A Brief Outline of Self-Verification Theory


Self-verification is a social psychological theory that asserts people want to be known and understood by others according to their firmly held beliefs and feelings about themselves, that is self-views (including self-concepts and self-esteem). It is one of the motives that drive self-evaluation, along with self-enhancement and self-assessment.

Because chronic self-concepts and self-esteem play an important role in understanding the world, providing a sense of coherence, and guiding action, people become motivated to maintain them through self-verification. Such strivings provide stability to people’s lives, making their experiences more coherent, orderly, and comprehensible than they would be otherwise. Self-verification processes are also adaptive for groups, groups of diverse backgrounds, and the larger society, in that they make people predictable to one another thus serve to facilitate social interaction. To this end, people engage in a variety of activities that are designed to obtain self-verifying information.

Developed by William Swann (1981), the theory grew out of earlier writings which held that people form self-views so that they can understand and predict the responses of others and know how to act toward them.

William Swann

William B. Swann (born 1952) is a professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is primarily known for his work on identity, self and self-esteem, but has also done research on relationships, social cognition, group processes, accuracy in person perception and interpersonal expectancy effects. He received his Ph.D. in 1978 from the University of Minnesota and undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College.

Difference between Positive and Negative Self-Views

There are individual differences in people’s views of themselves. Among people with positive self-views, the desire for self-verification works together with another important motive, the desire for positive evaluations or “self enhancement”. For example, those who view themselves as “insightful” will find that their motives for both self-verification and self-enhancement encourage them to seek evidence that other people recognise their insightfulness.

In contrast, people with negative self-views will find that the desire for self-verification and self-enhancement are competing. Consider people who see themselves as disorganized. Whereas their desire for self-enhancement will compel them to seek evidence that others perceive them as organised, their desire for self-verification will compel such individuals to seek evidence that others perceive them as disorganised. Self-verification strivings tend to prevail over self-enhancement strivings when people are certain of the self-concept and when they have extremely depressive self-views.

Self-verification strivings may have undesirable consequences for people with negative self-views (depressed people and those who suffer from low self-esteem). For example, self-verification strivings may cause people with negative self-views to gravitate toward partners who mistreat them, undermine their feelings of self-worth, or even abuse them. And if people with negative self-views seek therapy, returning home to a self-verifying partner may undo the progress that was made there. Finally, in the workplace, the feelings of worthlessness that plague people with low self-esteem may foster feelings of ambivalence about receiving fair treatment, feelings that may undercut their propensity to insist that they get what they deserve from their employers (see: workplace bullying).

These findings and related ones point to the importance of efforts to improve the self-views of those who suffer from low self-esteem and depression.

Effects on Behaviour

In one series of studies, researchers asked participants with positive and negative self-views whether they would prefer to interact with evaluators who had favourable or unfavourable impressions of them. The results showed that those with positive self-views preferred favourable partners and those with negative self-views preferred unfavourable partners. The latter finding revealed that self-verification strivings may sometimes trump positivity strivings.

Self-verification motives operate for different dimensions of the self-concept and in many different situations. Men and women are equally inclined to display this tendency, and it does not matter whether the self-views refer to characteristics that are relatively immutable (e.g. intelligence) or changeable (e.g. diligence), or whether the self-views happen to be highly specific (e.g. athletic) or global (e.g. low self-esteem, worthlessness). Furthermore, when people chose negative partners over positive ones, it is not merely in an effort to avoid interacting with positive evaluators (that is, out of a concern that they might disappoint such positive evaluators). Rather, people chose self-verifying, negative partners even when the alternative is participating in a different experiment. Finally, recent work has shown that people work to verify self-views associated with group memberships. For example, women seek evaluations that confirm their belief that they possess qualities associated with being a woman.

Self-verification theory suggests that people may begin to shape others’ evaluations of them before they even begin interacting with them. They may, for example, display identity cues (see: impression management). The most effective identity cues enable people to signal who they are to potential interaction partners.

  • Physical appearance, such as clothes, body posture, demeanour. For example, the low self-esteem person who evokes reactions that confirm her negative self-views by slumping her shoulders and keeping her eyes fixed on the ground.
  • Other cues, such as the car someone buys, the house they live in, the way they decorate their living environment. For example, an SUV evokes reactions that confirm a person’s positive self-view.

Self-verification strivings may also influence the social contexts that people enter into and remain in. People reject those who provide social feedback that does not confirm their self-views, such as married people with negative self-views who reject spouses who see them positively and vice versa. College roommates behave in a similar manner. People are more inclined to divorce partners who perceived them too favourably. In each of these instances, people gravitated toward relationships that provided them with evaluations that confirmed their self-views and fled from those that did not.

When people fail to gain self-verifying reactions through the display of identity cue or through choosing self-verifying social environments, they may still acquire such evaluations by systematically evoking confirming reactions. For example, depressed people behave in negative ways toward their roommates, thus causing these roommates to reject them.

Self-verification theory predicts that when people interact with others, there is a general tendency for them to bring others to see them as they see themselves. This tendency is especially pronounced when they start out believing that the other person has misconstrued them, apparently because people compensate by working especially hard to bring others to confirm their self-views. People will even stop working on tasks to which they have been assigned if they sense that their performance is eliciting non-verifying feedback.

Role of Confirmation Bias

Self-verification theory predicts that people’s self-views will cause them to see the world as more supportive of these self-views than it really is. That is, individuals process information in a biased manner. These biases may be conscious and deliberate, but are probably more commonly done effortlessly and non-consciously. Through the creative use of these processes, people may dramatically increase their chances of attaining self-verification. There are at least three relevant aspects of information processing in self-verification:

  • Attention: People will attend to evaluations that are self-confirming while ignoring non-confirming evaluations.
  • Memory retrieval: self-views bias memory recall to favour self-confirming material over non-confirming elements.
  • Interpretation of information: people tend to interpret information in ways that reinforce their self-views.

