Self-Concept in Psychology: Definition, Development, Examples

The self-concept is a general term for how someone thinks about, evaluates, or perceives themselves. To be aware of oneself is to have a concept of oneself.

Baumeister (1999) provides the following self-concept definition:

The individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.


The self-concept is an important term for both social and humanistic psychology. Lewis (1990) suggests that the development of a concept of self has two aspects:

(1) The Existential Self

This is “the most basic part of the self-scheme or self-concept; the sense of being separate and distinct from others and the awareness of the constancy of the self” (Bee, 1992).

The child realizes that they exist as a separate entity from others and that they continue to exist over time and space.

According to Lewis, awareness of the existential self begins as young as two to three months old and arises in part due to the relation the child has with the world. For example, the child smiles, and someone smiles back, or the child touches a mobile and sees it move.

(2) The Categorical Self

Having realized that he or she exists as a separate experiencing being, the child next becomes aware that he or she is also an object in the world.

Just as other objects, including people, have properties that can be experienced (big, small, red, smooth, and so on), so the child is becoming aware of himself or herself as an object which can be experienced and which has properties.

The self, too, can be put into categories such as age, gender, size, or skill. Two of the first categories to be applied are age (“I am 3”) and gender (“I am a girl”).

In early childhood, the categories children apply to themselves are very concrete (e.g., hair color, height, and favorite things). Later, self-description also begins to include reference to internal psychological traits, comparative evaluations, and to how others see them.

Carl Rogers (1959) believes that the self-concept has three different components:

  • The view you have of yourself (self-image)
  • How much value you place on yourself (self-esteem or self-worth)
  • What you wish you were really like (ideal-self)


self image

This does not necessarily have to reflect reality. Indeed a person with anorexia who is thin may have a self-image in which the person believes they are fat.

A person’s self-image is affected by many factors, such as parental influences, friends, the media, etc.

Kuhn (1960) investigated the self-image by using The Twenty Statements Test.

He asked people to answer the question “Who am I?” in 20 different ways.

He found that the responses could be divided into two major groups. These were social roles (external or objective aspects of oneself such as son, teacher, friend) and personality traits (internal or affective aspects of oneself such as gregarious, impatient, humorous).

The list of answers to the question “Who Am I?” probably includes examples of each of the following four types of responses:

  1. Physical Description: I’m tall, have blue eyes…etc.
  2. Social Roles: We are all social beings whose behavior is shaped to some extent by the roles we play. Such roles as student, housewife, or member of the football team not only help others to recognize us but also help us to know what is expected of us in various situations.
  3. Personal Traits: These are the third dimension of our self-descriptions. “I’m impulsive…I’m generous…I tend to worry a lot,”…etc.
  4. Existential Statements (abstract ones): These can range from “I’m a child of the universe” to “I’m a human being” to “I’m a spiritual being, “…etc.

Typically young people describe themselves more in terms of personal traits, whereas older people feel defined to a greater extent by their social roles.


Self-esteem (also known as self-worth) refers to the extent to which we like, accept, or approve of ourselves or how much we value ourselves.

Self-esteem always involves a degree of evaluation, and we may have either a positive or a negative view of ourselves.

High self-esteem (we have a positive view of ourselves). This tends to lead to
  • Confidence in our own abilities
  • Self-acceptance
  • Not worrying about what others think
  • Optimism
Low self-esteem (we have a negative view of ourselves). This tends to lead to
  • Lack of confidence
  • Want to be/look like someone else
  • Always worrying about what others might think
  • Pessimism

There are several ways of measuring self-esteem. For example, Harrill Self-Esteem Inventory is a questionnaire comprising 15 statements about a range of interests.

Another example is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which is a neutral cartoon given to the participant, who then has to devise a story about what’s going on.

Morse and Gergen (1970) showed that in uncertain or anxiety-arousing situations, our self-esteem might change rapidly. Participants were waiting for a job interview in a waiting room. They sat with another candidate (a confederate of the experimenter) in one of two conditions:

A) Mr. Clean – dressed in a smart suit, carrying a briefcase opened to reveal a slide rule and books.

B) Mr. Dirty – dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, slouched over a cheap sex novel.

Self-esteem of participants with Mr. Dirty increased whilst those with Mr. Clean decreased! No mention was made of how this affected the subjects’ performance in the interview.

Level of self-esteem affects performance at numerous tasks, though (Coopersmith, 1967), so one could expect Mr. Dirty’s subjects to perform better than Mr. Clean.

Even though self-esteem might fluctuate, there are times when we continue to believe good things about ourselves, even when evidence to the contrary exists. This is known as the perseverance effect.

Miller and Ross (1975) showed that people who believed they had socially desirable characteristics continued in this belief even when the experimenters tried to get them to believe the opposite.

Does the same thing happen with bad things if we have low self-esteem?  Maybe not. Perhaps with very low self-esteem, all we believe about ourselves might be bad.

Argyle (2008) believes there are 4 major factors that influence self-esteem.

1. The Reaction of Others

If people admire us, flatter us, seek out our company, listen attentively and agree with us, we tend to develop a positive self-image. If they avoid us, neglect us, and tell us things about ourselves that we don’t want to hear, we develop a negative self-image.

2. Comparison with Others

If the people we compare ourselves with (our reference group) appear to be more successful, happier, richer, and better looking than ourselves, we tend to develop a negative self-image, BUT if they are less successful than us, our image will be positive.

3. Social Roles

Some social roles carry prestige, e.g., doctor, airline pilot, TV presenter, and premiership footballer, and this promotes self-esteem. Other roles carry a stigma. E.g., a prisoner, mental hospital patient, refuse collector, or unemployed person.

4. Identification

Roles aren’t just “out there.” They also become part of our personality, i.e., we identify with the positions we occupy, the roles we play, and the groups we belong to.

But just as important as all these factors are the influence of our parents! (See Coopersmith’s research.)

Ideal Self

If there is a mismatch between how you see yourself (e.g., your self-image) and what you’d like to be (e.g., your ideal self), then this is likely to affect how much you value yourself.

Therefore, there is an intimate relationship between self-image, ego-ideal, and self-esteem. Humanistic psychologists study this using the Q-Sort Method.

A person’s ideal self may not be consistent with what actually happens in the life and experiences of the person. Hence, a difference may exist between a person’s ideal self and actual experience. This is called incongruence.

Where a person’s ideal self and actual experience are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. Rarely, if ever, does a total state of congruence exist; all people experience a certain amount of incongruence.

The development of congruence is dependent on unconditional positive regard. Rogers believed that for a person to achieve self-actualization, they must be in a state of congruence.

Michael Argyle (2008) says there are four major factors that influence its development:

  1. The ways in which others (particularly significant others) react to us.
  2. How we think we compare to others
  3. Our social roles
  4. The extent to which we identify with other people


Argyle, M. (2008). Social encounters: Contributions to social interaction. Aldine Transaction

Baumeister, R. F. (Ed.) (1999). The self in social psychology . Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press (Taylor & Francis).

Bee, H. L. (1992). The developing child. London: HarperCollins.

Coopersmith, S. (1967). The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: Freeman.

Kuhn, M. H. (1960). Self-attitudes by age, sex and professional training. Sociological Quarterly, 1, 39-56.

Lewis, M. (1990). Self-knowledge and social development in early life. In L. A. Pervin (Ed.), Handbook of personality (pp. 277-300). New York: Guilford.

Miller, D. T., & Ross, M. (1975). Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: Fact or fiction? Psychological Bulletin, 82, 213–225

Morse, S. J. & Gergen, K. J. (1970). Social comparison, self-consistency and the concept of self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 148-156.

Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

Olivia Guy-Evans

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.