Self-Discrepancy Theory

Fundamentals of Self-Discrepancy Theory

Self-Discrepancy Theory is based on the notion that individuals experience psychological distress when a psychological distance exists between their actual and their ideal self. The theory was developed by Higgins in the 1980s.

Over the years many different facets of the self or self-images have been identified. One finds descriptions of two “actual” selves—the kind of person an individual believes he or she actually is and the kind of person an individual believes that others think he or she actually is. The “others” can be significant others or the generalized other.

The notion that people who hold conflicting or incompatible beliefs are likely to experience discomfort has had a long history in social psychology, for example, various early theories proposed a relation between discomfort and specific kinds of “inconsistency” among a person's beliefs. Self-discrepancy theory has close ties to this historical tradition. But its construction was based on the specific kinds of discomfort or emotional problems associated with particular types of belief incompatibility.

In addition to the actual selves, a variety of different potential selves have been identified. Markus and Nurius (1987), for example, distinguished between the “spiritual” self, which included one's own moral sensibility and conscience, and the “social” self, which included the self that is worthy of being approved by the highest social judge.

Rogers (1961) distinguished between what others believe a person should or ought to be (i.e., the normative standard) and a person's own belief about what he or she would “ideally” like to be. Elaborating on Freud's basic “superego”/“ego ideal” conceptions, some authors distinguished between the superego representing the moral conscience and the ideal self representing hopes and goals.

Cooley (1964) also described a social “ideal self” built up by imagining how a “better I” of aspiration would appear in the minds of persons we look up to. In his programmable theory of cognition and affect, Colby (1968) distinguished between “wish-beliefs” such as “I want to marry Tom”, and “value-beliefs”, such as “I ought to help my father”.

Although a variety of aspects of the self have been distinguished across different theories, there has been no systematic framework for revealing the interrelations among the different self-states. In an attempt to do so, self-discrepancy theory postulates two cognitive dimensions underlying the various self-state representations:

Domains of the Self

According to self-discrepancy theory, there are three basic domains of the self:

  1. the actual self, which is the self-state representations of attributes someone (yourself or another person) believe you actually possess;
  2. the ideal self, or the self-state representations of attributes you or others would like you, ideally, to possess (i.e., a representation of someone's hopes, aspirations, or wishes for you); and
  3. the ought self, or the self-state representations of the attributes that you or others believe you should possess or ought to possess (i.e., a representation of someone's sense of your duty, obligations, or responsibilities).

A classic literary example of the difference between the ideal self and the ought self is the conflict between a hero's “personal wishes” and his or her “sense of duty.” A current real-world example is the conflict some women have between their own wishes to be successful professionals and some other persons' beliefs that they ought to be housewives and mothers.

Standpoints on the self

Self-discrepancy theory considers two basic standpoints on the self, which significantly impact on the domains of the self. According to Turner (1956) standpoint on the self is defined as a point of view that reflects a set of attitudes or values from which you can be judged.

The two standpoints on the self are:

  1. your own personal standpoint, and
  2. the standpoint of some significant other, e.g., mother, father, sibling, spouse, closest friend (A person can have self-state representations for each of a number of significant others).

Self-State Representations and Their Motivational Significance

Combining each of the domains of the self with each of the standpoints on the self yields six basic types of self-state representations:

The first two self-state representations (particularly actual/own), i.e., your own and others’ beliefs about your “actual self” constitute the basis of your self-conceptOpens in new window.

The four remaining self-state representations (ideal/own, ideal/other, ought/own, ought/other) are self-directive standards or acquired “self-guides” that motivate and direct our behavior. As Higgins states, “Self-discrepancy theory postulates that we are motivated to reach a condition where our self-concept matches our personally relevant self guides.

Propositions supporting the self-discrepancy theory indicate that discrepancies between one’s actual and ideal self are better predictors of self-esteemOpens in new window (feelings of worth) than global self-conceptOpens in new window (how we define ourselves). In this view, affective reactions to self-evaluations that yield discrepancies between what we are and want to be are primary determinants of motivation to achieve our self-goals.

Types of Self-Discrepancies and Quality of Discomfort

In Higgins’s (1987) self-discrepancy theory, each type of discrepancy between aspects of the self reflects a particular type of negative psychological situation that, in turn, is associated with specific emotional or motivational problems.

When people believe that they have lost or will never obtain some desired goal, they feel sad or disappointed. When people believe that something terrible is going to happen they feel apprehensive or threatened.

More generally, there are two basic kinds of negative psychological situations that are associated with different kinds of emotional states, they are:

It has been understood for many years that psychological situations are a function of both the nature of external events and people's interpretations of those events, and that there are individual differences in how external events are interpreted.

Self-discrepancy theory proposes that individual differences in types of self-discrepancies are associated with differences in the specific types of negative psychological situations their possessors are likely to experience.

