In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychology of the Self

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Culture and Self

Psychology Psychology of the Self
Corey L. Guenther, Mark D. Alicke
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0093


The “self” is surely one of the most heavily researched areas in social and personality psychology, even if the debate continues as to whether a self truly exists. Whatever stance one adopts regarding the self’s ontological status, there is little doubt that the many phenomena of which the self is a predicate—self-knowledge, self-awareness, self-esteem, self-enhancement, self-regulation, self-deception, self-presentation—to name just a few, are indispensable research areas. Furthermore, the study of the self extends far beyond the topics that explicitly reference the term. Social comparison theory, for example, comprises studies on how people define their characteristics by assessing where they stand relative to others. And of course, the study of the self extends beyond psychology: philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, not to mention fiction writers and other artists, have all been fascinated with the self. William James’s classic distinction between the self as knower (or pure ego) and the self as known (or the empirical self) provides a useful scheme within which to view the multitudinous aspects of self-functioning (see James 1890, cited under Self-Awareness Theory). Whereas prior conceptions of the self as knower tended to posit a “transcendental” capacity for the ego, James made this concept more congenial to psychologists by simply referring to it as the function that allows for continuity among thoughts and experiences. James’s distinction perseveres in the interest that self-theorists accord to how people acquire self-knowledge and how this knowledge is manifested in behavior. The major topics related to self-functioning that social and personality psychologists address concern the ways in which people understand and define their characteristics (self-knowledge), how people use task and social feedback to monitor their goal progress (self-regulation), the influence of personal standards, expectations, and values on perception of others (self in social judgment), and how people maintain desired self-images. The self has been studied as an individual difference variable (primarily by personality theorists), as a determinant of social perception, attribution, and judgment, and as an essential element in social relations. A major theme has been the interplay between motivational and nonmotivational factors in self-evaluation. Most current perspectives on the self include the motives that can potentially bias the way information regarding the self is obtained, processed, and recalled, as well as the ordinary cognitive processes that underlie self-functions. This integration has broadened theoretical explanations involving the self and bodes well for the future vigor of this research area.

General Overviews

Although a great deal of research on the psychology of self will be surveyed throughout this bibliographic guide, presenting an exhaustive review of the available work is beyond the scope of the current article. Discussion on the nature of selfhood dates back to pre-scientific philosophy (Descartes 1997; first published 1641), a testament not only to the theoretical intrigue of the self as a construct of study but also to the difficulty (if not impossibility) of paying homage to every scholastic endeavor that has valuably contributed to our current understanding of self and identity. Thus before exploring the specific facets of selfhood as outlined in the following sections, it would be useful to direct the reader to more thoroughly comprehensive works that delve into the psychology of self at a deeper level. Leary and Tangney 2012 offers perhaps the most authoritative compilation of contemporary scholarship on selfhood on the market, while Baumeister 1999 provides a collection of some of the most influential empirical works (both historical and contemporary) to advance the scientific study of self. Brown 1998 and Sedikides and Spencer 2007 provide broad overviews of the field’s extant understanding of self, with the former aimed at undergraduate audiences and the latter toward graduate students and beyond. Baumeister 1998 is a chapter in the Handbook of Social Psychology that offers a systematic, comprehensive survey of historical and contemporary research on the self, and Fiske 2004 emphasizes the inherently social nature of the many manifestations of selfhood. Finally, Kruglanski, et al. 1996, a special issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, presents a unifying collection of research that demonstrates the necessarily interdisciplinary nature of self and identity.

  • Baumeister, R. F. 1998. The self. In The handbook of social psychology. 4th ed. Edited by D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, and G. Lindzey, 680–740. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Comprehensive and extensive, this chapter offers a detailed and exceptionally well-organized overview of the extant literature on psychology of self. Discusses relevant research as it relates to one of three major experiences of selfhood: reflexive consciousness (capacity to be conscious of oneself), the interpersonal self, and executive functioning (control and initiation of behavior).

  • Baumeister, R. F., ed. 1999. The self in social psychology: Key readings. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

    A compilation of twenty-three key influential articles (both historical and contemporary) that have contributed to our current understanding of self and identity. Organized into ten thematic sections: self-knowledge, self-conceptions, motivational roots, self and information processing, self-presentation, self-esteem, self-regulation, self and culture, motivation and self-knowledge, and strategies. Excellent resource for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Brown, J. D. 1998. The self. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    A textbook mutually suitable for upper-level undergraduate courses as well as advanced scholars seeking a broad overview of the relevant subfields in the psychology of self. Surveys both contemporary and historical views on the study of selfhood.

  • Descartes, Rene. 1997. Meditations on first philosophy. Translated by L. Lafleur. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Original work published 1641. A classic precursor to the scientific study of self-knowledge wherein Descartes distinguishes between the inner, immaterial substance of mind that ascertains the proceedings of the outer, material body.

  • Fiske, S. T. 2004. The self: Social to the core. In Social beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. Edited by S. T. Fiske, 169–214. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    A broad review of the literature on selfhood with an emphasis on how the core social motives of understanding, enhancement, and belonging underlie the cognitive, affective, and behavioral manifestations of self. Readable for an advanced undergraduate audience and useful as a summarizing work for the graduate level and beyond.

  • Kruglanski, A. W., N. Miller, and R. G. Geen, eds. 1996. The self and social identity [Special Issue]. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71.6.

    A collection of fifteen articles published to strategically highlight how the empirical study of selfhood fundamentally bridges the gap between personality and social psychology, and moreover, transcends the boundaries of the distinctive subsections of JPSP (“Attitudes and Social Cognition,” “Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes,” and “Personality Processes and Individual Differences”).

  • Leary, M. R., and J. P. Tangney, eds. 2012. Handbook of self and identity. 2d ed. New York: Guilford.

    Now in its second edition, this edited volume comprehensively reviews the most contemporary research and theory on psychology of the self. Chapters written by the foremost experts in the field offer an up-to-date, detailed exploration of the self from multiple levels of analysis (e.g., neurological, interpersonal, cultural, developmental, etc.).

  • Sedikides, C., and S. J. Spencer, eds. 2007. The self. New York: Psychology Press.

    A collection of chapters that offers a systematic survey of contemporary research on the psychology of self. Contributions from authoritative scholars in the area are arranged to investigate selfhood from four perspectives: brain and cognition, motivation, emotions and self-esteem, and interpersonal, intergroup, and cultural contexts. A valuable resource for the graduate level and beyond.

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