These distinct forms of self-verification may often be implemented sequentially. For example, in one scenario, people may first strive to locate partners who verify one or more self-views. If this fails, they may redouble their efforts to elicit verification for the self-view in question or strive to elicit verification for a different self-view. Failing this, they may strive to “see” more self-verification than actually exists. And, if this strategy is also ineffective, they may withdraw from the relationship, either psychologically or in actuality.

Related Processes

Preference for Novelty

People seem to prefer modest levels of novelty; they want to experience phenomena that are unfamiliar enough to be interesting, but not so unfamiliar as to be frightening or too familiar as to be boring.

The implications of people’s preference for novelty for human relationships are not straightforward and obvious. Evidence that people desire novelty comes primarily from studies of people’s reactions to art objects and the like. This is different when it concerns human beings and social relationships because people can shift attention away from already familiar novel objects, while doing so in human relationships is difficult or not possible. But novel art objects are very different from people. If a piece of art becomes overly stimulating, we can simply shift our attention elsewhere. This is not a viable option should our spouse suddenly begin treating us as if we were someone else, for such treatment would pose serious questions about the integrity of people’s belief systems. Consequently, people probably balance competing desires for predictability and novelty by indulging the desire for novelty within contexts in which surprises are not threatening (e.g. leisure activities), while seeking coherence and predictability in contexts in which surprises could be costly – such as in the context of enduring relationships.

Tension with Self-Enhancement

People’s self-verification strivings are apt to be most influential when the relevant identities and behaviours matter to them. Thus, for example, the self-view should be firmly held, the relationship should be enduring, and the behaviour itself should be consequential. When these conditions are not met, people will be relatively unconcerned with preserving their self-views and they will instead indulge their desire for self-enhancement. In addition, self-reported emotional reactions favour self-enhancement while more thoughtful processes favour self-verification.

But if people with firmly held negative self-views seek self-verification, this does not mean that they are masochistic or have no desire to be loved. In fact, even people with very low self-esteem want to be loved. What sets people with negative self-views apart is their ambivalence about the evaluations they receive. Just as positive evaluations foster joy and warmth initially, these feelings are later chilled by incredulity. And although negative evaluations may foster sadness that the “truth” could not be kinder, it will at least reassure them that they know themselves. Happily, people with negative self-views are the exception rather than the rule. That is, on the balance, most people tend to view themselves positively. Although this imbalance is adaptive for society at large, it poses a challenge to researchers interested in studying self-verification. That is, for theorists interested in determining if behaviour is driven by self-verification or positivity strivings, participants with positive self-views will reveal nothing because both motives compel them to seek positive evaluations. If researchers want to learn if people prefer verification or positivity in a giving setting, they must study people with negative self-views.

Self-Concept Change

Although self-verification strivings tend to stabilise people’s self-views, changes in self-views may still occur. Probably the most common source of change is set in motion when the social environment recognises a significant change in a person’s age (e.g. when adolescents become adults), status (e.g. when students become teachers), or social role (e.g. when someone is convicted of a crime). Suddenly, the community may change the way that it treats the person. Eventually the target of such treatment will bring his or her self-view into accord with the new treatment.

Alternatively, people may themselves conclude that a given self-view is dysfunctional or obsolete and take steps to change it. Consider, for example, a woman who decides that her negative self-views have led her to tolerate abusive relationship partners. When she realises that such partners are making her miserable, she may seek therapy. In the hands of a skilled therapist, she may develop more favourable self-views which, in turn, steer her toward more positive relationship partners with whom she may cultivate healthier relationships. Alternatively, when a woman who is uncertain about her negative self-concept enters a relationship with a partner who is certain that she deserves to view herself more positively, that woman will tend to improve the self-concept.


Critics have argued that self-verification processes are relatively rare, manifesting themselves only among people with terribly negative self views. In support of this viewpoint, critics cite hundreds of studies indicating that people prefer, seek and value positive evaluations more than negative ones. Such sceptical assessments overlook three important points. First, because most people have relatively positive self-views, evidence of a preference for positive evaluations in unselected samples may in reality reflect a preference for evaluations that are self-verifying, because for such individuals self-verification and positivity strivings are indistinguishable. No number of studies of participants with positive self-views can determine whether self-verification or self-enhancement strivings are more common. Second, self-verification strivings are not limited to people with globally negative self-views; even people with high self-esteem seek negative evaluations about their flaws. Finally, even people with positive self-views appear to be uncomfortable with overly positive evaluations. For example, people with moderately positive self-views withdraw from spouses who evaluate them in an exceptionally positive manner.

Other critics have suggested that when people with negative self-views seek unfavourable evaluations, they do so as a means of avoiding truly negative evaluations or for purposes of self-improvement, with the idea being that this will enable them to obtain positive evaluations down the road. Tests of this idea have failed to support it. For example, just as people with negative self-views choose self-verifying, negative evaluators even when the alternative is being in another experiment, they choose to be in another experiment rather than interact with someone who evaluates them positively. Also, people with negative self-views are most intimate with spouses who evaluate them negatively, despite the fact that these spouses are relatively unlikely to enable them to improve themselves. Finally, in a study of people’s thought processes as they chose interaction partners, people with negative self-views indicated that they chose negative evaluators because such partners seemed likely to confirm their self-views (an epistemic consideration) and interact smoothly with them (a pragmatic consideration); self-improvement was rarely mentioned.

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What are Display Rules?


Display rules are a social group or culture’s informal norms that distinguish how one should express themselves.

They can be described as culturally prescribed rules that people learn early on in their lives by interactions and socialisations with other people. They learn these cultural standards at a young age which determine when one would express certain emotions, where and to what extent.