Just as your emotional response to your performance is not determined by the properties of the performance per se, but by its significance or meaning to you, self-discrepancy theory assumes that the motivational or emotional effects of your actual/own attributes, or self-concept, are determined by the significance to you of possessing such attributes. And the significance is assumed to depend on the relation between the self-concept and your self-guides, with different types of relations representing different types of negative psychological situations, as described next:

  1. Actual/own versus ideal/own
    If a person possesses this discrepancy, the current state of his or her actual attributes, from the person's own standpoint, does not match the ideal state that he or she personally hopes or wishes to attain. This discrepancy then represents the general psychological situation of the absence of positive outcomes (i.e., nonobtainment of own hopes and desires), and thus the person is predicted to be vulnerable to dejection-related emotions.

    More specifically, the person is predicted to be vulnerable to disappointment and dissatisfaction because these emotions are associated with people believing that their personal hopes or wishes have been unfulfilled. Most psychological analyses of these emotions have described them as being associated with
    (a) the individual's own standpoint or agency and
    (b) a discrepancy from his or her hopes, desires, or ideals.

    The motivational nature of this discrepancy also suggests that it might be associated with frustration from unfulfilled desires.
  2. Actual/own versus ideal/other
    If a person possesses this discrepancy, the current state of his or her actual attributes, from the person's own standpoint, does not match the ideal state that the person believes some significant other person hopes or wishes that he or she would attain.

    This discrepancy, then, again represents the general psychological situation of the absence of positive outcomes (i.e., nonobtainment of a significant other's hopes or wishes), and thus the person is again predicted to be vulnerable to dejection-related emotions.

    More specifically, because people who believe that they have failed to obtain some significant other's hopes or wishes are likely to believe that the significant other is disappointed and dissatisfied with them, self-discrepancy theory predicts that they will be vulnerable to shame, embarrassment, or feeling downcast, because these emotions are associated with people believing that they have lost standing or esteem in the opinion of others.

    Most psychological analyses of “shame” and related emotions have described them as being associated with
    (a) the standpoint or agency of one or more other people and
    (b) a discrepancy from achievement or status standards.

    The motivational nature of this discrepancy suggests that it might also be associated with concern over losing the affection or esteem of others.
  3. Actual/own versus ought/other
    If a person possesses this discrepancy, the current state of his or her actual attributes, from the person's own standpoint, does not match the state that the person believes some significant other person considers to be his or her duty or obligation to attain. Because violation of prescribed duties and obligations is associated with sanctions (e.g., punishment), this discrepancy represents the general psychological situation of the presence of negative outcomes (i.e., expectation of punishment), and thus the person is predicted to be vulnerable to agitation-related emotions.

    More specifically, the person is predicted to be vulnerable to fear and feeling threatened, because these emotions occur when danger or harm is anticipated or impending.

    Most psychological analyses of these emotions have described them as associated with
    (a) external agents, in particular the standpoint or agency of one or more other people, and
    (b) a discrepancy from norms or moral standards.

    The motivational nature of this discrepancy suggests that it might also be associated with feelings of resentment (i.e., resentment of the anticipated pain to be inflicted by others).
  4. Actual/own versus ought/own
    If a person possesses this discrepancy, the current state of his or her attributes, from the person's own standpoint, does not match the state that the person believes it is his or her duty or obligation to attain. This discrepancy, then, again represents the general psychological situation of the presence of negative outcomes (i.e., a readiness for self-punishment), and thus self-discrepancy theory predicts that the person is vulnerable to agitation-related emotions.

    More specifically, the person is predicted to be vulnerable to guilt, self-contempt, and uneasiness, because these feelings occur when people believe they have transgressed a personally accepted (i.e., legitimate) moral standard.

    Most psychological analyses of guilt have described it as associated with
    (a) a person's own standpoint or agency and
    (b) a discrepancy from his or her sense of morality or justice.

    The motivational nature of this discrepancy suggests that it may be associated with feelings of moral worthlessness or weakness.

Analyses of Psychological Discomforts

The distinction between shame and guilt suggested in this framework is that shame involves feeling that one has been lowered in the esteem of others because one has disappointed them by failing to accomplish their hopes and wishes for one, whereas guilt involves feeling that one has broken one's own rules concerning how one ought to conduct one's life.

The distinction between fear and guilt suggested here is that fear involves anticipating sanctions from others for having violated their rules, whereas guilt involves chastising oneself for having broken one's own rules of conduct.

Self-discrepancy theory does not assume that people possess only one or the other of these types of self-discrepancies. Particular individuals can possess none of them, all of them, or any combination of them. Thus, one can have no emotional vulnerability, only one (i.e., a pure case), or a number of different kinds of emotional vulnerabilities.

Moreover, even if a person possesses more than one type of self-discrepancy, and thus more than one kind of emotional vulnerability, the discrepancies are not necessarily equally active and equally likely to induce discomfort.

Although it is similar to the concept of cognitive dissonanceOpens in new window, self-discrepancy theory is novel because it is the first theory attempting to predict which type of emotions would result from discrepancies within the self.