Self and Identity

Subtle Differences in the Self and Identity

Who are you? For many of us, the first answer to this question is likely to be ‘that depends’. Sometimes an answer to this question may rely on descriptions of our personalities: I’m kind, I’m determined, I’m sociable, I’m smart. Other times, role and relationship descriptions may seem most relevant to our sense of who we are: I’m a teacher, I’m a mother, I’m the coach, I’m single.

Still other times, the question of ‘Who am I?’ may be answered with reference to personal achievements (or lack thereof) or future ambitions, while other times, identification as a member of particular social categories may be of first importance: nationality when living or traveling abroad, or political affiliation during an election campaign. All of these types of self-description can be part of our self and identity.

Self and identity are concepts that we use in everyday life to refer to our own existence as entities in the world, and to locate ourselves relative to the other people and things in our environments. Although these terms are often lumped together and are sometimes used interchangeably, subtle differences exist in what social psychologists typically mean by these terms.

What exactly is the self?

The self consists of internal, external, and socially perceived attributes that are shaped by a number of factors, including culture, time, and motivation. According to William James (1890/1983), the self is defined by the material, social, and spiritual constituents of the perceived self as well as the perception of these constituents.

Perhaps the most tangible aspect of the self is the material self. James argues that external attributes such as possessions and family are just as much material aspects of one’s self as one’s body (James, 1890/1983). In other words, the “material” of your self includes your physical presence but also the clothes you select, the material goods you buy, and the people you call family.

The self is constituted by how you represent yourself in your own mind as well as the less tangible representations in the minds of other people. In other words, the self is partially represented socially through the identity or reputation that you have in other people’s eyes.

The self is also represented by what James called “spiritual” aspects of the self, which includes internal attributes that researchers more recently might call personality, attitudes, and consciousness. In other words, the self is reflected by your physical presence as much as your reputation for lighting up a party or hiding by the wall, your preference for chocolate over vanilla, and your innermost thoughts and strivings.

Since this classic definition, research has helped us understand how these aspects of self sometimes corresponds to each other and sometimes do not. Furthermore, research has shown that the centrality of these aspects to the definition of selfhood is affected by culture, temporal construal, and motivation (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Markus & Nurius, 1986; Sedikides & Gregg, 2008; Swann, Pelham, & Krull, 1989).