Emotions can be conveyed through both non-verbal interactions such as facial expressions, hand gestures and body language as well as verbal interactions. People are able to intensify emotions in certain situations such as smiling widely even when they receive a gift that they are not happy about or “masking” their negative emotions with a polite smile. As well, people learn to de-intensify emotions in situations such as suppressing the urge to laugh when somebody falls or neutralising their emotions such as maintaining a serious poker face after being dealt a good hand. Display rules determine how we act and to what extent an emotion is expressed in any given situation. They are often used to protect one’s own self-image or those of another person.

The understanding of display rules is a complex, multifaceted task. Display rules are understood differentially depending upon their mode of expression (verbal/facial) and the motivation for their use (prosocial/self-protective).


Emotions can be defined as brief, specific, and multidimensional responses to challenges or opportunities that are important to both personal and social goals. Emotions last up to a few seconds or minutes, and not hours or days. Emotions are very specific which suggests that there is a clear reason why a person may be feeling a certain emotion. Emotions are also used to help individuals achieve their social goals. Individuals may respond to certain challenges or opportunities during social interactions with different emotions. The selected emotions can guide a specific goal-directed behaviour that can either support or hinder social relationships.

Concepts of Emotion

Emotions can be broken down into different components. The first component of emotion is the appraisal stage. In this first stage, individuals process an event and its impact on their personal goals. Depending on the outcome, the individual will either go through positive or negative feelings. Next, we have distinct physiological responses such as blushing, increased heart rate or sweating. The next stage of emotion is the expressive behaviour. Vocal or facial expressions follow an emotional state and serve to communicate their reactions or intentions (social). The next component is the subjective feeling. This is the quality that defines the experience of a specific emotion by expressing it by words or other methods. Finally, the last component is action tendencies. This suggests that emotion will motivate or guide specific behaviour and bodily responses.

Theories of Emotion

Emotions can be expressed verbally, with facial expressions, and with gestures. Darwin’s hypothesis concerning emotion stated that the way emotions are expressed is universal, and therefore independent of culture. Ekman and Friesen conducted a study to test this theory. The study included introducing basic emotions found in the western world and introduced them to different cultures around the world (Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and the United States). Across the 5 cultures they were all able to accurately determine the emotion (success rates of 70-90%). They also introduced these selected emotions to an isolated community in Papua New Guinea that was not in contact with the western world. The results revealed that both the other cultures and isolated communities could effectively match and detect the emotional meaning of the different faces. This became evidence that emotions are expressed facially in the same way across the world.


Culture can be defined as “shared behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, and values communicated from generation to generation via language or some other means.” Unique individuals within cultures acquire differences affecting displays of emotions emphasized by one’s status, role, and diverse behaviours. Some cultures value certain emotions more over others. The affect theory argues that emotions that promote important cultural ideals will become focal in their social interactions. For example in America, they value the emotion excitement as it represents the cultural idea of independence. In many Asian cultures it is inappropriate to discuss personal enthusiasms. They place greater value on emotions such as calmness and contentedness, representing the ideal harmonious relationships. These different cultural values affect a person’s everyday behaviours, decisions and emotional display.

People learn how to greet one another, how to interact with others, what, where, when and how to display emotions through the people they interact with and the place they grow up in. Everything can be traced back to one’s culture. Gestures is an example of how one may express themselves, however these gestures represent different meanings depending on the culture. For example, in Canada, sticking out one’s tongue is a sign of disgust or disapproval however in Tibet it is a sign of respect when greeting someone. In America, holding one’s middle and index fingers up makes the peace sign, in some countries such as the UK and Australia it a sign of disrespect.

High and low-contact cultures also vary in the amount of physical interaction and direct contact there is during one-on-one communication. High-contact cultures involve people practicing direct eye contact, frequent touching, physical contact, and having close proximity to others. Examples of countries that have a high-contact culture include Mexico, Italy, and Brazil. Low-contact cultures involve people who practice less direct eye contact, little touching, have indirect body orientation, and more physical distance between people. Examples of countries that have a low-contact culture include the United States, Canada, and Japan.

Social Influence

Family and Peers

Ekman and Friesen (1975) have suggested that unwritten codes or “display rules” govern the manner in which emotions may be expressed, and that different rules may be internalized as a function of an individual’s culture, gender or family background. For instance, many different cultures necessitate that particular emotions should be masked and that other emotions should be expressed drastically. Emotions can have significant consequences on the founding of interpersonal relationships.

Children’s understanding and use of display rules is strongly associated with their social competence and surrounding. Many personal display rules are learned in the context of a particular family or experience; many expressive behaviour and rule displays are adopted by copying or adopting similar behaviours than their social and familial surrounding. Parents’ affect and control influence their children’s display rule through both positive and negative responses. Mcdowell and Parke (2005) suggested that parents who exert more control over their children’s emotions/behaviour would deprive them of many opportunities to learn about appropriate vs. inappropriate emotional/rule displays. Hence, by depriving children from learning through control (i.e. not allowing them to learn from their own mistakes), parents are restraining children’s learning of prosocial rule display.

The social environment can influence whether one controls or displays their emotions. There are few factors influencing the children’s decision to either control or express an emotion that they are experiencing including the type of audience. In fact, depending on if children are in the presence of peers or of family (i.e. mother or father), they will report different control over their expression of emotions. Regardless of the type of emotion experienced, children control significantly more their expression of emotion in the presence of peers than when they are with their caregiver or alone.

School Environment

The school environment is also a place where emotions and behaviours are influenced. During a child’s grade school years, they can become increasingly more aware of the accepted display rules that are found in their social environment. They learn more and more about which emotions to express and which emotions not to express in certain social situations at school.

Emotions and Social Relationships

Emotions can serve as a way of communicating with others and can guide social interactions. Being able to express or understand other emotions can help encourage social interactions and help achieve personal goals. When expressing or understanding one’s emotions is difficult, social interactions can be negatively impacted.

Emotional intelligence is a concept that is defined by four skills:

  • The ability to accurately perceive other emotions.
  • The ability to understand one’s own emotions.
  • The ability to use current feelings to help in making decisions.
  • The ability to manage one’s emotions to best match the current situation.


