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Self Concept

Self Concept

Current status and historical background

Usages of self concept

A characterization of self concept

Formation of self (ego)

Self and reference groups or sets


Historically, the domain of investigation subsumed under “self concept” by psychologists and sociologists was a major concern of theologians, philosophers, political essayists, playwrights, and novelists. Since differences in defining the domain exist even today, it is hazardous to start with a definition without first preparing ground on which terms of the definition can be built. This task is undertaken here through a glance at the status of the self concept in contemporary psychology and through a brief report of representative conceptions by various writers, noting convergences and differences. With an adequate definition, developmental and experimental research can be reviewed to derive leads for a conception of self that is scientifically based, rather than one that suggests “my word against your word.”

Current status and historical background

Especially since the 1940s, problems related to self concept have surged forth as indispensable and legitimate topics for scientific study in psychology and sociology. The interest in self can be appreciated better if we consider the years of its relative disuse, and even disrepute, in the mainstream of psychology between 1900 and 1940. These years correspond roughly to the period of dominant concern with asserting the scientific nature of psychology by shying away from any concepts associated with the philosophical origins of psychology. The brave new world of scientism was represented by the models of Wundt and Titchener and by the behaviorism of Watson. The first asserted that the prime task of scientific psychology was the discovery of mental elements and then the laws of their compounding; the second, that the scientific task was a search for elemental reflexes and principles of their linkages. Each model, in its own terminology, advocated its approach as the only way to lay solid foundations for the ultimate explanation of more complicated forms of behavior.

Even then, the picture was not entirely monolithic. There were always those in search of unifying, integrating concepts to handle problems of the consistency of the person and the continuity of this consistency over time. The memorable chapter on self by William James (1890) maintained its impact on psychology and social science even during the period in question. James analyzed the self in terms of its constituent parts, as the sum total of what the individual considers himself and his to possess, including his body, his traits, characteristics, abilities, aspirations, family, work, possessions, friends, and other social affiliations. James neatly boiled down the problem of the maintenance of self-esteem into a formula (Self-esteem = Success/Pretensions) that served as the basis of many formulations and much research by psychologists and sociologists. Among his other insights, James anticipated the core of modern formulations on reference groups. He wrote of the individual’s “image in the eyes of his own ’set,.’ which exalts or condemns him as he conforms or not to certain requirements that may not be made of one in another walk of life” [1890, vol. 1, pp. 294–295; see also the biography of JAMES].

Among other influential contributors was James Mark Baldwin, who gave an interactionist account of self development, epitomized in his formulation : “The ego and the alter are ... born together” ([1895] 1906, p. 338). Some years later, the development of self through social interaction was elaborated by the sociologists Charles H. Cooley (1902) and George Herbert Mead [1913; see also INTERACTION and the biographies of BALDWIN; COOLEY; MEAD].

Of course, even in the first half of the twentieth century, there were the “personalistic” psychologists, such as Mary W. Calkins and Wilhelm Stern, who insisted that self-reference was characteristic of all psychological activity. Such formulations would find an ardent advocate later in Prescott Lecky’s Self-consistency (1945). But the experimental mainstream was a psychology that had banished the self and other integrative concepts. [Cf. Allport 1943; see also PERSONALITY: CONTEMPORARY VIEWPOINTS, article on A UNIQUE AND OPEN SYSTEM; and the biography of STERN.] As a result, it never came to grips effectively with problems of human motivation (e.g., Koch 1956) nor with regularities in human behavior on the conceptual level of functioning (Schneirla 1946; 1951). Research results were fragmentary and attempts to put the fragments together proved inconclusive and even contradictory, showing little resemblance to the characteristic consistency of the person as he pursues the satisfaction of his needs for food, sleep, and sex and as he works and plays with his fellows.

