attitude research has distinguished implicit and explicit attitudes, and this distinction has also been applied to self-esteem. Explicit self-esteem relies on self-reflection and can be assessed by self-report but is of course more easily distorted by impression management or faking. Implicit self-esteem, in contrast, is understood as being based on associations between representations of the self and positive or negative evaluations (Greenwald et al. 1998) and is typically assessed indirectly, by observing how people react to self-relevant stimuli. Indirect measures have been criticized for reasons such as large error variance but still seem to be able to predict significant behavioral outcomes. It had been assumed that indirect measures are immune to faking – which is not the case – but faking is harder with these methods than with self-report questionnaires (Röhner et al. 2011).

Self-esteem discrepancies. Implicit self-esteem is assumed to be shaped by early childhood experiences and rather slow to adjust, even though it has been shown to be affected by evaluative conditioning (i.e., repeatedly pairing the concept “self” with positive or negative stimuli), as well as by social comparison or self-affirmation (DeHart et al. 2013). Importantly, explicit and implicit self-esteem do not necessarily correlate to a high degree, and it is assumed that implicit and explicit self-esteem map onto automatic-intuitive versus controlled-deliberative processes. Discrepancies between the two systems are typically experienced as stressful and related to maladaptive reactions. The combination of high explicit and low implicit self-esteem (fragile SE) or of low explicit and high implicit self-esteem (damaged SE) has been shown to be related to impaired well-being and defensiveness (Schröder-Abé et al. 2007).

Under certain conditions, such as cognitive load, implicit and explicit attitudes seem to converge, because these conditions make people less capable to distort their reports for self-serving or self-presentational purposes. Meta-analytical results show that correlations between explicit and implicit self-esteem measures increase with higher spontaneity of self-reports (Hofmann et al. 2005).

Executive Function and Self-regulation

When considering the agentic domain, the focus is on the “I” or the active self. Self-regulation is one main aspect of the agentic domain. The active self is relevant in modifying one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors – it filters information, selects responses, and initiates behavior (Baumeister and Vohs 2012). Even though research on self-regulation and self-control began to spread 40 years ago, the topic has never been more ubiquitous than today, as people seem almost obsessed with self-improvement, and self-regulation is crucial in reaching short- and long-term goals (Hofmann et al. 2012).

Executive functioning incorporates the active, intentional aspect of the self that is responsible for deliberate, planned, and intentional action (Baumeister and Vohs 2012). Cognitive psychologists emphasize working memory operations, inhibition of impulses, and mental set-shifting or task-switching. Social and personality psychologists focus more on altering responses, goal-directed behavior, decision-making, initiative, exerting control, and conforming to social standards.

Self-regulation, a subcategory of executive function, involves initiating or controlling responses in order to achieve goals, especially by changing, modifying, substituting, or blocking a response. The term self-regulation is most often used to subsume conscious as well as unconscious processes by which behavior is being regulated. Self-control, a subset of self-regulation, refers mainly to deliberate conscious exertion of efforts to change one’s responses. This has mainly been studied in connection with controlling thoughts, emotion regulation, impulse control, and managing task performance.

Unlike self-esteem, self-control has been empirically linked to a broad range of positive objective outcomes. People with good self-control outperform others in multiple domains, including academic and occupational performance, relationship quality, higher happiness, fewer criminal arrests, fewer problems with addiction (e.g., smoking), and longevity.

Strength Model and Ego Depletion

Psychology’s theorizing about the executive aspect of the self lagged behind other areas in the 1980s, possibly because of the heavy emphasis on social cognition at that time. Departing from the cognitivist view, Baumeister and Heatherton (1996) proposed that self-regulation involves the expenditure of energy to overcome desires and change incipient responses. Laboratory tests began to find that after people exerted self-control, their subsequent performance on self-regulatory tasks was impaired (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1998), which is what one would expect if some limited energy resource were expended in the first task. The phenomenon of reduced regulatory capacity following exertion was dubbed ego depletion. Ego depletion findings have been used to illuminate the executive self. In particular, the same resource is apparently used for self-regulation, decision-making, and initiative.

The basic pattern of ego depletion has been found in several hundred published studies, making it one of the most widely replicated findings in personality and social psychology. It has however attracted criticism of two sorts. Some researchers have proposed alternative models, seeking to dispense with the troublesome notion of limited energy or willpower (e.g., Inzlicht and Schmeichel 2012). Meanwhile, others have questioned whether ego depletion actually occurs. The latter view was supported by a multi-lab study (Hagger et al. 2016) in which the effect was not found – possibly due to the specific manipulation used.

In considering these developments, Baumeister et al. (2018) noted that the two criticisms contradict each other. The failure of the Hagger et al. (2016) study has stimulated others to conduct preregistered tests of the hypothesis, which have largely been successful (e.g., Dang et al. 2017). Meanwhile, the alternative explanations offer provocative, intriguing ideas, although they fall far short of being able to explain the mass of diverse findings (see Baumeister and Vohs 2016). Although these alternative views have stimulated valuable research that has elaborated the understanding of ego depletion, they do not seem to make the notion of depletion of limited resources obsolete.

Standards and Resources in Self-regulation

As Hofmann et al. (2012) have pointed out, successful self-regulation requires a set of standards and sufficient motivation to invest energy in reducing perceived discrepancies between those standards and the actual state, as well as enough resources to reduce this discrepancy and resist temptations that might impair this goal. Thus, self-regulation is impaired by a lack of standards or their monitoring, by a lack of motivation to decrease perceived discrepancies, or by limited capacities (e.g., Dohle et al. 2018). In line with this reasoning, Goldschmidt et al. (2018) found a connection between poor working memory and being overweight in children.

The importance of standards was central to the feedback-loop theory of self-regulation put forward by Charles Carver and Michael Scheier (Carver and Scheier 1998). Their initial contributions had been in the area of self-awareness, and one prominent finding was that self-awareness almost always involved comparison to standards. They concluded that the basic purpose of self-awareness was to facilitate self-regulation: people compare themselves to standards and, if they fall short, initiate actions to remedy their deficiencies.


Another aspect of the agentic self refers to the process of conveying impressions of the self to others. Building on philosophical and sociological thinking of writers such as Charles Cooley and Erving Goffman, psychologists have argued that people often try to convey certain images toward others. In fact, it has been found that many well-established psychological phenomena only occur in the presence of others (Baumeister 1982). Self-presentation has been defined as including unconscious and automatic as well as effortful behavior that influences the impression people make on others (Schlenker 2012) in order to reach interpersonal goals, regulate self-esteem, and increase positive emotions.

Early research on self-presentation treated it as impression management, that is, trying to make a good impression on others. This led to a view that self-presentation was deceptive or illicit, in the sense that people would say insincere or even false things so as to be viewed favorably by others. Although such things do certainly happen, self-presentation should not be considered fundamentally or primarily deceptive: in many cases, people use self-presentation to claim certain identities or to seek social validation for how they regard themselves (e.g., Baumeister 1982; see Schlenker 2012 for an overview). Self-presentation was widely studied in the 1980s and fell out of fashion in the 1990s, but there has been a recent resurgence of interest in it, newly incarnated as reputation management rather than impression management. That is, human society requires people to maintain a positive reputation so that others will affiliate and cooperate with them (e.g., Tomasello 2016). From an evolutionary perspective, self-presentation can thus be considered far more important than self-esteem: how well you think of yourself has little direct impact on survival and reproduction, whereas how others view you can be decisive for both. This evolutionary argument may provide a useful framework for all the early findings that people respond much more strongly to public than private circumstances (Baumeister 1982).

Behavioral Strategies

Self-presentation motivates a wide range of behaviors, including overt self-description, affirmation of particular attitudes, displaying status symbols or evidence of success, criticizing others, and associating or dissociating oneself with others according to how these others are regarded (e.g., Cialdini et al. 1976). In general, demonstrating one’s competencies instead of merely claiming to have them seems more effective.

Useful Self-presentations Are Not Necessarily Positive

Often people aim at conveying a certain image in order to gain influence and power, and those impressions may be advantageous but not always favorable. Typical images are being likable, competent, morally worthy, intimidating, or helpless and needy (Jones and Pittman 1982). Moreover, self-presentation can include self-handicapping (Jones and Rhodewalt 1982). The latter phenomenon often occurs in a competitive or performance-oriented context, when people prevent damage to their self-concept by creating an impediment to their own performance, which can function as an excuse for failure.

Difficulties in Self-presentation

Some goals are partly incompatible. For example, it is difficult to achieve impressions of competence and likability at the same time (Amabile 1983). Furthermore, self-presentational efforts may backfire and result in unintended effects – and the paradox about self-presentation is that it will be more successful if it does not appear to be intentional. In this line, nonverbal behavior is typically regarded as harder to fake and is therefore perceived as more reliable by observers, as compared to verbal behavior. In fact, the higher people are in emotional intelligence, the more they rely on nonverbal cues if there is a discrepancy between verbal and nonverbal messages (Jacob et al. 2016).

Building and Defending Impressions

Self-presentation consists not only of trying to create a favorable impression. If positive impressions are threatened or damaged, people may use a variety of tactics to defend or repair them. Furthermore, people may be very careful so as to avoid conveying a negative impression, or they may use aggression against third parties to achieve a specific impression (e.g., that they are powerful or even dangerous). In an overarching taxonomy, Schütz (1998) distinguished assertive, defensive, protective, and aggressive self-presentations.

Self-presentational Traces

Next to actual behavior, behavioral traces are also relevant in conveying certain impressions. For example, it has been shown that people’s living quarters, their personal websites, or their email aliases convey an impression of the person (e.g., Marcus et al. 2006). In such traces, certain traits can more easily be detected than others. For example, in personal websites self-other agreement was highest with respect to openness and extraversion, whereas it appears to be difficult to rate how agreeable a person is based on his or her website.

So far, in self-presentation research, the effects of interaction partners have largely been neglected. Integrative research is needed to shed light on how self-presentation results in specific impressions and which cues are crucial in determining those.


The self can be seen as a highly complex construct that is unique to human beings. It is a dynamic system that comprises cognitive, affective, and agentic aspects. The self includes what we know or assume about ourselves, how we evaluate that knowledge, and how impressions are structured and transformed into behavior. How our self-concept is structured, how we evaluate ourselves, whether that evaluation is stable or fragile, and how good we are at regulating and presenting ourselves all influence our life significantly. All these aspects have an impact on social functioning, physical and mental health, life satisfaction, and performance.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Astrid Schütz
    • 1
    Email author
  • Theresa Fehn
    • 2
  • Roy F. Baumeister
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of BambergBambergGermany
  2. 2.University of BambergBambergGermany
  3. 3.University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Chris Ditzfeld
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ArkansasFayettevilleUSA