The many and varied thoughts that we have about ourselves are stored in the variety of self-schemas that make up the cognitive part of the self—the self-concept. The self-concept is the most complex of all our schemas because it includes all of the images, desires, beliefs, feelings, and hopes that we have for and about ourselves.
The self-concept can be measured by simply asking people to list the things that come to mind when they think about themselves or by using other techniques such as asking people to remember information related to the self. Research has found that some people have more complex and consistent selves than others do, and that having a variety of self-schemas is useful because the various aspects of the self help to improve our responses to the events that we experience.
The self-concept can vary in its current accessibility. When the self-concept is highly accessible and therefore becomes the focus of our attention, the outcome is known as self-awareness or self-consciousness. Private self-consciousness occurs when we are introspective about our inner thoughts and feelings, whereas public self-consciousness occurs when we focus on our public image. It is important to be aware of variation in the accessibility of the aspects of the self-concept because the changes in our thoughts about the self have an important influence on our behavior. Increased self-awareness, for instance, can lead to increased perceptions of self-discrepancy, which occurs when we see our current self as not matching our ideal self.
Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) evaluations that we make of ourselves. When we feel that we are viewed positively and held in esteem by others, we say that we have high social status. Having high social status creates positive self-esteem.
The desire to see ourselves positively leads us to seek out, process, and remember information in a way that allows us to see ourselves even more positively. However, although the desire to self-enhance is a powerful motive, it is not the same in all cultures, and increases in self-esteem do not necessarily make us better or more effective people. An effective life involves an appropriate balance between the feeling and the cognitive parts of the self: we must always consider not only the positivity of our self-views but also the accuracy of our self-characterizations and the strength of our relationships with others.
Although we learn about ourselves in part by examining our own behaviors, the self-concept and self-esteem are also determined through our interactions with others. The looking-glass self reflects how others’ views of us feed into the way we see ourselves. Social comparison occurs when we learn about our abilities and skills, about the appropriateness and validity of our opinions, and about our relative social status by comparing our own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of others.
We use downward social comparison to create a positive image of ourselves through favorable comparisons with others who are worse off than we are. Through upward social comparison, we compare ourselves with others who are better off than we are. In some cases, we can bask in the reflected glory of others that we care about, but in other cases, upward comparison makes us feel inadequate. An important aspect of the self-concept that is derived from our social experiences is our social identity, which is turn is derived from our membership in social groups and our attachments to those groups.
The tendency to attempt to present a positive image to others and thereby attempt to increase our social status is known as self-presentation, and it is a basic and natural part of everyday life. In the longer term, our concern to present ourselves in particular ways can become a more ongoing reputation management project, and we may end up building different reputations with different audiences. Some people are high self-monitors, more able and willing to self-present than are other people, and will shift their behavior across situations and audiences more often than low self-monitors, who try to act more consistently with their internal values.