January 25, 2009

The Social Self

For our “Self” proseminar this semester, we have to write a “thought paper” each week based off of the assigned readings. Since it’s just a short little paper, it should make for a good source of blogging material. On that note, let’s get started!

For our first week, the readings were more general and focused on defining the self. What is the self? Is it one higher-level construct? Or is it a small set of mechanisms with one function? These were questions that the readings were trying to answer.

Well, after finishing the material I was struck most by discovering just how social the self really is. At first glance, the concept of self seems almost contrary to sociality. The self appears to be opposite of others. But as William James pointed out in his Principles of Psychology, a man’s “me” is partly shaped by the recognition he gets from others, as well as those representations they create. He explains that a person has as many “social selves” as people he or she knows. Predicting the “need to belong” (a topic that I’m very interested in), James presumes that humans have an “innate propensity” to get noticed. He even states that no punishment could be worse for a person, than to live in a society where one goes completely unnoticed. It’s astounding how current research supports ideas like this one, which was predicted back in the late 1800’s. The “need to belong” has been supported by years of research, and interest in the phenomenon continues to fuel new studies (see Baumeister & Leary, 1995). A crucial component of the self seems to come from the different conceptions of ourselves that we take from others, whether these representations are accurate or not.

In a related vain, Leary and Tangney explained that the self has the ability to mediate motives in order to relieve certain underlying pressures. I immediately thought of the sociometer hypothesis. In sociometer theory, self-esteem is really a gauge of our own social standing (i.e., how likely we are to be accepted or rejected). If our interactions with others play a significant role in our own self-concept, then the function of the self-esteem motive as protecting social standing is very plausible. It is even likely that the self initially emerged in humans for this very purpose. As Kurzban and Aktipis explained in their article, the self is much less a high-level construct and, instead, is much more of a set of cognitive mechanisms that evolved with the purpose of helping us function socially. The benefits of social groups are countless for the human species. We don’t have sharp claws or teeth, neither do we have thick coats of fur, etc. Additionally, we take longer to mature than many other species and are completely defenseless as small children. Anything that would have helped us cooperate with each other for food, shelter, defense, etc., would have tremendous selection value. The social cognitive interface, as Kurzban and Aktipis call the self, was designed to help us persuade others in our social world. With the help of the SCI, we are better able to compete for social benefits, such as mates and cooperation from others. It’s even plausible that we would not have developed a sense of self without our complex social lifestyle.

Well, it’s something to think about anyways. Below is the list of assigned readings, in case you are interested. As well, I also have some supplemental citations of interest.


Baumeister, R. F. (1987). How the self became a problem: A psychological review of historical research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 163-176.

James, W. (1890). The principles of psychology (Chapter on "The Self"). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Kurzban, R., & Aktipis, C. A. (2007). Modularity and the social mind: Are psychologists too self-ish? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 131-149.

Leary, M.R. & Tangney, J.P. (2003). The self as an organizing construct in the behavioral and social sciences. In M.R. Leary and J.P. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity, (pp. 3-14). New York: Guilford.

Sedikides, C., & Skowronski, J. J. (1997). The symbolic self in evolutionary context. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1, 80-102.

Supplemental Material:

Baumeister, R. F. & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.

Leary, M. R. (2002). The self as a source of relational difficulties. Self and Identity, 1, 137-142.

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