As a rule, the person searching for food is not guided by hunger alone; he is also guided by what he considers to be proper food, the place where it is located, and the atmosphere where it is eaten. The tired traveler looking for a hotel is not merely concerned that the bed be like his own bed at home or perhaps a bit more comfortable. He is equally, if not more, concerned with the class of the hotel, whether it is on a par with his standing in life, nd how his friends, employer, or sweetheart will react when he announces where he is staying. Ordinarily, the search for a sex partner is not guided merely by the urge for any sex object immediately available, who will serve to reduce tension and restore the homeostatic level. The episodes of sexual activity, beginning with the search, are also guided by proving one’s worth and status as a man or woman both to oneself and to others.

Therefore, the individual’s self is involved in more than striving to raise one’s prestige, status, or self-esteem. Typically, self becomes involved in the operation of motivational urges, whether the individual is aware of it or not. The pervasive presence of self factors is expressed well by Shoben: “In any case, self-involved behavior seems close to impossible to explain on the basis of a tension-reduction model, and the postulation of self-involvement seems necessary to account for the pursuit of long range goals so typical of human motivation” (1962, p. 771). [SeeMotivation, article On human motivation.]

The regulation of behavior by self is not restricted to motivational activity. Self concern senter as regulating factors into many psychological processes: judging, perceiving, learning, remembering, thinking, planning, and decision making. In performing a task, level of performance is not determined solely by the nature of the problem (difficulty or ease, for example). The goals one has erected for oneself in general, the place of the particular task in one’s scheme of goals, and one’s standing relative to others on the task all enter the picture and affect one’s performance. During his development, the individual comes to stand in established reciprocities with others, as high, low, or equal; friendly or unfriendly; dominant or subordinate. When stabilized, these reciprocities form patterns producing regularity and consistency in the individual’s dealings with others.

In series of encounters with others, the individual develops self-identity, in various respects, which is reflected in consistency in his dealings with others and with situations from day to day. In different situations, relevant components of the self are aroused, lending to his behavior characteristic modes of reacting to, and coping with, situations.

In brief, the growing interest in a self concept reflects the search for integrative concepts, particularly in motivation, where empirical work has tended to be fragmentary. Studying motives separately has fallen short in providing an adequate account of human motivation. The self enters into the operation of human motives as a regulative factor. So, too, self enters into other psychological processes. Involvement of the self in these processes is reflected in the consistency of the person and its continuity from day to day. In fact, self involvement in particular aspects of the kaleidoscopic stimulus world is the basis for the experience of continuity in personal identity.

Usages of self concept

For reasons mentioned, problems of self or ego came irrevocably to the foreground as a legitimate area of investigation. Yet exactly what the concept covers, its relation to other integrative concepts (e.g., role, ego, personality) are still not crystallized. A convenient summary of different usages is presented in Hall and Lindzey (1957, pp. 467–499).

Not including the primarily psychiatric and clinical conceptions in our consideration, a major definitional divergence is represented between those who differentiate between the concept of self and the concept of ego and those who use the concepts of self and ego interchangeably. Ausubel (1952), Chein (1944), Hilgard (1949), Murphy (1947), and Symonds (1951) are among those

who propose to use the concepts of self and ego in a differentiated way. Allport (1943), Snygg and Combs (1949), M. Sherif and Cantril (1947) are among those who use the words self and ego interchangeably.

Self differentiated from ego. An account of all the possible variations in differentiating the ego concept from the self concept is not within the scope of this article. It will suffice to examine representative ways in which they are differentiated. Murphy’s definitions of self and ego in his monumental Personality (1947) provide one example: “Self: The individual as known to the individual” (p. 996); and “Ego: Group of activities concerned with enhancement and defense of the self” (p. 984). Here, “self” is used to mean the object consisting of so many attitudes and feelings in regard to the person himself, and “ego” is used to refer to the associated processes or activities.

Ausubel offers still another example. His diagram of the relationship of self, ego, and personality (Figure 1) clarifies his differentiation (1952, p. 13).