Age plays an important role in the development of display rules, throughout life a person will gain experience and have more social interactions. According to a study by Jones, social interactions are the main factor in the creation and understanding of display rules. It starts at a very young age with family, and continues with peers. By meeting more people, facing more challenges and advancing in life, a person will develop different responses, those responses will depend mostly on the age of the person, this explains why a young person will have different social interactions than someone older.


Infancy is a complex period when studying display rules. At a very young age, an infant does not know how to talk, therefore they express themselves in different ways. In order to communicate with others, they use facial and vocal displays that are specific for each age-period. A study conducted by Malatesta and Haviland demonstrated that a baby can have 10 different categories for facial expression:

  • Interest.
  • Enjoyment.
  • Surprise.
  • Sadness/distress.
  • Anger.
  • Knit brow.
  • Discomfort/pain.
  • Brow flash.
  • Fear.
  • Disgusting.

However, fear and disgust will develop progressively during childhood. They are complex facial expressions that require knowledge and understanding, they must be learned and cannot be copied; this is why not everybody is afraid of the same things. Most of the facial expressions will be learned through the parents, mainly from the mother. The mother-infant relationship is key in the development of display rules during infancy, it is the synchrony of mother-infant expressions. To express themselves vocally; babies require the use of “screaming” or “crying”. There is no differentiation for the request of a baby, this is why the relation with the parents is important, they must teach the infant when and for what reason to cry (i.e. need of food).


During childhood, the expression of display rules becomes more complex. Children develop the ability to modulate their emotional expressions growing up, this development depends on the level of maturity and the level of social interactions with others. Children growing up start to become aware of oneself and slowly aware of others. At this time, they understand the importance of non-verbal communication, and shape the manner in which emotion may be expressed, with this change in perception, children will internalise different rules. Those rules are relative to two major factors:

  • The environment: The social environment impacts the way someone reacts emotionally. The audience and the context are essential to understand display rules among children.
  • The temperament: According to Leslie Brody, parents that socialise their kids the same way with equal level of nurturance, will observe different responses and reactions.

These two factors will help create “personal display rules” and the development of a sense of empathy toward others (i.e. feeling sad when a friend lost a relative even if one did not know the person).

This process will continue to change and grow until adulthood. During adolescence, a transition period where the person is not a child anymore but not an adult yet, is a test period as they learn to deal with internal conflict. Emotions are more intense and harder to control due to the hormonal changes that come at this period of time.


During adulthood, people are capable of using a lot of different display rules depending on the situation they are facing and the people they are with. Society governs how and when someone should express emotions, however display rules are not something static, they are in a constant evolution. Therefore, even during adulthood, a person will develop new ways to hide, express or cope with emotions. At the same time, adults will develop a greater control of their feelings and this can be seen mostly in the work environment. A study presented by the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology showed that nurses working in the same environment are more likely to share the same display rules in order to achieve an organisational objective. Display rules are not only personal, but they are shared between people and can differ according to the hierarchy of the society.

What is Egosyntonic and Egodystonic?


In psychoanalysis, egosyntonic refers to the behaviours, values, and feelings that are in harmony with or acceptable to the needs and goals of the ego, or consistent with one’s ideal self-image.

Egodystonic (or ego alien) is the opposite, referring to thoughts and behaviours (dreams, compulsions, desires, etc.) that are in conflict, or dissonant, with the needs and goals of the ego, or, further, in conflict with a person’s ideal self-image.


Abnormal psychology has studied egosyntonic and egodystonic concepts in some detail. Many personality disorders are egosyntonic, which makes their treatment difficult as the patients may not perceive anything wrong and view their perceptions and behaviour as reasonable and appropriate. For example, a person with narcissistic personality disorder has an excessively positive self-regard and rejects suggestions that challenge this viewpoint. This corresponds to the general concept in psychiatry of poor insight. Anorexia nervosa, a difficult-to-treat (formerly considered an Axis I disorder before the release of the DSM 5) characterised by a distorted body image and fear of gaining weight, is also considered egosyntonic because many of its sufferers deny that they have a problem. Problem gambling, however, is only sometimes seen as egosyntonic, depending partly on the reactions of the individual involved and whether they know that their gambling is problematic.

An illustration of the differences between an egodystonic and egosyntonic mental disorder is in comparing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. OCD is considered to be egodystonic as the thoughts and compulsions experienced or expressed are not consistent with the individual’s self-perception, meaning the patient realises the obsessions are unreasonable and are often distressed by their obsessions. In contrast, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is egosyntonic, as the patient generally perceives their obsession with orderliness, perfectionism, and control, as reasonable and even desirable.

Freudian Heritage

“Ego syntonic” was introduced as a term in 1914 by Freud in On Narcissism, and remained an important part of his conceptual armoury. Freud saw psychic conflict arising when “the original lagging instincts…come into conflict with the ego (or ego-syntonic instincts)”.

Otto Fenichel distinguished between morbid impulses, which he saw as ego-syntonic, and compulsive symptoms which struck their possessors as ego-alien. Anna Freud stressed how defences which were ego-syntonic were harder to expose than ego-dystonic impulses, because the former are familiar and taken for granted. Heinz Hartmann, and after him ego psychology, also made central use of the twin concepts.

Later psychoanalytic writers emphasised how direct expression of the repressed was ego-dystonic, and indirect expression more ego-syntonic.

What is Self-Discrepancy Theory?


The self-discrepancy theory states that individuals compare their “actual” self to internalised standards or the “ideal/ought self”. Inconsistencies between “actual”, “ideal” (idealised version of yourself created from life experiences) and “ought” (who persons feel they should be or should become) are associated with emotional discomforts (e.g. fear, threat, restlessness). Self-discrepancy is the gap between two of these self-representations that leads to negative emotions.

Developed by Edward Tory Higgins in 1987, the theory provides a platform for understanding how different types of discrepancies between representations of the self are related to different kinds of emotional vulnerabilities. Higgins sought to illustrate that internal disagreement causes emotional and psychological turmoil. There were several previous theories proving this concept such as the self-inconsistency theory, the cognitive dissonance theory, and the imbalance theory (e.g. Heider, 1958); however, Higgins wanted to take it one step further by determining the specific emotions that surfaced as a result of these internal disagreements. Previous self-imbalance theories had recognised only positive or negative emotions. The self-discrepancy theory was the first to assign specific emotions and affects to the disparity.

The theory proposes how a variety of self-discrepancies represents a variety of types of negative psychological situations that are associated with different kinds of discomfort. A primary goal of the self-discrepancy theory is to create an understanding of which types of contrasting ideas will cause such individuals to feel different kinds of negative emotions.

The structure of the theory was built based on three ideas. First classify the different kinds of discomfort felt by those people holding contrasting ideals experienced, as well as the various types of emotional vulnerabilities felt by the different types of discrepancies. Lastly, to consider the role of the different discrepancies in influencing the kind and type of discomfort individuals are most likely to experience.

Domains of the Self

The theory postulates three basic domains of the self.

ActualActual self is one’s representation of the attributes that one believes one actually possesses, or that one believes others believe one possesses. The “actual self” is a person’s basic self-concept. It is one’s perception of their own attributes (intelligence, athleticism, attractiveness, etc.).
IdealIdeal self is one’s representation of the attributes that someone (oneself or another) would like one, ideally, to possess (i.e. a representation of someone’s hopes, aspirations, or wishes for one). The “ideal-self” is what usually motivates individuals to change, improve and achieve. The ideal self-regulatory system focuses on the presence or absence of positive outcomes (e.g. love provided or withdrawn).
OughtOught is one’s representation of the attributes that someone (oneself or another) believes one should or ought to possess (i.e. a representation of someone’s sense of one’s duty, obligations, or responsibilities). The ought self-regulatory system focuses on the presence or absence of negative outcomes (e.g., criticism administered or suspended).

Standpoints of the Self

Self-discrepancy theory initiates the importance of considering two different standpoints (or vantage points) in which “the self” is perceived. A standpoint on the self is defined as “a point of view from which you can be judged that reflects a set of attitudes or values.”


An individual’s own personal standpoint.


The standpoint of some significant other. Significant others may comprise parents, siblings, spouses, or friends. The “other” standpoint is what the self perceives their significant other’s standpoint to be.

Except for theories focusing on the actual self, previous theories of the self had not systematically considered the different domain of self in terms of the different standpoints on those domains. These two constructs provide the basis from which discrepancies arise; that is, when certain domains of the self are at odds with one another, individuals experience particular emotional affects (ex: one’s beliefs concerning the attributes one would personally like ideally to possess versus your beliefs concerning the attributes that some significant other person, such as your mother, would like you ideally to possess).


Discrepancies create two major types of negative physiological situations: absence of positive outcomes, which is associated with dejection-related emotions, and the presence of negative outcomes which is associated with agitation-related emotions.



Actual/Own vs. Actual/Other

These self-state representations are the basic self-concept (from either or both standpoints). Discrepancies between own self-concept, and other self-concept can be described as an identity crisis, which often occurs during adolescence. Guilt is a characteristic result of discrepancy from the own perspective. Shame is a characteristic result of discrepancy from the other perspective.


Actual/Own vs. Ideal/Own

In this discrepancy, a person’s view of their actual attributes does not match the ideal attributes they hope to develop. Discrepancy between these self-guides is characterised by dejection-related emotions such as disappointment and dissatisfaction. Actual/ideal discrepancies are associated with low self-esteem and characterised by the threat of absence of positive outcomes. Specifically, an individual is predicted to be vulnerable to disappointment or dissatisfaction because these emotions are associated with people believing that their personal wishes have been unfulfilled. These emotions have been described as being associated with the individuals’ own standpoint and a discrepancy from his or her hope, desire, or ideals. The motivational nature of this discrepancy also suggests that it could be associated with frustration because of these unfulfilled desires. Emotions such as blameworthiness, feeling no interest in things, and not feeling effective was also associated with this discrepancy. In addition, this discrepancy is also associated with dejection from perceived lack of effectiveness or self-fulfilment. This discrepancy is uniquely associated with depression.

Actual/Own vs. Ideal/Other

Here, one’s view of their actual attributes does not match the ideal attributes their significant other hopes or wishes for them. The ideal self-guide is characterised by the absence of positive outcomes, and accompanied by dejection-related emotions. More specifically, because one believes that they have failed to obtain some significant other’s hopes or wishes are likely to believe that the significant other is disappointed and dissatisfied with them. In turn, individuals will be vulnerable to shame, embarrassment, or feeling downcast, because these emotions are associated with people believing that they have lost standing or esteem in the eyes of others. Analysis of shame and related emotions have been described as being associated with the standpoint of one or more other people and discrepancies from achievement and/or status standards. Other analyses describe shame as being associated with concern over losing the affection or esteem of others. When people have a sense of the difference between their actual self and their social ideal self, an individual will experience feelings of shame and unworthiness. Shame that is often experienced when there is a failure to meet a significant other’s goals or wishes involves loss of face and presumed exposure to the dissatisfaction of others. Feeling lack of pride, lack of feeling sure of self and goals, feeling lonely, feeling blue, and feeling not interested in things was also associated with this discrepancy. This discrepancy is associated with dejection from perceived or anticipated loss of social affection or esteem.

Actual/Own vs. Ought/Other

This discrepancy exists when a person’s own standpoint does not match what they believe a significant other considers to be his or her duty or obligation to attain. Agitation-related emotions are associated with this discrepancy and results in the presence of negative outcomes. More specifically, because violation of prescribed duties and obligations is associated with punishment, this particular discrepancy represents the presence of negative outcomes. The individual experiencing this discrepancy will have an expectation of punishment; therefore, the person is predicted to be vulnerable to fear and feeling threatened, because these emotions occur when danger or harm is anticipated or impending. Analyses of such emotions have described them as being associated with the standpoint of one or more other people and discrepancy from norms or moral standards. The motivational nature of this discrepancy suggests that one might experience feelings of resentment. The feeling of resentment arises from the anticipated pain to be inflicted by others. The person might also experience anxiety because of apprehension over negative responses from others. This discrepancy is associated with agitation from fear and threat. In addition, it is also associated with agitation from self-criticism. Social anxiety is uniquely associated with this discrepancy.

Actual/Own vs. Ought/Own

A discrepancy between these self-guides occurs when one’s view of their actual attributes do not meet the expectations of what they think they ought to possess. This discrepancy is associated with the presence of negative outcomes and is characterised by agitation-related emotions such as self-dissatisfaction. An individual predicts a readiness for self-punishment. The person is predicted to be vulnerable to guilt, self-contempt, and uneasiness, because these particular feelings occur when people believe they have transgressed a personally legitimate and accepted moral standard. Analysis of guilt have described it as associated with a person’s own standpoint and a discrepancy from his or her sense of morality or justice. The motivational nature of this discrepancy suggests associations with feelings of moral worthlessness or weakness. Transgression of one’s own internalised moral standards has been associated with guilt and self-criticism because when people attribute failure to a lack of sufficient effort on their part, they experience feelings of guilt.

Ideal vs. Ought

Ideal self and ought self act as self guides with which the actual self aspires to be aligned. The ideal self represents hopes and wishes, whereas the ought self is determined through obligation and sense of duty. In terms of the ideal or ought discrepancy and specific to self-regulatory approach vs. avoidance behaviours, the ideal domain is predisposed to approach behaviour and the ought domain is predisposed to avoidance behaviour.

Another Domain of Self

In 1999 Charles Carver and associates made a new amendment to the theory by adding the domain of feared self. Unlike the self guides proposed by Higgins which imply an actual or desired (better) self, the feared self is a domain that measures what one does not desire to be. In many cases, this may have a different level of influence in terms of priority on the self than previous domains and self-guides. It is human nature to avoid negative affect before approaching positives.

Availability and Accessibility of Self-Discrepancies

Beliefs that are incongruent are cognitive constructs and can vary in both their availability and accessibility. In order to establish which types of discrepancies an individual holds and which are likely to be active and produce their associated emotions at any point, the availability and accessibility of self-discrepancies must be distinguished.


The availability of a self-discrepancy depends on the extent to which the attributes of the two conflicted self-state representations diverge for the person in question. Each attribute in one of the self-state representations (actual/own) is compared to each attribute in the other self-state representation (ideal/own). Each pair of attributes is either a match or a mismatch. The larger variance between the number of matches and the number of nonmatches (i.e. the greater the divergence of attributes between the two self-state representations), the larger the magnitude of that type of self-discrepancy that is available. Furthermore, the greater the magnitude of a particular discrepancy produces more intense feelings of discomfort accompanying the discrepancy when activated.

The availability of the self-discrepancy is not enough to influence emotions. In order to do so, the self-discrepancy must also be activated. The variable that influences the probability of activation is its accessibility.


The accessibility of a self-discrepancy depends on the same factors that determine the accessibility of any stored construct. One factor is how recently the construct has been activated. The more often a construct is activated, the more likely it will be used later on to understand social events. The accessibility or likelihood of activation, of a stored construct also depends on the relation between its “meaning” and the properties of the stimulus event. A stored construct will not be used to interpret an event unless it is applicable to the event. Thus the negative psychological situation represented in a self-discrepancy (i.e. the “meaning” of the discrepancy) will not be activated by an explicitly positive event. In sum, the accessibility of self-discrepancy is determined by its recency of activation, its frequency of activation, and its applicability to the stimulus event. The theory posits that the greater the accessibility of a self-discrepancy, the more powerfully the person will experience the emotion accompanying that discrepancy.

The theory does not propose that individuals are aware of the accessibility or availability of their self-discrepancies. However, it is obvious that both the availability and accessibility can influence social information processing automatically and without awareness. Thus, self-discrepancy theory simulates that the available and accessible negative psychological situations embodied in one’s self-discrepancies can be used to provide meaning to events without being aware of either the discrepancies or their impact on processing. The measure of self-discrepancies requires only that one be able to retrieve attributes of specific self-state representations when asked to do so. It does not require that one be aware of the relations among these attributes of their significance.

Self-discrepancy theory hypothesizes that the greater the magnitude of a particular type of self-discrepancy possessed by a person, the more strongly the person will experience the emotion associated with that type of discrepancy.

Application and Use

Self-discrepancy theory becomes applicable when addressing some of the psychological problems individuals face with undesired self-image. The theory has been applied to psychological problems faced by college students compromising their career choice, understanding clinically depressed students, eating disorders, mental health and depression in chronically ill women and even developing self-confidence in athletes. Self-Discrepancy Theory inherently provides a means to systematically lessen negative affect associated with self-discrepancies by reducing the discrepancies between the self domains in conflict of one another. Not only has it been applied to psychological health, but also to other research and understanding to human emotions such as shame and guilt. The self-guided pressure society and ourselves induce throw an individual into turmoil. The theory finds many of its uses geared toward mental health, anxiety, and depression. Understanding what emotions are being aroused and the reasoning is important to reinstate psychological health.


Studies have correlated the theory and procrastination. Specifically, discrepancies in the actual/ought domain from the own perspective, are the strongest predictor of procrastination. Avoidance is the common theme. The actual/ought self-regulatory system responds through avoidance. Procrastinators also have an avoidance relationship with their goals.


Depression is associated with conflict between a person’s perceived actual self, and some standard, goal or aspiration. An actual/ought discrepancy triggers agitated depression (characterised by feelings of guilt, apprehension, anxiety or fear). An actual/ideal discrepancy triggers dejected depression (characterised by feelings of failure, disappointment, devaluation or shame).


