Self-Discrepancy Theory

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Self-Discrepancy Theory was developed by Higgins (1987) in an attempt provide a conceptual basis for determining between feelings of dejection and feelings of agitation elicited by discrepancies in self beliefs. Despite the findings of previous belief incompatibility theories (e.g., dissonance, incongruity, imbalance, and self-inconsistency), Higgins (1987) posited that these theories were limited in that they failed to explain the distinct types of emotional discomfort associated with different types of belief incompatibility. Additionally, Higgins claimed that Self-Discrepancy Theory serves to introduce construct accessibility – that is, the accessibility of the various ways people construe the world – as a predictor of when incompatible beliefs will elicit uncomfortable affect, and precisely which beliefs would do so (Higgins, 1987).


The Structure of the Self

One of the facets of Self-Discrepancy Theory that distinguishes it from other theories on self-image is the manner in which it constructs the Self into three domains, each of which consist of two standpoints. Higgins’ (1987) three domains include the actual self, the ought self, and the ideal self . The actual self is the representation of the set of attributes that you (or someone else) believe you actually possess (Higgins, 1987). The ought self is the representation of the set of attributes that you (or someone else) believe you should possess – as in a call to moral duty (Higgins, 1987). Lastly, the ideal self is the representation of the set of attributes that you (or someone else) believe you would possess, ideally (Higgins, 1987). The two standpoints on the Self are distinguished by the perspective of the person considering each of the three domains; Higgins (1987) refers to self-postulation as one’s own standpoint, and to other postulation as a significant other’s standpoint. This construct provides the basis from which discrepancies arise; that is, when certain domains of the Self are at odds with one another, people experience particular emotional affect.

Higgins’ Development of Self-Discrepancy Theory

Drawing from evidence in the field, Higgins (1987) constructed the following general hypothesis: “The greater the magnitude and accessibility of a particular type of self-discrepancy possessed by an individual, the more the individual will suffer the kind of discomfort associated with that type of self-discrepancy.” He then tested this hypothesis through a series of correlational and experimental studies, described below.

Testing Self-Discrepancy Theory

Higgins’ (1987) conception of the theory was based upon a series of observations he made from prior studies performed by other experimenters whose work tested the Self and affect. In doing so, Higgins noted that while the existing literature did not explicitly test Self-Discrepancy Theory, it strongly suggested trends that allowed him to postulate some testable ideas. Higgins, Klein, and Strauman (1985) tested Self-Discrepancy Theory by administering the Selves Questionnaire to undergraduate students, which was designed to measure discrepancies between the three domains of the Self. They also administered various other questionnaires that were designed to detect chronic emotional discomfort and symptoms. The Selves Questionnaire asked participants to list up to ten attributes that they believed described each of their three self-domains. Participants did this from both their own standpoint and from the standpoint of a significant other (father, mother, closest friend) (Higgins et al., 1985). Higgins (1987) noted that each page of the questionnaire handled only one self-state (i.e. “What is the type of person your mother thinks you are, ideally?”) which increased the likelihood that the results obtained would be important and accessible to the individual. Following these trials, subjects were asked to rate how importantly they viewed a particular standpoint within each domain because Self-Discrepancy Theory postulates that only significant discrepancies would elicit negative emotional affect (Higgins et al., 1985). Higgins and his team used the viewpoint from each domain that each subject rated most important, and then calculated four separate self-discrepancies using the difference scores of synonyms:antonyms that appeared on each list: actual/own-ideal/own; actual/own-ideal/other; actual/own-ought/other; and actual/own-ought/own. Higgins et al. (1985) then measured chronic emotional discomfort and symptoms using the Beck Depression Inventory (Beck, Ward, Mendelson, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961), the Blatt Depressive Experiences Questionnaire (Blatt et al., 1976), the Hopkins Symptom Checklist (Derogatis, Lipman, Rickels, Uhlenhuth, & Covi, 1974), and the Emotions Questionnaire (Higgins, Klein & Strauman, 1985). Using correlational methods, Higgins et. al. (1985) discovered that each of the four calculated discrepancies were associated with the following specific discomforts: 1. Actual/own versus ideal/own discrepancy: feelings of “disappointment,” “dissatisfaction,” “ineffectiveness,” “blameworthiness,” and “feeling no interest in things.” 2. Actual/own versus ideal/other discrepancy: feeling lack of “pride,” lack of feeling “sure of self and goals,” “feeling lonely,” “feeling blue,” and “feeling no interest in things.” 3. Actual/own versus ought/other discrepancy: suffering “spells of terror or panic,” feeling “suddenly scared for no reason,” feeling “so concerned with how or what I feel that it's hard to think of much else,” and feeling “shame.” 4. Actual/own versus ought/own discrepancy: suffering “worthlessness,” “feeling irritated all the time,” “feeling low in energy or slowed down,” “feeling no interest in things,” “feeling everything is an effort,” and was the only discrepancy to elicit feelings of “guilt.” In the year prior to publishing his conclusions on Self-Discrepancy Theory, Higgins et al. (1986) ran a series of experiments to test whether or not the accessibility of self-discrepancies affects the magnitude and type of emotional discomfort suffered by an individual. As they predicted, if a particular self-discrepancy was primed – that is, if subjects were made to think about negative events related to a particular discrepancy, the negative affect associated with that self-discrepancy was activated (Higgins et al., 1986).