It may be fair to summarize Ausubel’s schema by saying that the self is made up primarily of perceptual components, and ego consists of these and affectively charged conceptual components (self-ideals, self-values, etc.). But a clean separation between perceptual and conceptual components does not seem to fit into the ongoing developmental picture. As the child acquires labels and categories of language, “the self becomes less and less a pure perceptual object, and more and more a conceptual trait system” (Murphy 1947, p. 506).

Once the child starts acquiring language the body image becomes increasingly invested with value attributions that vary from culture to culture and from class to class (e.g., modesty in exposure, cleanliness, desirable body proportions, proper items to cover and adorn the body). Likewise, in building a self-picture the place of one’s name is not restricted to auditory images: as McDougall noted, it soon becomes a handle to which many attributes are tied. Anthropologists have reported cases in which personal names are changed at important transitions in people’s lives. For example, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1922, p. 119) reported the change of name of Andamanese girls at the time of first menstruation. Likewise, Rivers reported the case of a Melanesian culture in which “on marriage both man and woman change their names and assume a common name” (1914, p. 347).

Self interchangeable with ego. Some authors seem to use either the concept of ego or the concept of self to cover a broad range. For example, Shoben defines “self” as “a relatively stable organization of values that mediates and focuses behavior” (1962, p. 771). George A. Miller defines “ego” as “the individual’s conception of himself” (1962, p. 347). In view of this terminological malaise, it might be preferable to discard the labels “self and “ego,” fraught as they are with historical entanglements, and to use new terms not so encumbered. The new term proposed by Allport to replace the self and ego concepts is “proprium” (1961, p. 127). However, contemporary social psychologists, concerned as they are with the development of the personal identity of the individual–its enhancement and defense in social relations–seem to get along in their conceptualization without being concerned over the terminological differentiation between ego and self (Krech, Crutchfield, & Ballachey 1962; Newcomb, Turner, Converse 1965; Secord Backman 1964; Sherif Sherif 1956).

A characterization of self concept

On the basis of the foregoing considerations and surveys of theoretical and empirical literature, several propositions seem warranted.

Self (or ego) is not innate, as are the individual’s organic urges–such as hunger and sex– which are subject to homeostatic regulation of the organism. Self (ego) is the product of interaction, from infancy onward, with the individual’s physical and social environment. This interaction is associated with novel and familiar sensations: pain, resistance, acceptance, rejection, and gratification. The proposition that self is a developmental formation is one of the most widely documented generalizations among investigators from the nineteenth century on, despite variations in the specifics of their accounts.

There is also agreement that this psychological formation of the human individual is not a unitary structure, appearing full-blown. It develops first as a perceptual system based on the differentiation of one’s body and its parts from its surroundings. It becomes progressively a more complex conceptual system, consisting of evaluative categories with associated traits or attributes. New classifications and qualities (e.g., adolescence, old age, acquisition of new interpersonal roles and social status) continue to be incorporated in the system during the life span (cf. Murphy 1947, pp. 489 ff.; Snygg & Combs 1949, pp. 78–79).

To emphasize the multifaceted character of the person’s identity, William James (1890) analyzed this uniquely human formation in terms of the person’s “selves.” However, various components of the self formation are interrelated; different components may be mutually supportive or conflicting, depending on the situation. To underscore both the multifaceted nature and interrelated nature of self components, it is preferable to use a generic concept (self) subsuming the components, referring to the latter by terms other than the various “selves.”

Therefore, the components are referred to as attitudes or self-attitudes, to specify that they pertain to relatedness of self to objects and persons important to the individual. Here, the term “attitude” is used to refer to more or less lasting evaluative categories of the person. (More transitory internal states may be referred to by other terms, such as “set,” “expectation,” or “bodily urge.”) The definition of “attitude” here is similar to that given by Smith, Bruner, and White: “We define an attitude as a predisposition to experience a class of objects in certain ways, with characteristic affect; to be motivated by this class of objects in characteristic ways; and to act with respect to these objects in a characteristic fashion” (1956, p. 33). [SeeATTITUDES.)

Combining these fundamental points, the characterization of self (ego) is as follows: Self is a developmental formation in the psychological makeup of the individual, consisting of interrelated attitudes that the individual has acquired in relation to his own body and its parts, to his capacities, and to objects, persons, family, groups, social values, goals, and institutions, which define and regulate his relatedness to them in concrete situations and activities.

The attitudes that compose the self system are, therefore, the individual’s cherished commitments, stands on particular issues, acceptances, rejections, reciprocal expectations (roles) in interpersonal and group relations, identifications with persons or values, and personal goals for the future. When any of these–singly or in varying combination– enter as factors in ongoing psychological activity, owing to their relevance, behavior acquires characteristic directionality (positive or negative), becomes more consistent and selective, and is less bound by the ups and downs of the immediate situation. Ego involvement simply means involvement of such an attitude in ongoing psychological activity. Ego-involved activity is characterized by highly sensitized mobilization of the individual’s psychological processes (discrimination, perception, learning, remembering, problem solving, decision making, and so on). Ego-involved activity, revealing aspects of an individual’s personal identity, has been demonstrated empirically in many studies since the 1940s. (Note again the terminologically unhappy fact that these studies are almost always presented as studies of ego involvement, not self involvement.)

Defining, as they do, the individual’s identity relative to objects, persons, groups, and situations around him, these self-attitudes determine the individual’s experience as an active agent, principal actor, or executor when they participate in ongoing psychological activity. Therefore, it is not parsimonious to posit separate psychological concepts to account for experience of the person as executor and doer (cf. Ausubel 1952, pp. 41–46).

Thus, the unique formation that takes shape as the self or ego of the human person consists of a set of components that define his stabilized bearings in relation to the physical and social surroundings. They define his ties, his reciprocal expectations of his rights and responsibilities, and his motivational-emotional claims relative to objects as well as other persons, groups, and institutions. They define his stands and commitments relative to the social issues that are important to him. All of these components of the individual’s self set him apart as a person in diverse ways and capacities with a sense of unique self-identity.

The stability of the person’s self-identity is, therefore, dependent on the stability of the ties, roles, commitments, and orientations that compose it. They provide anchorages relative to which he gauges his personally felt status, security, and prestige, and his maintenance or gain in position in the social scheme of which he is a part. His experience of success or failure arises relative to them. Hence, maintenance and continuity of the stability of these anchorages from day to day become matters of utmost importance in the dynamics of his motivational scheme.

Disruption of the stable anchorages that define the person’s bearings relative to his surroundings arouses tensions, referred to as the state of uncertainty or anxiety, that are distressing or even unbearable. Experimental evidence shows that the loss of stable anchorages in the person’s surroundings arouses feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, causing him to flounder about in efforts to restore his sense of personal stability. The experience of loss of his bearings makes an individual more susceptible to conforming to social influences to which he would ordinarily pay less heed (M. Sherif & Harvey 1952).

Similarly, disruption of stabilized personal ties, loss of acceptance by groups that he values, or lack of stable ties with others generate intense feelings of aloneness and personal rejection. Communications that advocate points of view divergent from the strong commitments incorporated in the self system arouse dismay, irritation, and tension. The committed person finds such communication more divergent from his stand, more unreasonable, and more obnoxious than does a person who is less committed. Thus, self-attitudes are resistant to communication designed to change them.

Formation of self (ego)

Based on extensive surveys of research on child development (M. Sherif Cantril 1947; Murphy 1947), this account notes a sequence of major events marking ego formation. Differences in age of occurrence and forms are to be expected in differing cultural and socioeconomic conditions.