Higgins measured how individuals experienced self-discrepancies by having individuals reminisce and remember about “negative events or personal self-guides, including hopes, goals, duties, and obligations, and measure what will help increase the kind of discomfort that the individual experiences. The study found the “absence of an actual/own and ideal/own discrepancy” is associated with the emotions “happy” and “satisfied” and the “absence of an actual/own and ought/other discrepancy” is associated with the emotions “calm” and “secure”.

New Findings

Since its original conception in 1987, there have been a number of studies that have tested the legitimacy of self-discrepancy theory. Some of their findings do in fact contradict certain aspects of the theory, while another finds further evidence of its validly. These studies give insight into the research that has been done regarding self-discrepancy theory since its original conception in 1987.

Conducted in 1998, “Are Shame and Guilt Related to Distinct Self-Discrepancies? A Test of Higgins’s (1987) Hypotheses”, brought into question the correlations between specific discrepancy and emotional discomforts laid out by self-discrepancy theory. Researches believed that there was no way to tie a unique emotional discomfort to one internal discrepancy, but rather that various internal discrepancies result in a variety of discomforts. The study was carried out and the hypothesis was confirmed based on the results. The findings displayed no evidence suggesting a direct tie between specific discomforts and type of internal discrepancy.

“Self-discrepancies: Measurement and Relation to Various Negative Affective States”, also brought into question the core aspect of self-discrepancy theory – The correlation between specific discrepancies and the emotional discomforts that result. This study went one step further, also testing the validity of two methods used to observe internal discrepancies; “The Selves Questionnaire” or “SQ” along with the “Adjective Rating List” or “ARL”. The study found a strong relationship in results from both methods, speaking to their validly. The results, though, did bring into question the original research done by Higgins, as there were no ties found between specific internal discrepancies and unique emotional discomforts. One of the researchers in this study wrote “Overall, these findings raise significant concerns about the relevance of self-discrepancies as measured by the SQ and ARL and fail to support the main contentions of self-discrepancy theory”.

“Self-discrepancy: Long-term test–retest reliability and test–criterion predictive validity”, published in 2016, tested the long-term validity of self-discrepancy theory. Researchers found evidence to support the long-term validity of the self-discrepancy personality construct along with anxiety and depression having a direct relationship with internal discrepancies.

What is True Self and False Self?


True self (also known as real self, authentic self, original self and vulnerable self) and false self (also known as fake self, idealised self, superficial self and pseudo self) are psychological concepts, originally introduced into psychoanalysis in 1960 by Donald Winnicott.

Winnicott used true self to describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a feeling of being alive, having a real self. The false self, by contrast, Winnicott saw as a defensive façade, which in extreme cases could leave its holders lacking spontaneity and feeling dead and empty, behind a mere appearance of being real.

The concepts are often used in connection with narcissism.


Winnicott saw the true self as rooted from early infancy in the experience of being alive, including blood pumping and lungs breathing – what Winnicott called simply being. Out of this, the baby creates the experience of a sense of reality, a sense that life is worth living. The baby’s spontaneous, nonverbal gestures derive from that instinctual sense, and if responded to by the parents, become the basis for the continuing development of the true self.

However, when what Winnicott was careful to describe as good enough parenting – i.e., not necessarily perfect – was not in place, the infant’s spontaneity was in danger of being encroached on by the need for compliance with the parents’ wishes/expectations. The result for Winnicott could be the creation of what he called the false self, where “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being”. The danger he saw was that “through this false self, the infant builds up a false set of relationships, and by means of introjections even attains a show of being real”, while, in fact, merely concealing a barren emptiness behind an independent-seeming façade.

The danger was particularly acute where the baby had to provide attunement for the mother/parents, rather than vice versa, building up a sort of dissociated recognition of the object on an impersonal, not personal and spontaneous basis. But while such a pathological false self stifled the spontaneous gestures of the true self in favour of a lifeless imitation, Winnicott nevertheless considered it of vital importance in preventing something worse: the annihilating experience of the exploitation of the hidden true self itself.


There was much in psychoanalytic theory on which Winnicott could draw for his concept of the false self. Helene Deutsch had described the “as if” personalities, with their pseudo relationships substituting for real ones. Winnicott’s analyst, Joan Riviere, had explored the concept of the narcissist’s masquerade – superficial assent concealing a subtle hidden struggle for control. Freud’s own late theory of the ego as the product of identifications came close to viewing it only as a false self; while Winnicott’s true/false distinction has also been compared to Michael Balint’s “basic fault” and to Ronald Fairbairn’s notion of the “compromised ego”.

Erich Fromm, in his book The Fear of Freedom distinguished between original self and pseudo self – the inauthenticality of the latter being a way to escape the loneliness of freedom; while much earlier the existentialist like Kierkegaard had claimed that “to will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair” – the despair of choosing “to be another than himself”.

Karen Horney, in her 1950 book, Neurosis and Human Growth, based her idea of “true self” and “false self” through the view of self-improvement, interpreting it as real self and ideal self, with the real self being what one currently is and the ideal self being what one could become.

Later Developments

The second half of the twentieth century has seen Winnicott’s ideas extended and applied in a variety of contexts, both in psychoanalysis and beyond.


Heinz Kohut extended Winnicott’s work in his investigation of narcissism, seeing narcissists as evolving a defensive armour around their damaged inner selves. He considered it less pathological to identify with the damaged remnants of the self, than to achieve coherence through identification with an external personality at the cost of one’s own autonomous creativity.


Alexander Lowen identified narcissists as having a true and a false, or superficial, self. The false self rests on the surface, as the self presented to the world. It stands in contrast to the true self, which resides behind the façade or image. This true self is the feeling self, but for the narcissist the feeling self must be hidden and denied. Since the superficial self represents submission and conformity, the inner or true self is rebellious and angry. This underlying rebellion and anger can never be fully suppressed since it is an expression of the life force in that person. But because of the denial, it cannot be expressed directly. Instead it shows up in the narcissist’s acting out. And it can become a perverse force.


