30 April 2007

Constructing the Self

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:08 pm

[My primary source for this post is The Construction of the Self, 1999 by Susan Harter]

The young child becomes able to recognize her own reflection in a mirror at about the same time that she begins saying things like “that’s mine” or look at me” or “my name is Anna.” Also at around the same time, the child begins using language to represent parental rules and expectations and her ability to meet them. By about age 3 1/2 the child becomes able to construct a verbal self-narrative that includes both self-evaluations (“I am a good girl”) and remembered events (“Mommy yelled at me yesterday”). Self-description enables the child to develop a stable sense of self, but it also drives a wedge between self as lived and self as verbally represented, which can be distorted to conform to others’ expectations and to one’s own fantasies.

In general, young children feel pretty good about themselves. As they develop they get better at doing things that matter to them. They tend to confound actual with desired competency, leading them to overestimate themselves. Beginning in middle childhood, the perceived gap between actual and ideal self widens. Increasingly they compare themselves with their peers, and this source of evaluation comes to compete with (though not to usurp) parental evaluations. In adolescence children become increasingly introspective and morbidly preoccupied with what others think of her. The adolescent realizes that she presents herself differently, and is evaluated by others differently, as she passes from one social context to another. By observing and internalizing multiple perspectives on the self, the adolescent simultaneously develops a more accurate understanding of her strengths and weaknesses at the same time as she develops higher standards for herself. Self-concept becomes unstable, self-contradictory, multiple: “Which one is the real me?” By late adolescence self-esteem tends to go back up, as the individual exercises greater autonomy, chooses to elicit social support from those who hold her in high regard, and becomes more adept at balancing multiple social roles.

Children evaluate themselves largely in terms of competencies valued by themselves and significant others (parents, close friends, peer group). In Western cultures those valued competencies are, in order: physical appearance, scholastic competence, social acceptance, behavioral conduct, and athletic competence. Perception of one’s competency in these domains is more important than the person’s actual competency.

More physically attractive infants get more positive attention from adults. In middle childhood kids generally think they look pretty good. The importance of appearance to self-worth increases through adolescence. Boys don’t tend to change their ratings of their own attractiveness as they get older; girls, on the other hand, show a continual deterioration throughout adolescence in their own perceived attractiveness. Girls also regard physical attractiveness as more important than do boys. Not surprisingly, girls’ perceived self-worth deteriorates through the adolescent years. This is especially true for stereotypically feminine girls; self-estem among more androgynous girls is less closely related to physical appearance and doesn’t decline significantly over adolescence.

Kids with higher levels of approval and support from significant others have higher self-worth. Through evaluations of changes over time, child development researchers have constructed a causal model for predicting adolescent self-worth and mood:

  • Physical appearance, likability by peers, and athletic competence lead to peer approval and support.
  • Scholastic competence and behavioral conduct lead to parental approval and support.
  • Approval and support from peers and parents lead to self-worth, hopefulness, and cheerfulness.

Depression and anger are associated with low self-worth. Adolescent depression tends to be caused by the same factors that cause low self-worth: dissatisfaction with one’s physical appearance, competence, or social interactions. Rejection from and conflict with peers is a primary source of depression, anger, and low self-worth. Parental conflict and rejection is much less strongly associated with adolescent anger and depression.



  1. Thanks for this article. It gives a perspective on how children go through the difficult period from childhood to adolescence. In between the lines I read about the process that the environment of children at school is becomming increasingly important especially for feminine girls. My daughter is androgyne enough, luckily. She is starting to appreciate her skills rather than her looks. She also grew a lot in the past six months. But I still recognize the process of comparison.
    I myself was not the most physically attractive girl, but I had no interests in the fields girls traditionally have. I preferred to talk to boys because they tend to go further in thinking and ideas.


    Comment by Odile — 30 April 2007 @ 10:01 pm

  2. Physical appearance is a characteristic of the individual, but its importance is strongly emphasized by others. Increasingly appearance becomes important as peers increase in influence. The girls really emphasize appearance when they talk with each other. I guess we should be grateful that parents’ values (academics, conduct) continue to be important even for teenagers, though our influence gradually wanes over time.

    Today I asked our 14-year-old daughter to rank the competencies. She put scholastic competence first, then social acceptance and behavioral conduct tied for second, physical appearance 4th, sports 5th. It’s interesting, because she regards herself more highly on looks than on social acceptance.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 April 2007 @ 10:18 pm

  3. I’m wondering about the role of the medium of television in this…when one is bombarded by images of the beautiful and the atheletic 24/7 it sets up a powerful ideal. I wonder if Harter’s results would look differently among the Amish?


    Comment by Ron — 1 May 2007 @ 7:02 am

  4. So you’d put the specular image not in the mirror but in the television. Since the advertiser wants you to buy what it sells, it wants you to identify with the images it shows. But the ad needs to set up a gap between the buyer and the image, because it’s the product that fills the gap — the objet petit a or phallus in Lacanian parlance. But ads wouldn’t work if the customers weren’t predisposed to land on an ideal and a gap. Social comparison still operates in Amish society, but presumably what constitutes the ideal is different from Madison Avenue’s ideal. I just watched a movie by Bunuel (maybe I’ll post on it), where the hero idealizes images that have been fetishized by the church (e.g., the Virgin Mary). Neo-Marxists like Guy Debord contend that the marketplaced learned how to fetishize commodities by imitating the Church’s praxis.