Neither early observations of individual children nor modern studies of groups of infants provide evidence for innate self-identity. The infant’s behavior is readily attributable to bodily states (hunger or sleep, for example) or the duration of immediate environmental stimulation. In fact, consistent differentiation and localization of the body parts require repeated experiences in localizing stimulation, meeting obstacles arousing unpleasant sensations, and exploring both body parts and environment. The earliest manifestations of self-awareness appear during this “perceptual stage” (Murphy 1947), in which the body is perceived apart from the surroundings. [SeeInfancy, article on Infant development; Sensory and motor development.]

Cases of prolonged isolation in childhood suggest that ego formation beyond the stage of a perceived body depends upon interaction with other persons who are members of a social and linguistic community (cf. Lindesmith & Strauss 1949). This accords with early theoretical accounts and modern formulations based on research conceiving of self as a product of interaction with others (e.g., Wallon 1934; Piaget 1932).

Facilitations and resistances, acceptances and punishments by persons who care for the child are landmarks for the developing self. Through such interactions, the child begins to acquire spoken language, at first slowly, then at a rapidly accelerating pace (during the second or third year of life). The acquisition of language is the single event most responsible for producing the consistency in behavior that requires postulation of a self system. [SeeLanguage, article on language development.]

When the child is able to designate self and others through personal pronouns, a name, or verb forms, even the bodily self is delineated more sharply from its surroundings. Henceforth, the body itself is classified and endowed with attributes (favorable or unfavorable) through interaction on a verbal level. The striking variations in boundaries and properties of body image found in persons of different sex, age, culture, and states of bodily injury led Fisher and Cleveland (1958, p. 367) to postulate that the body image is best conceived as “a representation of attitudes and expectancy systems” related to the body and other persons. [SeeBODY IMAGE.]

Consistency in behavior is greatly enhanced through verbal interaction and conceptual classification, as research findings on the appearance of discriminatory responses by and toward American Negro children show so clearly (Clark & Clark 1947; Horowitz 1944). Very young children responded to skin-color differences but not preferentially. However, in a society systematically discriminating against Negroes, white and Negro children exhibited consistent preferences for light skin color by the age of 5.

While not every aspect of linguistic behavior is ego-involving, the child’s instrumental mastery of language has general results that apply equally to the formation of categorical and attributive links between self and others (Lewis 1963). It liberates behavior from the total dictation of fluctuation in momentary bodily needs and the physical variations in external stimulation. From extensive research with children and cases of brain damage, Luriia concluded that “adoption of a verbal rule at once modifies the nature of all subsequent reactions . . . the stimulus in question becomes not a mere signal but an item of general information, and all subsequent reactions depend more on the system it [stimulus] is taken into than on its physical properties” (1961, p. 44, italics in original).

The family and other adults in charge of the child’s routine exert profound influence through their words and deeds on the nature and quality of the classificatory schemes defining what he is and is not. However, in line with G. H. Mead’s theoretical scheme, the research of Piaget (1932) demonstrated that stability in the child’s relatedness is attained slowly and, most decisively, in the company of other children. Little children behave consistently in dealings with others, according to rules or dictums handed down by authority figures, but easily lapse from them in the absence of authority. By participating in play with other children, the child has the greater opportunity to grasp notions of reciprocity with others and of mutual adherence to rules governing the give and take. [SeeDevelopmental psychology, article on a theory of development.]

Thus, a series of experiments and “age-norm” studies (reviewed in Sherif & Sherif 1956) reveal that consistency in competing with others, in cooperating with others, in expressing sympathy at another’s distress, in responsibility for self and others, and in setting goals for one’s own performance appear gradually as the child participates in social and cooperative forms of play in contrast to earlier side-by-side or parallel play.

Slowly–and with confusion–the classificatory schemes defining self and others acquire longer dimensions in time and space. The immediate is located with reference to increasingly greater ranges of past and future (Lewis 1963). Geographical ranges of self-relatedness increase gradually from the perceptual scope of the child (“my house”) to more distant and unseen, but conceptualized, places and the people in them.

