Now that we have an understanding of identity, we will explore the concept of self-perception and the various factors that create our understanding of ourselves. Specifically, in this section, we will explain how self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy shape our self-perception.
The overall idea of who a person thinks they are is called their self-concept. If I said, “Tell me who you are,” your answers would be clues as to how you see yourself. Each person has an overall self-concept that might be encapsulated in a short list of overarching characteristics that they find important. But each person’s self-concept is also influenced by context, meaning we think differently about ourselves depending on the situation we are in. In some situations, personal characteristics, such as our abilities, personality, and other distinguishing features, will best describe who we are. You might consider yourself laid back, traditional, funny, open minded, or driven, or you might label yourself a leader or a thrill seeker. In other situations, our self-concept may be tied to group or cultural membership. For example, you might consider yourself a member of the track team or a Southerner.
Our self-concept is also formed through our interactions with others and their reactions to us. The concept of the looking glass self explains that we see ourselves reflected in other people’s reactions to us and then form our self-concept based on how we believe other people see us (Cooley, 1902). This reflective process of building our self-concept is based on what other people have actually said, such as “You’re a good listener,” and from how we interpret other people’s actions, (e.g., a friend coming to you for advice may suggest you have valuable suggestions to offer). These thoughts evoke emotional responses that feed into our self-concept. For example, you may think, “I’m glad that people can count on me to listen to their problems.”
We also develop our self-concept through comparisons to other people. Social comparison theory states that we describe and evaluate ourselves in terms of how we compare to other people. Social comparisons are based on two dimensions: superiority/inferiority and similarity/difference (Hargie, 2011). In terms of superiority and inferiority, we evaluate characteristics like attractiveness, intelligence, athletic ability, and so on. For example, you may judge yourself to be more intelligent than your brother or less athletic than your best friend, and these judgments are incorporated into your self-concept. This process of comparison and evaluation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have negative consequences if our reference group isn’t appropriate. Reference groups are the groups we use for social comparison, and they typically change based on what we are evaluating. In terms of athletic ability, many people choose unreasonable reference groups with which to engage in social comparison. If a someone wants to get into better shape and starts an exercise routine, they may be discouraged by the difficulty keeping up with the aerobics instructor and judge themselves as inferior, which could negatively affect their self-concept.
We also engage in social comparison based on similarity and difference. Since self-concept is context specific, similarity may be desirable in some situations and difference more desirable in others. Factors like age and personality may influence whether or not we want to fit in or stand out. Although we compare ourselves to others throughout our lives, adolescent and teen years usually bring new pressure to be similar to or different from particular reference groups. Think of all the cliques in high school and how people voluntarily and involuntarily broke off into groups based on popularity, interest, culture, or grade level. Some kids in your high school probably wanted to fit in with and be similar to other people in the marching band but be different from the football players. Conversely, athletes were probably more apt to compare themselves, in terms of similar athletic ability, to other athletes rather than kids in show choir.
As with other aspects of perception, there are positive and negative consequences of social comparison. We generally want to know where we fall in terms of ability and performance as compared to others, but what people do with this information and how it affects self-concept varies. Not all people feel they need to be at the top of the list, but some won’t stop until they get the highest grade or set a new school record in a track-and-field event. Social comparison that isn’t reasoned can have negative effects and result in negative thoughts like “Look at how bad I did on that test. Man, I’m stupid!” These negative thoughts can lead to negative behaviors and may affect our self-esteem.
Self-esteem refers to the judgments and evaluations we make about our self-concept. While self-concept is a broad description of the self, self-esteem is a more specifically an evaluation of the self (Byrne, 1996). If I again prompted you to “Tell me who you are,” and then asked you to evaluate (label as good/bad, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable) each of the things you listed about yourself, I would get clues about your self-esteem. Like self-concept, self-esteem has general and specific elements. Generally, some people are more likely to evaluate themselves positively while others are more likely to evaluate themselves negatively (Brockner, 1988). More specifically, our self-esteem varies across our life span and across contexts.
How we judge ourselves affects our communication and our behaviors, but not every negative or positive judgment carries the same weight. The negative evaluation of a trait that isn’t very important for our self-concept will likely not result in a loss of self-esteem. For example, if you were a person who doesn’t consider drawing abilities to be a big part of your self-concept, your self-esteem would not take a big hit if someone critiqued a picture you drew. However, if you considered yourself and artist and someone negatively commented on a picture you drew, your self-esteem would be impacted.
Self-esteem isn’t the only factor that contributes to our self-concept; perceptions about our competence also play a role in developing our sense of self. Self-efficacy refers to the judgments people make about their ability to perform a task within a specific context (Bandura, 1997). Judgements about our self-efficacy influence our self-esteem, which influences our self-concept.
The following example also illustrates these interconnections. Aki did a good job on their first college speech. During a meeting with their professor, Aki indicates that they are confident going into the next speech and thinks that they will do well. This skill-based assessment is an indication that Aki has a high level of self-efficacy related to public speaking. If Aki does well on the speech, the praise from classmates and professor will reinforce Aki’s self-efficacy and lead Aki to positively evaluate their speaking skills, which will contribute to Aki’s self-esteem. By the end of the class, Aki likely thinks that they are a good public speaker, which may then become an important part their self-concept. Throughout these points of connection, it’s important to remember that self-perception affects how we communicate, behave, and perceive other things. Aki’s increased feeling of self-efficacy may give them more confidence in delivering speeches, which will likely result in positive feedback that reinforces Aki’s self-perception. Over time, Aki may even start to think about changing their major to communication or pursuing career options that incorporate public speaking, which would further integrate being “a good public speaker” into Aki’s self-concept.
You can hopefully see that these interconnections can create powerful positive or negative cycles. While some of this process is under our control, much of it is also shaped by the people in our lives. The verbal and nonverbal feedback we get from people affect our feelings of self-efficacy and our self-esteem. As we saw in Aki’s example, being given positive feedback can increase our self-efficacy, which may make us more likely to engage in a similar task in the future (Hargie, 2011). Obviously, negative feedback can lead to decreased self-efficacy and a declining interest in engaging with the activity again. In general, people adjust their expectations about their abilities based on feedback they get from others. Positive feedback tends to make people raise their expectations for themselves and negative feedback does the opposite, which ultimately affects behaviors and creates the cycle.