    Any rate, advertising simulates and intensifies the ideal-actual doubling that already exists at least latently in the consumers, then projects the simulacrum back out again. Which is the original and which the simulation? It’s hard to tell, and besides, their both an illusion. Enter Baudrillard and his world of simulacra without originals.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2007 @ 8:52 am

  5. I wasn’t questioning the role of social comparison or even desire (Girard’s notion of mimetic desire I think gets at something in human nature), but just musing about the manner in which television can magnify and manipulate this aspect of the human condition…Harter’s results struck me as being profoundly influenced by a consumeristic capitalism that has monopolized the medium of television that’s all.

    I think the Amish too are involved in some type of social comparison and that it would be interesting to understand how that operates within their community. Part of my beef with developmental psych is the manner in which results of studies usually don’t take into consideration or attempt to analyze the role of culture in the process they are observing…perhaps that is because I find that to be the interesting question.


    Comment by Ron — 1 May 2007 @ 9:28 am

  6. Lacan speaks of “desiring the desire of the other;” Girard, of “mimetic desire.” Here’s a paper linking Girard and Lacan around Freud. The author seems unsure of how it is that Girard and Lacan see the same things, first making then breaking the common linkage to Kojeve. Kojeve was a Marxist interpreter of Hegel who had great influence on a generation of French intellectuals. In prior posts I traced the link directly to Hegel, which I believe is right.

    Harter’s results struck me as being profoundly influenced by a consumeristic capitalism that has monopolized the medium of television. It’s difficult to separate intrinsic developmental trajectories from socio-economic influences when nearly all the research is done in Western capitalistic societies. I have a sense that there are biological predispositions that can get channeled and territorialized and manipulated in a variety of ways. Capital is the dominant force in our culture, and undoubtedly shapes development now — this is part of Deleuze & Guattari’s discourse. Many of the Lacanian enthusiasts are also neo-Marxists or at least anti-capitalists, so I suspect part of their mistrust of empirical psychology is grounded in the cultural bias of the studies. Parents are suckers for buying only the best for their little blooming flowers. Is Romania sufficiently infected by global capital for the same effects to be detected?


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2007 @ 11:00 am

  7. The freedom of the individual to be, to become, whatever they want/can is considered a basic right in today’s developed world. “the perceived gap between actual and ideal self widens” If there is such a gap early in personality development it would seems to imply that the freedom to be is not all that great in the first place.


    Comment by ponnvandu — 1 May 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  8. Lacan puts the gap at 6 months of age, even before language and social comparison, which makes it even more difficult to overcome. One might hope that with maturity the individual comes to reject the ideal self, but I don’t think it’s true. There’s always an age-specific image of the good life pulling you along, and it takes a lot of energy to resist it. The ideal image reduces human complexity to a very small number of important variables. If you want to pursue your own path, you might not meet much resistance but you won’t get much encouragement either. It’s a walk into the undesired.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  9. Is Romania sufficiently infected by global capital for the same effects to be detected?

    It probably matters where in the country one did the research…in Bucharest probably so, in Transylvania and some more remote regions, perhaps not. But the great “thinning” machine of global capital is coming…


    Comment by Ron — 1 May 2007 @ 9:26 pm

  10. If Lacan and Girard and Hegel are right, then people will always converge on something to be desired, something they believe will make them complete but that never works, something for which demand is unquenchable. Some variant of physical attractiveness is probably always going to be in the mix.

    Why is slimness the ideal body image now? Is it a proxy for fitness? for youth? The discrepancy between ideal and actual weight is getting wider, which perhaps makes sense since the path to the ideal in our culture always involves consuming something.


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 May 2007 @ 9:42 pm

  11. I’ve been trying to get the children out from under the influence of commercials and even from school, which is quite difficult, because it means giving much of an example myself. I’ve tried to make them critical of consuming but also of environmentalism.
    Now I’m quite happy with critical and independent children who are really happy with a glass of water and who know the flavor of strawberries from actual strawberries and are not used to artificial taste. My son wrote a post about scaffolding today (without using the word scaffolding).
    But it is true that it makes it difficult to relate to children in this village. (“your mother doesn’t have sweets”)
    I think you’re right and that slimness is a proxy for fitness. My father is fitter and slimmer than me.


    Comment by Odile — 10 May 2007 @ 8:44 pm

  12. We have no television and we don’t consciously try to influence our daughter’s bodily image, fashion sense, etc. But she has strong opinions about these things. She understands the preferences of her school friends, then I believe she defines her preferences relative to theirs. Perhaps our opinions still matter, because she does ask what we think about shoes, make-up, etc. I expect her tastes will change when we return to America, where the fashions are probably different from France.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 May 2007 @ 9:26 pm

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