5.2 The Social Self

If you were asked to describe the essence of yourself in a few sentences, what would you say? You may agree that this question isn’t easily answered because articulating one’s sense of self is a complex endeavour. After completing this topic, you will hopefully feel a bit better equipped to articulate how you view the essence of yourself. Learning more about yourself is thought to help you understand your own thoughts, feelings and behaviours in conflict better. Furthermore, understanding how “the self” can be conceptualised more generally is thought to help you understand and support others in conflict. Finally, the process of understanding our “social self” is in many ways based on or linked to self-reflection activities. Self-reflection forms part of any conflict resolution training, and paying attention to concepts relating to self-reflection may support your own practice of self-reflection.

Please watch the following video to find out more about how we might approach answering the question ‘Who am I’? [7:46]:

As noted in this video, and as we established at the very beginning of this chapter, the question of “who am I” or “what is the self” is not easily answered. In this topic, we will address this question by focusing on the social construction of “self” as discussed in social psychology. Kassin et al. (2020) note that the social self can be viewed as an interplay of three interrelated components:

The first one is the self-concept, which reflects the cognitive component of self, and tries to explain how people make sense of who they are and how they behave and feel. The second one is self-esteem, which reflects the affective component and looks at how people evaluate themselves and handle any threat to self. The third one is self-presentation, which reflects a person’s behaviours in terms of how they present themselves to others. We will consider all three components in this topic.

The Cognitive Component: Self-Concept

To start this section, please complete the following activity:

Reflection Activity

For this activity:

  • write down 20 statements that start with ‘I am …’ (please complete this task before you read on!).
  • now count the number of statements that refer to traits and those that refer to social roles or group membership. In which of these categories do most of your statements fall?

The above activity is based on the Twenty Statements Test (TST), which was designed to measure a person’s attitudes to self, the most accessible parts of a person’s self-concept (Kuhn & McPartland, 1954).

Research has found that there are certain characteristics that will be common when we use the TST or variations of it, including statements about:

  • physical characteristics (e.g., I am blond, short, brown-eyed)
  • personality traits (e.g., I am bubbly/shy)
  • social roles and group membership (e.g., I am a mother, a student, Muslim) – these relate to social identity, which we will look at in more detail in Topic 5.5.
  • existential statements (I am a human being).

While statements tend to fall into these categories, research has also found differences in statements based on culture, gender and situations. When filling out a personality or conflict style self-assessment as part of Chapter 4, you may have found that it was frequently difficult to answer the survey questions, because “it depends…”. As a brief reminder, during personality or other self-assessment tests, test-takers are asked to respond to a suite of questions by rating themselves along a Likert scale or with true/false answers. When undertaking the conflict-style self-assessment test, you may have noted that you deal differently with conflict when you are at home compared to when you are at work. Similarly, you may have thought about specific situations when describing yourself in the TST above, highlighting the impact of the situation on our sense of self.

Please watch the following Ted Talk [14:10] to learn about how our own sense of self and what is really important to us may change throughout our lifetime. While watching this video, you may want to think about what the key message of this talk may mean for the way that people approach conflict resolution.

The diversity of factors that can impact our sense of self highlights the difficulties associated with trying to measure a concept like “the self”. While the endeavour is complicated and complex, the question of “what is the self?” has received significant research attention in the history of social psychology.

Self-Concept and Related Phenomena

You may remember the idea of “concepts” from cognitive psychology discussed in Chapter 2. These were defined as categories of information, images, ideas, or memories, such as life experiences. The concept of self, the so-called “self-concept”, is also viewed as a cognitive structure (Campbell, 1990), referring to “the sum of the cognitive beliefs that people have about themselves” (Kassin et al., 2020, p. 42). Because our self-concept is abstract and complex (as noted, it is the SUM of our beliefs), we use self-schemas to organise our sense of self. A self-schema may be defined as a specific belief that a person holds about themselves and that guides the processing of self-relevant information (Kassin et al., 2020, p. 42).

The self-concept is built on the ability to recognise oneself as an individual, e.g., when looking in the mirror, called “self-recognition”. The “rouge test” has been widely used to study people’s self-recognition and has found that the ability to recognise oneself in the mirror starts at the age of around 18-24 months (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979, cited in Kassin et al., 2020). To see how the test in action, please watch the following video [1:41]:

Some people are clearer about who they are in their social setting on a day-to-day basis than others. This sense of knowing oneself is referred to as “self-concept clarity”, which is defined as “the extent to which the contents or self-beliefs are clearly and confidently defined” (Campbell et al., 1990, p. 539).

Reflection Activity

Take a brief moment to reflect on your own level of self-concept clarity. How clearly can you define your self-beliefs?

Sources of Self-Concept

Social psychology research has helped explore how people make sense of themselves in their social settings and identified several sources that shape an individual’s self-concept. Later in this chapter, we will look at the importance and impact of group membership on a person’s identity, but here we will first consider some other sources, including introspection, self-perception, influences of other people and culture, which are all discussed as important sources of self-concept by Kassin et al. (2020).