James F. Masterson argued that all the personality disorders crucially involve the conflict between a person’s two selves: the false self, which the very young child constructs to please the mother, and the true self. The psychotherapy of personality disorders is an attempt to put people back in touch with their real selves.


Neville Symington developed Winnicott’s contrast between true and false self to cover the sources of personal action, contrasting an autonomous and a discordant source of action – the latter drawn from the internalisation of external influences and pressures. Thus for example parental dreams of self-glorification by way of their child’s achievements can be internalised as an alien discordant source of action. Symington stressed however the intentional element in the individual’s abandoning the autonomous self in favour of a false self or narcissistic mask – something he considered Winnicott to have overlooked.


As part of what has been described as a personal mission to raise the profile of the condition, psychology professor (and self-confessed narcissist) Sam Vaknin has highlighted the role of the false self in narcissism. The false self replaces the narcissist’s true self and is intended to shield him from hurt and narcissistic injury by self-imputing omnipotence. The narcissist pretends that his false self is real and demands that others affirm this confabulation, meanwhile keeping his real imperfect true self under wraps.

For Vaknin, the false self is by far more important to the narcissist than his dilapidated, dysfunctional true self; and he does not subscribe to the view that the true self can be resuscitated through therapy.


Alice Miller cautiously warns that a child/patient may not have any formed true self, waiting behind the false self façade; and that as a result freeing the true self is not as simple as the Winnicottian image of the butterfly emerging from its cocoon. If a true self can be developed, however, she considered that the empty grandiosity of the false self could give way to a new sense of autonomous vitality.

Orbach (False Bodies)

Susie Orbach saw the false self as an overdevelopment (under parental pressure) of certain aspects of the self at the expense of other aspects – of the full potential of the self – producing thereby an abiding distrust of what emerges spontaneously from the individual himself or herself. Orbach went on to extend Winnicott’s account of how environmental failure can lead to an inner splitting of mind and body, so as to cover the idea of the false body – falsified sense of one’s own body. Orbach saw the female false body in particular as built upon identifications with others, at the cost of an inner sense of authenticity and reliability. Breaking up a monolithic but false body-sense in the process of therapy could allow for the emergence of a range of authentic (even if often painful) body feelings in the patient.

Jungian Persona

Jungians have explored the overlap between Carl Jung’s concept of the persona and Winnicott’s false self; but, while noting similarities, consider that only the most rigidly defensive persona approximates to the pathological status of the false self.

Stern’s Tripartite Self

Daniel Stern considered Winnicott’s sense of “going on being” as constitutive of the core, pre-verbal self. He also explored how language could be used to reinforce a false sense of self, leaving the true self linguistically opaque and disavowed. He ended, however, by proposing a three-fold division of social, private, and of disavowed self.


Neville Symington criticised Winnicott for failing to integrate his false self insight with the theory of ego and id. Similarly, continental analysts like Jean-Bertrand Pontalis have made use of true/false self as a clinical distinction, while having reservations about its theoretical status.

The philosopher Michel Foucault took issue more broadly with the concept of a true self on the anti-essentialist grounds that the self was a construct – something one had to evolve through a process of subjectification, an aesthetics of self-formation, not something simply waiting to be uncovered: “we have to create ourselves as a work of art”.

Literary Examples

  • Wuthering Heights has been interpreted in terms of the true self’s struggle to break through the conventional overlay.
  • In the novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, the heroine saw her outward personality as a mere ghost of a Semblance, behind which her true self hid ever more completely.
  • Sylvia Plath’s poetry has been interpreted in terms of the conflict of the true and false selves.

Documentary: No Body’s Perfect (2016)


International fashion photographer Rankin and artist Alison Lapper explore how the explosion of digital photography, social media and selfie culture has affected people’s sense of identity.

Rankin and Alison challenge four individuals who all hate the camera for a variety of reasons to be photographed up-close to investigate different perceptions of self-worth, image and beauty.


In this documentary for BBC Four, disabled artist Alison Lapper and internationally renowned photographer Rankin tackle contemporary attitudes to beauty and identity through the medium of photography.

Alison and Rankin will meet four fascinating people who do not conform to traditional notions of beauty, or who hate being photographed, and invite them to step in front of Rankin’s camera. Each person will reveal their incredible life story and their own personal struggle with their sense of identity. Through hearing these stories and capturing them in Rankin’s studio, Alison and Rankin will explore how the explosion of digital media over the past decade, from social media to selfies, has presented new challenges to our self-image.

Each contributor has a different challenge to tackle: from an amputee who for 30 years has never come to terms with his body image, to a woman with alopecia who struggles to leave the house without full make up and a wig on, to the person whose Body Dysmorphic Disorder means they will never allow their photo to be taken.

Alison Lapper, who was born with no arms and shortened legs, knew from a young age that she was happiest without prosthetics. Partly as a result of her work through photographic media she grew to accept her body as it was born, and to feel proud and confident with her own image. Alison’s image is now well-known as a subject of sculpture, painting and photography.

By inviting these four contributors to Rankin’s studio to confront their own image in front of the camera, Alison and Rankin hope that each person will discover a new sense of self. Rankin’s intimate, beautiful and striking portraits have the potential to give each person a sense of pride and self-worth, demonstrating photography’s unique power to positively affect how we feel about ourselves in the digital world.

Production & Filming Details

  • Presenter(s): Rankin and Alison Lapper.
  • Director(s): Ian Denyer.
  • Producer(s): Ben Weston and Shola Sittabey.
  • Production: BBC.
  • Distributor(s): BBC.
  • Original Network: BBC Four.
  • Release Date: 10 November 2016.
  • Running Time: 60 minutes.
  • Country: UK.
  • Language: English.

YouTube Link