Developments in Self-Discrepancy Theory

Self-Discrepancy Theory, while providing what many believe to be accurate predictions of moment-to-moment emotional discomforts, has also been applied to explain various types of chronic emotional problems, as well as chronic low self-esteem. Higgins (1987) asserts that Self-Discrepancy Theory inherently provides a means to systematically lessen negative affect associated with self-discrepancies. In general, he claims, an individual can lessen negative affect related to self-discrepancies by reducing the discrepancies between the self-domains in conflict with one another. This would entail (a) Changing one’s actual self-concept to be less discrepant with one’s self guides, or (b) Changing one’s self guides to be less discrepant with one’s actual self-concept, or (c) Changing one’s accessibility to the discrepancies by avoiding scenarios in which said discrepancies become more salient (Higgins, 1987). In 1999, Carver et al. made a novel ammendment to Self-Discrepancy Theory. Whereas Higgins’ work posited that the actual self works in a promotional manner, that is, it attempts to approach the ought and ideal selves, Carver et al. (1999) presupposed another self domain at work, the feared self, that the actual self actively attempts to avoid. According to the Carver et al. (1999) model, “Your feared self is the self you fear being or worry about being. It’s defined by the personality traits you think you might become in the future but that you’d rather not become. It’s not necessary that you have these traits, only that you want to avoid having them.” To test the interrelations of its proposed self structure, Carver et al. (1999) ran a study similar to that of Higgins in 1985. The Selves Questionnaire was administered to eighty-five participants from the University of Miami, this time including an assessment of the feared self. Unlike the Higgins et al. (1985) version of the questionnaire, participants reported their own self-discrepancies by rating the extent to which they felt they actually deviated from each reported self attribute (Carver et al., 1999). Two weeks later, participants completed an assessment of the Affects Balance Scale (Derogatis, 1975) – “a 40 item instrument composed of feeling-descriptive adjectives” (Carver et. al, 1999). Participants reported the number of incidents during the current week that they had experienced each emotion on the scale. The target scales in Carver et al.’s (1999) study included agitation-relation affects (anxiety, guilt, contentment) and dejection-related affects (depression and happiness); extraneous items were included on the scale to distract participants from the true goal of the study. After correlational analysis, Carver et al. (1999) arrived at some interesting conclusions regarding discrepancies of the feared self. As expected, actual:ought discrepancies were characterized by the agitation-related affects discovered by Higgins. However, when participants reported that their actual:feared discrepancy was low (which is to say, these participants were rather near to their feared selves), the predictive nature of Self-Discrepancy Theory was weak in respect to actual:ought agitation-related affects (Carver et al., 1999). Only when participants were distant from their feared selves did agitation affects from actual:ought discrepancies become salient. Also as expected, actual:ideal discrepancies were characterized by dejection-related affects. However, unlike the agitation-related affects that characterize actual:ought discrepancies, these dejection-related affects were not preempted by contingencies in the actual:fear discrepancy (Carver et al., 1999). Still, Carver et al. (1999) was surprised by the strength of the actual:feared effect on its own. They concluded that the motivated avoidance of the feared self is concurrent with the motivated approach towards ought and ideal standards, even though the preemptive link only existed for actual:ought discrepancies (Carver et al., 1999). Carver et al.’s (1999) conclusion reformed Self-Discrepancy Theory in that it provided evidence for an amended model of the Self. Carver et al. (1999) contends that while the actual self does work to minimize discrepancies between itself and its ought and ideal targets via approach, it also works to maximize discrepancies between itself and its feared target via avoidance. They posited that this avoidance occurs preemptively with actual:ought agitation, and in parallel with actual:ideal dejection. Through this model, Carver et al. (1999) built a strong case that self domains work in an approach/avoidance tandem, and that avoidance of the feared self is as much of a contributor to emotional affect as the mere pursuit of the ought and ideal selves.

Works Cited

Carver, C.S., Lawrence, J.W., & Scheier, M.F. (1999). Self-Discrepancies and Affect: Introducing the Role of Feared Selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 7, 783-792.

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319-340.

Higgins, E. T., Klein, R., & Strauman, T. (1985). Self-concept discrepancy theory: A psychological model for distinguishing among different aspects of depression and anxiety. Social Cognition, 3, 51–76.

Works Consulted

Beck, A. T., Ward, C. H., Mendelson, M., Mock, J., & Erbaugh, J. (1961). An inventory for measuring depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 4, 561–571.

Blatt, S. J., D'Afflitti, J. P., & Quinlan, D. M. (1976). Experiences of depression in normal young adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 86, 203–223.

Derogatis, L. R. (1975). The affects balance scale. Baltimore: Clinical Psychometric Research.

Derogatis, L. R., Lipman, R. S., Rickels, K., Uhlenhuth, E. H., & Covi, L. (1974). The Hopkins Symptom Checklist (HSCL): A self-report symptom inventory. Behavioral Science, 19, 1–15.

Higgins, E. T., Bond, R. N., Klein, R., & Strauman, T. (1986). Self-discrepancies and emotional vulnerability: How magnitude, accessibility, and type of discrepancy influence affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 5–15.

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