Above, you were introduced to some of the main concepts and theories that social psychology uses to make sense of and explain people’s self-concepts. You can read more about these concepts and theories in the following open access resource:  The Cognitive Self: The Self-Concept.  For even more detail, read: Kassin et al., 2020, pp. 42-59 

The Affective Component: Self-Esteem

Have you ever paid attention to how you feel about yourself? That is, are you satisfied with how you act and look, and what you have achieved in your life, including your career, your personal relationships, etc.? Furthermore, have you ever thought about which of your characteristics give you the highest sense of meaning and which characteristics are less important to you personally? These feelings about yourself are captured in the concept of “self-esteem”, which comprises the affective component of self and which we will briefly look at now.  Kassin et al. (2020) define self-esteem as a “person’s positive and negative evaluations of self” (Kassin et al. 2020, p. 60). As a start to the topic, please watch the following video to learn a bit more about self-esteem [5:36]:

As you learned in the video, people tend to differ in their level of self-esteem, which may depend on the situation, culture, and personality. The psychologist E. Tory Higgins (1989) developed the so-called “self-discrepancy theory”, which holds that our self-esteem is defined (and threatened) by the match (and mismatch) between our self-concept (what we think who and what we are) and our “ideal self” (what we think about how we would like to be).

Reflection Activity

Complete the following activity to explore your own level of match and mismatch (activity adapted from Kassin et al. 2020, p. 63):

  1. Write down 10 characteristics of yourself that you believe describe best who you are
  2.  List another 10 characteristics that you believe describe the person that you ought to be – these can be thought of as characteristics that would allow you to fulfil your perceived duties, responsibilities and roles.
  3. List another 10 characteristics that describe best the person you would like to be – you could imagine having a magic wand that allows you to internalise all those characteristics that you would love to have.

The three lists would reflect 1) your actual self (your self-concept), 2) your “ought” self and 3) your ideal self. Please now reflect on how similar or different these lists are and how some potential discrepancies may lead to conflict within yourself and perhaps with others around you.

Higgins (1989) proposes that a person’s self-esteem depends on various factors, including:

  • The level of discrepancy between the actual and ideal self
  • The importance that the individual assigns to this discrepancy
  • The level of attention that we pay to the discrepancy

The consideration of the level of attention that we pay to any discrepancies between actual and ideal self leads us to another topic of interest in the context of the affective component of self: self-awareness.


Self-awareness refers to a person’s ability to see themselves clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection.  As a start to this topic, you may want to watch the following video to learn about why care about self-awareness [18:09].

The concept of self-awareness is of particular interest to conflict management. For example, Fisher (2014) discusses self-awareness as an important characteristic of a conflict practitioner. He notes:

A high level of self-awareness is essential in terms of how one is affected by the behaviors of others, such as criticism or attack, and how one’s own behavior is usually perceived by and affects others. One needs the capacity to tolerate considerable ambiguity and respond constructively to defensiveness or resistance to one’s efforts. Sensitivity to gender, cultural, and other differences needs to be coupled with a respect for and capacity to work well with the wide variety of individuals and people who may be encountered. (p. 247)

Research suggests that people generally don’t engage extensively in self-reflection and self-awareness throughout their day-to-day lives (Csikszentmihalyi & Figurski, 1982). However, according to the self-awareness theory, under certain conditions, such as when we look in the mirror or when we perform in front of others, people focus their attention on themselves, enabling “self-evaluation” (Silvia & Duval, 2001).  As part of this process, people may notice self-discrepancies, which again may lead them to either try to change their characteristics, behaviours and attitudes or avoid the process of self-evaluation and self-awareness (Silvia & Duval, 2001). These two ways of coping with awareness of self-discrepancies are important because research has found that increased focus on oneself can bring on a negative mood.

As previously noted, self-reflection and self-awareness are important aspects of a conflict practitioner, and we may need to spend some time thinking about how we can safely engage in these activities without “overdoing” self-evaluation and the risks that may come with it.


To learn more about self-awareness and self-discrepancies, read Kassin et al., 2020, pp. 62-65.


While the self-awareness theory noted that certain conditions encourage people to increase self-awareness, research has also found individual differences in a person’s level of self-focus, also referred to as self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is closely linked to the process of self-reflection, which is essential for the work of an accomplished conflict practitioner. As an introduction to self-consciousness, please watch the following video [5:13]:

Social psychology distinguishes between private self-consciousness and public self-consciousness. Private self-consciousness can be defined as the tendency to introspect about our inner thoughts and feelings (Kassin et al. 2020, p. 65). Public self-consciousness relates to the tendency to focus on our outer public image (Kassin et al. 2020, p. 65).

If you want to learn about your own level of self-consciousness, you might want to complete the self-consciousness scale.

