The Self: Unitary or Multiple?

The self, as a concept is one of the oldest and most persistently researched parts of social psychology. At the beginning of the twentieth century William James put down the framework for many of today’s principal issues. With expert research into the fundamentals of what goes into creating ‘the self’ James argued that it was through our “emotional identification” with them that made them part of “me” (as cited in Franzoi 1996). Many other psychologists have studied the idea and subject of the ‘self’, namely Freud with his work on the ‘ego’ and the ‘super ego’*.

The knowledge that people possess about themselves is both complex and extensive, therefore making research challenging yet productive. However, despite early and recent studies, ‘the self’ as a concept still remains one of the more complex queries concerning the human personality. I will be discussing the elements that go into creating this puzzling entity and elaborating upon three major features of the self.

The two major factors I believe go into creating and maintaining the self are; ‘identity’ (having a stable sense of who we are within our own society and the most prominent is that of the ‘self-concept’ or ‘the self’ (what we believe about ourselves). These, in addition to various other factors I shall address, will assist in explaining and exploring the notion of ‘the self’, as both a unitary concept and a multiple entity. I have chosen to focus on these two factors as they clearly underpin the research I have collected on ‘the self’ (see references).

Firstly, I will look at the main idea of the ‘self-concept’. This is, essentially, a set of beliefs about a person’s qualities and typical behaviour. Although we usually talk about ‘the self’ as a single entity, it is probably more accurate to say that people have a number of specific self-concepts that operate in different situations (Harter, 1990 as cited in Weiten & Lloyd, 2000). The self-concept is created in much the same way as we create impressions of others. That is by coming to conclusions about their characteristics as a result of their behaviour. Self-knowledge is also gained through our own judgments and feelings, as well as from other people’s response to our actions. We also tend to compare ourselves to others in order to work out what makes us distinctive within our own environment. This is known as ‘social comparison’ theory (Festinger, 1954). More recently his theory has been succeeded by the work done by Buunk et al. in 1990, which suggested that people not only compare themselves to others to assess their abilities but also to maintain their self image and improve their skills.

It is all these components that go into creating an accurate self-perception. The studies of Don Hamachek (1992, as cited in Weiten and Lloyd, 2000) express the theory that people have separate concepts of their physical, social, emotional, and intellectual selves. Each of these various self-concepts is characterised by relatively distinct and separate thoughts and feelings. I believe this is a central argument for the ‘multiple’ theory of the self. Using myself as an example, I may have considerable information and confidence about my social skills and feel quite capable about that section of my life. However, I may have limited information and less confidence about my physical skills.

Current thinking is that only a portion of the total self operates at any one time. The self that is currently being accessed has been deemed the ‘working self-concept’ by Hazel Markus, a leading researcher in this area (Markus & Wurf, 1987 as cited in Smith & Mackie 2000). When a particular component of ‘the self’ is operating, its thoughts and feelings strongly influence the way a person processes information about that aspect of ‘the self’ (Fiske and Taylor, 1991 as cited in Franzoi 1996). For example, whilst in a lecture the beliefs and emotions associated with your intellectual self typically dominate how you process information you receive in that setting. Similarly, when you are at a party, you tap into your social self and the thoughts, feelings and behaviour related to it.

These ideas about the self are not set in concrete but they are not easily altered either. Individuals are strongly motivated to maintain a consistent