The scope of time, place, and kind of persons included in categories for self and not-self varies enormously, along with their qualitative nature, according to prevailing social, cultural, material, and socioeconomic environments. The common property of self components in socialized members of all societies is the regulation of behavior within bounds of acceptability defined by the particular organizational and value systems of those groups with which the person identifies himself. Consistent evaluations of one class of objects (persons) and differential (sometimes invidious) evaluations of others is evidence of an ego component–an attitude relating self to that stimulus domain. The conception of self components (attitudes) as categorical schemes for evaluation, including a latitude for acceptance and a latitude of rejection by the person, has led directly to operational procedures for assessing the person’s ego involvement in various respects (Sherif, Sherif,& Nebergall 1965; Sherif, Sherif, Kent 1967).

In addition, all known cultures present periods or stages in human development requiring alteration of the self concept as it is formed at the time. The years of transition from childhood to adulthood and the years of old age are two such periods. These particular transitions are marked by bodily changes that impel a change in self.

Self and reference groups or sets

Research attempts failing to include explicit environmental factors have yielded inconclusive correlations between the person’s self-ratings at two different points in time and subjectively circular accounts of self (Wylie 1961). In analyzing the “presentation of the self in a variety of social situations, Goffman concluded that the person’s characteristic consistency is a “collaborative manufacture” involving social arrangements and supporting performances by people within them (e.g., 1956, p. 253). Even advocates of a “phenomenal self” as determinant of all behavior could not ignore that much personal consistency and many changes in personal identity that occur with age or with taking on occupations and different social status are directly related to stabilities and changes in the social environment.

But individuals are differentially selective of their social environments, and modern social systems are extraordinarily complex and changing. A particular individual could develop within varying combinations of groups and institutions with differing values, rates of change, and stability. Owing to his advanced conceptual abilities, man may relate himself to persons and groups not present, spatially or temporally.

Therefore, unless the person is a fully integrated member of only one group and unless the social situation is fully structured as to socially desired outcomes, there is a need for concepts relating self to environmental events that may not be contemporaneous or spatially present. One such concept is that of reference groups or sets; these are defined as groups or classifications of people to whom the individual relates himself psychologically or to which he aspires to belong (Sherif & Sherif 1956; see the 1948 edition).

The concept of reference group, linking self components to environmental structures not necessarily present, is a distinctly human concept, as the student of animal behavior J. P. Scott observed (1953, p. 69). It is unnecessary in studying subhuman behavior. It is probably unnecessary for analysis of self in an isolated, illiterate group. Only in differentiated societies is it possible that groups of actual membership may be anchors for self-identity.

From the research viewpoint, the concepts of self as a constellation of attitudes linked with identifiable reference groups and sets provide tools for integrating behavioral (individual) and sociocultural levels of analysis (Sherif 1962). A sharp dichotomy between individualistic and cultural (group) determination of behavior resists both argument and analysis but yields to research evidence that groups and populations have properties related to the development of self-other attitudes; self-other attitudes, in turn, display dimensional and classificatory features not necessarily identical with sociocultural prescriptions, but greatly clarified when related to them.

Reference groups and self appraisal. Asked to answer “Who am I?” the person’s usual response is his name and social classifications, sometimes modified by adjectives placing him within the category (cf. Bugental & Zelen 1950; Kuhn & McPartland 1954). The social labels are typically exhausted before idiosyncratic responses appear.

The psychological import of this rather prosaic finding is vast: Each social category carries a complex of characteristics and positions within it that etch the specifics of a self image whether the individual actually belongs to that category or not. The bulk of the population of the United States, identifying themselves as “middle class,” display a constellation of attitudes related to a middle-class position whether their individual socioeconomic levels warrant the designation or not (Centers 1947). Female college students who come from conservative families and, in time, take a liberal college student body as their reference group change their attitudes in diverse respects, not merely in identifying themselves with a particular college. However, those retaining a primary group reference, while classifying themselves as students, do not change at all (Newcomb 1950).

Groups, populations, and sets of people live in differing material and social environments that give focus to a complex of social values, setting bounds for the self-radius of persons who classify themselves as “belonging” within them. Thus, in the United States, the conceived range of achievement for self (from minimum to maximum) and the nature of personal goals varies systematically according to socioeconomic level and sociocultural composition of reference sets; the range of achievement is most similar with respect to certain material possessions uniformly portrayed as success symbols in mass communication (Sherif & Sherif 1964). While upper-class youth are more likely to have high self-esteem than lower-class youth, the largest differences in self-esteem occur between groupings differentiated by both class and distinctive religious-ethnic cultures in the United States. Values cherished by youth in different socioeconomic and religious groupings differ, but there are marked similarities among them that indicate that they are all, nonetheless, members of the same society (Rosenberg 1965).

The reference-group concept permits specification of the particular group or set of people on whom the individual depends in appraising himself and others. In complex and changing societies, these people may not be readily identified by socioeconomic classification or geographical location. When the person locates himself within a set or group of people, the relative status of this group in the social organization and his own position within it serve as standards (anchors) for his appraisals of performance by himself and others.

In an experiment that served as a model for numerous others, Chapman and Volkmann (1939) showed that one’s level of aspiration is anchored in the status of his own reference set relative to other reference sets. University students spontaneously raised or lowered their predictions for self when the group with whom they compared self was respectively “inferior” or “superior” to their own reference sets.

When anchored in the person’s reference set, self-attitudes exert a stabilizing effect on performance. The relevant experiments have all used special instructions or varied tasks to assess the effects of ego involvement, and the findings hinge on the researcher’s prior knowledge of values that are prized by the subjects.’ reference set (for example, for college students high intelligence, good university records, and contribution to science). The outcome of such experiments has been the repeated demonstration that such manipulations, arousing the person’s mettle to prove his worth, result in greater consistency (less variation) of behavior in setting goals for performance, in self-confidence, in various personal characteristics, in learning, and in forgetting (see Allport 1943; M. Sherif & Cantril 1947). [SeeReference groups.]

Discrepant group membership. While existence in an interacting group affects the individual’s self concerns whether he takes stock of himself on their terms or not, attitudes relating self to others are most predictable when the group is also the person’s reference group. Siegel and Siegel (1957) found that over a period of time a person’s attitudes coincided most with the values of groups that were also reference groups for him. A person who lived with a group whose values were at variance with his reference set was affected by it, but his attitudes resembled those of the reference set more closely.

Judgments of one’s standing (rank) relative to others and of the rank assigned to self by others differ for those who are tied to the immediate group and those whose reference sets are outside of it. A study of small task groups in an isolated military base showed a general tendency to overestimate one’s own rank and the rank that others would assign one. As a result, self-ranking and estimated ranking by others were more closely related than either were to actual ranks made by fellow members. However, those whose self-rankings disagreed most with the rank assigned them by others in the group were preponderantly married men with higher military rank and educational level. As a result, they were less tied to the reactions of the work group in rating themselves and tended to use standards from their other reference sets (Reeder, Donahue, & Biblarz 1962).

Salience of different groups. “I, who for the time have staked my all on being a psychologist, am mortified if others know much more psychology than I. But I am contented to wallow in the grossest ignorance of Greek. . . . Had I .’pretensions.’ to be a linguist, it would have been just the reverse” (James 1890, vol. 1, p. 310). The problem of self-reference-group relationship stated succinctly by James still holds the greatest promise for future research.

All components of the self are not equal in importance to the individual over time, and their relative importance varies in different situations. For every person, there is some order or hierarchy in the constellation of self values such that the ways, the time, and the relative frequency with which he becomes ego-involved differ systematically from person to person. Differences of this sort between individuals acquire some rational pattern when the hierarchy of their self-values is related to the relative importance of their various reference sets.