Self-Regulation and Self-Enhancement

We previously noted that people try to reduce self-discrepancies by either avoiding self-awareness or trying to change their behaviours, attitudes and characteristics. Social psychology considers various processes and phenomena that help people deal with self-discrepancies, including self-regulation, self-enhancement and positive illusion. As part of this chapter, we don’t have time to delve deeper into these topics, but if you are interested in learning more, you may wish to read: Kassin et al. 2020, pp. 67-75.

To conclude this section on self-esteem, we briefly want to mention the link between self-esteem and “social identity”, which you will be introduced to in topic 5.5. What may be useful to know as early as now is that according to the social identity theory, people try to boost their self-esteem by associating with a group (which then becomes the “ingroup”) and by boosting the value of that group through comparisons with other groups who are viewed and depicted in a less favourable light (the so-called “outgroups”).

The Behavioural Component: Self-Presentation

Self-presentation may be defined as the process and the range of strategies by which we try to shape what others think of us and even what we think of ourselves (Kassin et al., 2020, p. 77). Self-presentation may be “conscious or unconscious, accurate or misleading, or intended for an external audience or for ourselves” (Kassin et al., 2020, p. 77).

People may engage in self-presentation for two distinct motives:

  1. strategic self-presentation (self-presentation intended for external audiences) and
  2. self-verification (self-presentation intended for ourselves).

We will look at both types in more detail now before we consider how self-presentation may contribute to or create conflict.

Strategic Self-Presentation and Self-Verification

Strategic self-presentation includes all those efforts that people may undertake deliberately “to shape others’ impressions in specific ways to gain influence, power, sympathy or approval” (Kassin et al., 2020, p. 77).

As we can all imagine, new technologies and social media have opened new opportunities, but also new challenges for people to engage in self-presentation (Rui & Stefanone, 2013). Research has shown that our culture impacts our choice of strategy when it comes to self-presentation on social media. A cross-cultural study by Rui and Stefanone (2013) showed that Singaporean users shared significantly more photos than American users, who instead preferred to update their profiles with text-based wall posts.

Strategic self-presentation serves several goals, including to please and get along with others (referred to as “ingratiation”) and to promote oneself. Research has found that these two goals underpin the self-presentation efforts of job applicants (Higgins & Judge, 2004). Here again, our culture is likely to impact how job applicants may prioritise ingratiation and self-promotion and which strategies they may choose to achieve these goals (Sandal et al., 2014). While strategic self-presentation is aimed at shaping others’ view of ourselves, including through deception and other ways that may show us in a better light than reality, self-verification relates to the desire to be viewed exactly as we are. Research found that people who engage in self-presentation for the purpose of self-verification do not wish to be seen in a more positive light and will adapt their behaviours accordingly (Swann & Hill, 1982).

Reflection Activity

You may wish to take a moment to reflect on the topic of self-presentation and self-monitoring in the context of conflict resolution. Do you think that conflict practitioners and parties participating in a conflict resolution process would engage in strategic self-presentation? If yes, why would they do so and what are some possible implications for conflict-resolution practitioners?


We have previously discussed how several factors, including our goals, the situation and our culture may impact on self-presentation. Besides these factors, people may also show individual differences regarding how much attention they pay to how they are being perceived by others. This personal characteristic is termed self-monitoring and refers to the processes in which we try to “meaningfully channel and influence our world views, our behaviour in social situations, and the unfolding dynamics or our interactions with other individuals” (Snyder, 1979, p. 86).

We will now have a look at how high and low self-monitors compare (table based on Kassin et al., 2020, p. 79).

High level of self-monitoring Low level of self-monitoring
Can choose from a range of “selves” depending on the situation and people they interact with Exhibit what they view as their true and honest self
Engage frequently in strategic self-presentation More concerned with self-verification than strategic self-presentation
Likely to adjust their behaviours when they move between different settings and interact with different people Express themselves in a consistent manner, regardless of the situation and people they are dealing with

Where do you think you would score on the self-monitoring scale? To view the revised self-monitoring scale developed by Lennox and Wolfe (1984) please click here.

We engage in self-monitoring to meet the self-presentation requirements that we identify for each social situation. As with other personality traits, self-monitoring tendencies can be measured with self-monitoring scale measures. While there appears to be disagreement as to how self-monitoring may best be measured (Gangestad & Snyder, 2000; Lennox & Wolfe, 1984), research suggests that levels of self-monitoring may predict social behaviours (Gangestad & Snyder, 2000).

To learn about how and why self-presentation and self-monitoring may lead to conflict, please now read the following reading by Leone and Corte (1994):


Leone, C., & Corte, V. (1994). Concern for self-presentation and self-congruence: Self-monitoring, Machiavellianism, and social conflicts. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 22, 305-312. https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.1994.22.3.305

As a final exercise in this topic, you may want to watch the following short movie to help you reflect on the topic of self-presentation and the potential for intra-personal conflict when it comes to self-presentation [5:19]:


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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.