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The way in which one perceives oneself.

Self-concept—the way in which one perceives oneself—can be divided into categories, such as personal self-concept (facts or one's own opinions about oneself, such as "I have brown eyes" or "I am attractive"); social self-concept (one's perceptions about how one is regarded by others: "people think I have a great sense of humor"); and self-ideals (what or how one would like to be: "I want to be a lawyer" or "I wish I were thinner").

While a number of philosophers and psychologists have addressed the idea that behavior is influenced by the way people see themselves, investigation into the importance of self-concept is most closely associated with the writings and therapeutic practices of Carl Rogers. The self—and one's awareness of it—lie at the heart of Rogers'client-centered therapy and the philosophy behind it. According to Rogers, one's self-concept influences how one regards both oneself and one's environment. The self-concept of a mentally healthy person is consistent with his or her thoughts, experiences, and behavior. However, people may maintain a self-concept that is at odds with their true feelings to win the approval of others and "fit in," either socially or professionally. This involves repressing their true feelings and impulses, which eventually causes them to become alienated from themselves, distorting their own experience of the world and limiting their potential for self-actualization, or fulfillment. The gulf between a person's self-concept and his or her actual experiences (which Rogers called incongruence) is a chronic source of anxiety and can even result in mental disorders. According to Rogers, a strong self-concept is flexible and allows a person to confront new experiences and ideas without feeling threatened.

Social psychologists have pointed out that self-concept also plays an important role in social perception— the process by which we form impressions of others. Attribution—how we explain the causes of our own and other people's behavior—is particularly influenced by our own self-concept. Social learning theory is also concerned with the ways in which we view ourselves, especially in terms of our perceived impact on our environment. In the first major theory of social learning, Julian B. Rotter claimed that the expected outcome of an action and the value we place on that outcome determine much of our behavior. For example, people whose positive self-concept leads them to believe they will succeed at a task are likely to behave in ways that ultimately lead to success, while those who expect failure are much more likely to bring it about through their own actions. In a general theory of personality he developed subsequently with two colleagues, Rotter designated variables based on the ways that individuals habitually think about their experiences. One of the most important was I-E, which distinguished "internals," who think of themselves as controlling events, from "externals," who view events as largely outside their control. Internal-external orientation has been found to affect a variety of behaviors and attitudes.

Further Reading

Rogers, Carl. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.

Rogers, Carl, and B. Stevens. Person to Person: The Problem of Being Human. New York: Pocket Books, 1967.

Rotter, Julian B., June Chance, and Jerry Phares. Applications of a Social Learning Theory of Personality. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie