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What Is Self-Concept in Psychology? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:01 What Is Self-Concept?
  • 1:13 What Is the Actual Self?
  • 2:18 What Is the Idea or…
  • 2:46 Negotiating Between…
  • 4:38 5 Basic Tenets of Self-Concept
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alicia Trotman

Alicia teaches psychology in areas of culture, society and disability, and she has a doctoral degree in Learning, Technology & Culture.

Self-concept encompasses all that you know about your self. We'll focus on the two broad categories of self-concept - ideal, or imagined, self and actual self - and the negotiation between the two. Then we'll cover five basic tenets of self-concept.

What Is Self-Concept?

Imagine yourself looking into a mirror. What do you see? Do you see your ideal self or your actual self? Your ideal, or imagined, self is the self that you aspire to be. It is the one that you hope will possess characteristics similar to that of a mentor or some other worldly figure. Your actual self, however, is the one that you actually see. It is the self that has characteristics that you were nurtured or, in some cases, born to have.

Self-concept is the construct that negotiates these two selves. In other words, it connotes first the identification of the ideal self as separate from others, and second, it encompasses all the behaviors vetted in the actual self that you engage in to reach the ideal self. Behavioral scientists often assert that the self-concept is the sole perspective from which one can understand an individual's behavior because it includes all the dimensions of the self, including how one looks (self-image) and what one knows (self-knowledge), and the ways in which these exist for others (fulfilling the ego).

What Is the Actual Self?

The actual self is built on self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is derived from social interactions that provide insight into how others react to you. For example, you are about to meet someone for the first time on a date. You are well dressed and you introduce yourself with a smile on your face. However, your date meets you with a frown and declares, 'I don't want to see you!' At first, you think about the frown and wonder whether his or her reaction has anything to do with you. But, the mention of 'you' in the comment tells you that this does have something to do with you. So, you reflect on your past behaviors and encounters, trying to figure out if you've met this person before and if you did, what exactly sparked his or her reaction. At this point, you are reflecting on your actual self derived from your self-concept, and you attempt to re-align this self with this surprising meeting on the first date. Conversely, if your date greeted you with a smile and said, 'It is so good to see you,' then you would not experience this discrepancy. Instead, you would feel self-assured with your actual self intact.

What Is the Ideal or Imagined Self?

The ideal self is the self that you imagined to be on that first date. You thought about the context to your self-knowledge and imagined how the date would see you. It did not go as expected, which gave rise to the conflict between your actual and imagined self. If it did go as expected, your actual self would have matched your ideal self in this moment in time of your life.

How Do We Negotiate Between the Ideal and Actual Self?

The negotiation is complex because there are numerous exchanges between the ideal and actual self. These exchanges are exemplified in social roles that are adjusted and re-adjusted, and are derived from outcomes of social interactions from infant to adult development. George Mead stated that, ''By incorporating estimates of how the 'generalized other' would respond to certain actions, the individual acquires a source of internal regulation that serves to guide and stabilize his behavior in the absence of external pressures... There are as many selves as there are social roles.''

Thus, think of your actual self as a Rubik's cube and your ideal self as the context that surrounds the Rubik's cube. Your actual self, like a Rubik's cube, has six 'faces,' or social roles, and each 'face' solidly presents one color. In this event, your actual self is in complete accordance with your ideal self and there are no threats. This means that you have self-actualized your potential and your basic developmental and psychological needs have been essentially fulfilled. In other words, your colors are seen by others in similar ways in which you see your actual self, and your ideal self matches your actual self. Hence, your possible selves are closely aligned with each other, solidly tied to firm beliefs about the actual self and demonstrating unification.

However, this event is not common. When someone hands you a Rubik's cube, the colors are often mixed up. This means that the face that you present of your actual self is in discord with your ideal self. This conflict arises through fears or doubts of your self and others, or lack of self-knowledge of the context. Often, your actual self may never be the same in all instances because context influences your choice of your 'presented face.'

Five Basic Tenets of Self-Concept

Self-concept includes five basic tenets, each with its own set of characteristics.

1. Change

Your self-concept seeks out dynamic change with new social interactions. This is one way for it to gather new information and integrate within its current system. The self-concept can cover many dimensions (more than six faces on a Rubik's cube!) in terms of possible selves that are utilized, depending on the context.

2. Stability

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