Self-construals in social psychology: Finding the self in society

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An interesting theory in psychology called the self-construal theory describes how we place ourselves in society. The self as a concept is quite vague, and many people have a variety of ways to define themselves. That’s where the self-construal theory comes to the rescue and puts all definitions of “the self” into perspective.

From the start of intellectual curiosity in human history, humans have wondered and asked, “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” These questions extend to the idea of society, groups, and relationships – “Who are we?” and “Who am I to you?”

The self-construal theory speaks about how a person construes himself/herself/themselves in the context of a larger We. A couple may talk about themselves as a We and you can talk about yourself as an individual I. Both cases are examples of self-construals.

An extension of the self-construal theory is the more popular idea of individualism and collectivism. A typical example is how Americans focus on an individual’s uniqueness in society and how the Japanese consider individuals as a member of a larger society/community. The key difference between the two is how a person relates 2 concepts: The self & Others. The self is, inevitably, culture-dependent and self-construals cater to those cultural details that bind us as people.

For the sake of clarity, let us first define the self.


Definition of the self

The self is a holistic concept built out of your thoughts, feelings, experiences, possessions, attachments, and attitudes that are tied to a physical body, location, and has a set of boundaries. The boundaries, the existence of your body, and your unique location separate you from independent others.

So the concept of “the self” gives rise to meaningful questions like “What am I doing?” “I am.” and “Am I?” In other contexts, the sense of self is your identity, or self-image, or ego.

When we introduce other people into our own point of view, we reach the concept of a “relationship.” So relationships describe how the self has unique connections with others. To focus on the significance of human relationships, psychologists invented the concept of “self-construals” which means how people construe or understand themselves in relation to others.

Self-construal is a concept that describes how you think about yourself, how you relate to others, and what your figurative decision-maker does. Self-construals affect environmental concern, happiness, conversations, etc. Click To Tweet


The Self-Construal theory in psychology

Some people define themselves according to their individuality and uniqueness. For example, “I am 6 feet tall and have a degree in physics” or “I am an INTJ with a deep interest in snakes and care a lot about politics.”

Some focus on their relationships and associations, “I am a proud mother of 2 and a wife to an honest man” or “I am my company’s lead financial advisor and a PhD mentor.”

These definitions aren’t without a context. Some contexts demand an emphasis on relationships and some demand an emphasis on individual characteristics. These differences can be seen if you try to answer the question “Who am I?” in 2 separate contexts: A job interview and a social gathering. Our description of the self is dependent on a context and on top of that, we have some tendencies which may be biased toward uniqueness and individuality or toward relationships.

Definition: Self-construal is conceptualized as a constellation of thoughts, feelings, and actions with respect to one’s relationship to others and to the self, as distinct from others. (based on Theodore Singelis’ work)

The self-construal emerges from 3 factors:

  1. Reflexive consciousness: How you think about yourself.
  2. Interpersonal relationships: How you are related to others in society.
  3. Executive functions of the self: The decision-maker who guides your behavior and perception.

All of us have these 3 factors with unique characteristics and that is why we have a unique self-construal. No matter what, our individual characteristics make us unique regardless of how we define our self-construal (more on that here).

In essence, the self-construal is a concept that describes how you think about yourself, how you relate to others, and what your figurative decision-maker does.


Types of self-construals

Psychologists define 3 types of self-construals.

1. The relational independent self-construal: The relational independent self-construal describes one’s uniqueness and individuality. The independent self is concerned with personal attributes and characteristics.

Examples:

  • I am a boxer.
  • I am a kick-puncher.
  • I am a pokemon trainer who never really wins.


2. The relational interdependent self-construal: The relational interdependent self-construal describes one’s sense of self with respect to their close relationships. The relational self is concerned with relationships and includes close others in their personal identity.

Examples:

  • I am Dana’s boyfriend.
  • I am the leader of my political party.
  • I am a family man.


3. The meta-personal self-construal: The meta-personal self-construal describes one’s sense of self with an identity that goes beyond the body and relationships to capture a larger essence like natures, spirituality, and the cosmos. In a way, the meta-personal self transcends one identity between the intimate versions of oneself. The meta-personal self is concerned with all living beings and oneness with everything.

Examples:

  • I am connected to the universe.
  • I feel one with nature.
  • I feel my presence in your spirit.


In summary, people with an independent self-construal are highly individualistic, those with interdependent self-construal are collectivistic, and those high on metapersonal self-construal have an identity that transcends the self and relationships to capture a larger context like the cosmos or nature.

Researchers have found that people can have an identity that has varying levels of all 3 self-construals. So a person can portray himself as a unique individual but still have a collectivistic sense with his society and have spiritual tendencies to feel oneness with all animals. In one study, those who were high on individualism and collectivism made faster decisions about social obligations than those who were low on both. They also found that collectivistic people valued social obligation more, made social decisions more quickly, and were more confident in their stance than individualistic people who favored individual goals over social obligation, especially when their respective identities were salient.

This takes us to a practical insight – telling people what their identity represents may encourage them to act in socially desirable ways. Reminding your friend “don’t forget you have fought for low plastic use for ages, you value the environment’s safety” can stop him from making a decision against his value. For example, not buying 6 small plastic bottles of juice when a slightly more expensive option of 2 paper cartons exists.


Research on self-construals

Self-construals and the environment

Self-construals are really important for pressing environmental concerns today. For example, in one study, researchers observed that those high on independent self-construal are likely to use natural resources in a self-centered way, those high on interdependent self-construal are likely to cooperate while sharing resources, and those high on meta-personal self-construal are likely to show holistic environmental concern. So fostering an environmental self-identity or developing a co-operative social approach would be a good start to encourage people to engage in pro-environmental behaviors (more on that here).

Self-construal and conversation

We know the context and culture affect how we define ourselves, and by extension, our self-construals. For example, collectivistic cultures tend to foster an interdependent self-construal but individualistic people can adopt an interdependent construal in social situations. One study suggests that interdependent people are more co-operative and avoid conversational redundancies while individualistic people are less co-operative and have more redundancies. Their study suggests that high interdependent self-construals promote healthier conversations.

Self-construal and happiness

Research suggests that those who have a high independent self-construal may be happier, possibly because independence goes hand-in-hand with self-reliance, achievement, and autonomy. It means one’s identity is more differentiated or unique, a characteristic valued by many. However, those who have a tendency to self-reflect and focus on themselves, tend to have repetitive negative thoughts (rumination) and that lowers happiness. So being individualistic may be good for happiness as long as self-reflection isn’t too intense and doesn’t trigger rumination and pre-occupation with your negative aspects.


Self-construal theory and other psychological construals

In many of my articles, I’ve described the construal level theory of psychological distance from an information-processing point of view. In an abstract sense, this post is also about that, but in a completely different context. You can think of psychological distance as your closeness to a concept or how you zoom-in into a concept (or object). The closer you are, the more details you see. That is like an independent self-construal where you focus on individual characteristics, also called low-construal or low psychological distance. The farther you zoom-out, you become a member of a family or society or culture. That creates a more global understanding of the self in a broad context. That is similar to a high-construal level or more psychological distance that captures the essence of people.

Psychological distance is a broad concept, and it is important in emotional regulation as well as creative thinking. Check out the linked articles to find out more; it’s one of my favorite theories.

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