Adolescence and marginality. The period of adolescence in modern societies may serve as a prototype for study of the problem. During the prolonged and ill-defined transition from childhood to adulthood in Western industrialized societies, the adolescent is betwixt and between reference groups, much like a “marginal man.” Lack of stable anchors for self arouses experiences of uncertainty and conflict. Grownups provide few ready-made paths for the transition that fully satisfy the adolescent’s growing urges and his desire to prove himself adult. At this same time, he is provoked by the uncertainties of his standing. Scanning his environment for some stable anchor for self-identity, he turns increasingly toward age-mate groups and sets. Even though his parents be loved and valued, the result is reduced emphasis on parental capability and overestimation of the worth of age-mate capacities, as Prado (1958) has shown experimentally.

Absorption of self-identity within the organizational pattern and values developed in age-mate groups varies with the availability and stability of other reference ties (family, school, community, etc.); however, the adolescent’s hierarchy of ego attitudes is closely linked to the values of his informal groups. When these values conflict with adult prescriptions, the defiance of adult standards, including legal violations, is self-justified by measuring oneself relative to the values of the youth group [Sherif Sherif 1964; see also ADOLESCENCE].

Multiple group membership. Like many adults in multifaceted, complex societies, the adolescent belongs to multiple groups whose values may conflict. The member of multiple groups with contradictory values frequently faces situations of choice in abiding by the values of one reference set at the expense of the other. Still more painfully, he or she may form ego attitudes relative to different reference groups whose simultaneous arousal is bound to produce psychological conflict, uncertainty, and confused search for resolution. Such, for example, is the plight of many women today who conceive of themselves simultaneously as women and mothers in traditional terms and as modern, independent women on a par with men (Seward 1946).

Choice situations provide one index of the salience of the individual’s self-attitudes. For example, during the crisis over desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, ministers faced the choice of speaking out against violence, as ministers of brotherly love, or of remaining silent in keeping with the standards of their segregationist congregations. Only a few of them chose to speak out in congruence with their ministerial self-identity (Campbell & Pettigrew 1959).

Stability and change of ego attitudes. Numerous instances of change in ego attitudes have been mentioned in this article. Stability may be attributed in large part to the regularity and continuity of the person’s social setting. Yet resistance to change inheres in their formation and functioning as well. Changing attitudes that form part of the person’s relatedness to other persons, groups, and values amounts to changing part of the self-identity, which is the epicenter of experienced personal stability, even though it may not be an integrated harmonious structure. Disturbance of self-attitudes once they are formed is psychologically uncomfortable and even painful.

Resistance to change increases in proportion to the degree of personal commitment on the matter in question. When a person is highly involved in the matter in question, he is less likely to change his attitude readily and, when he does, is likely to change less than persons to whom the attitude is of moderate importance. In matters of high ego involvement, the individual is very discriminating in accepting proposals that differ even slightly from the values he has come to cherish as defining the attributes of himself and other persons who count in his eyes; he is prone to reject all those seen as different. Thus, his categorization of ego-involving material reveals broad latitudes of rejection in comparison with the narrow, but cherished, range of acceptance. Attempts to persuade him otherwise are likely to fall within the range that he has already rejected categorically as unlike himself and, therefore, to exert no lasting effects other than, perhaps, to reaffirm the correctness of his self conception. On matters of less consequence, he is more amenable to change and innovation, because he has not committed himself against such a broad range of discrepant values (Sherif, Sherif, & Nebergall 1965; Sherif, Sherif, & Kent 1967).

By studying the relative importance of a person’s reference groups, their values, and his position within them, the degrees of a person’s ego involvement in various respects may eventually become more amenable to research.

Muzafer Sherif

[Directly related are the entriesIdentity, Psychosocial and Personality, article on Personality Development. Other relevant material may be found inAttitudes; Infancy; Interaction; Life Cycle; Personality, article onThe Field; Reference Groups; Socialization.]


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