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Perception of self is how individuals view themselves, their attitudes, and their behaviors, based on their reaction to the environment and stimuli around them. It is developed when people observe their own behaviors and draw conclusions about what caused them to behave in that way. It is a unique interpretation about oneself that is based on one’s experience. Self-perception theory, proposed by Daryl J. Bem, posits that individuals come to know their attitudes and emotions through observations of their own behaviors. That is, behaviors cause the change in cognition. For example, after providing care to a sick or elderly person, caring and empathetic feelings will develop that were not present before the activity. Realizing this trait in oneself may prompt one to seek out additional volunteer activities. Thus, Dem concludes that behavior can change one’s self-perception related to attitudes and emotions.
Cognitive dissonance theory, proposed by Leon Festinger, provides a different explanation. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. These mental conflicts produce a feeling of discomfort, leading to an alteration in one’s attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. That is, cognition causes the change in behavior. For example, a smoker may experience cognitive dissonance because that person must somehow reconcile the knowledge about the health risks of smoking and the fact that he or she nonetheless continues to smoke. This smoker, for instance, might rationalize his or her actions and reduce dissonance by discounting information about the health risks of smoking, emphasizing the fact that he or she has already been smoking for 20 years without suffering adverse health effects. Likewise, individuals may know that they are not saving enough for retirement but may discount this information to reduce their experience of cognitive dissonance. This means that “full information” may not be enough to inspire optimal economic decisions.
When an individual is content with his or her self-perception, not only does that person appear happier but the individual’s self-esteem and confidence are much greater. Positive self-perceptions increase a person’s motivation to succeed. Individuals with positive self-perceptions view obstacles as quick setbacks that are easier to overcome. However, when a person is not content with his or her self-perception, he or she is more likely to lose confidence and self-esteem and remain isolated from others. People who experience negative self-perceptions tend to give up on tasks. Much of the information that determines self-perception comes as a result of the observation of others’ behavior and the feedback received from others. The behaviors of others shape one’s self-perception by creating a distinct set of “norms” for behavioral reactions in specific situations. At the same time, others’ behavior toward an individual serve as the implicit or explicit feedback that changes one’s self-perception.
Perception of self is also closely related to self-esteem, which is an individual’s overall evaluation of his or her worth. This involves judgments, attitudes, and emotions that individuals have about themselves. Self-esteem is a result of self-perception regarding one’s abilities as a productive member of society, whether in the work-place, friendships, relationships, or with family. The positive self-esteem occurs when an individual experiences a sense of achievement and accomplishes good things. Thus, the individual sees the success and attributes it to the skills, knowledge, and the efforts that he or she has contributed. This positive self-evaluation causes one to develop a chain of similar attitude and behavior. In a study of self-esteem, it was revealed that individuals with high self-esteem also have the ability to work independently quite successfully and do not require more attention and motivation from external sources. If a person’s self-esteem is high, he or she will tend to ignore any negative feedback and maintain a positive self-perception, regardless of what others think of him or her.
On the other hand, a person with low self-esteem can be crippled by negative feedback, and his or her self-perception will become weak. Individuals with low self-esteem lack self-confidence and have pessimistic views. They tend to perform less effectively under stress and show less initiative and confidence. Additionally, those with low self-esteem have a hard time accepting positive feedback. Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham developed a concept known as the Johari Window, which helps individuals discover more about the perceptions of themselves (Figure 1). According to Luft and Ingham, there are four parts of the personal window that account for self-perception. The first quadrant is an open area, representing the things that one knows about oneself, and the things that others know about oneself, including one’s behavior, knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The second quadrant is the blind area that represents things about oneself that one is not aware of, but that are known by others. This can include simple information that one does not know, or it can involve deep issues such as feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, unworthiness, or rejection, which are often difficult for individuals to face directly, but can be seen by others. The third quadrant represents things that one knows about oneself, but that others do not know. The last quadrant represents things that are unknown by oneself and are unknown by others. People who have a large open area are usually very easy to talk to; they communicate honestly and openly with others; and they get along well with a group. People who have a very small open area are difficult to talk to; they seem closed off and uncommunicative; and they often do not work well with others because they are not trusted. People might have a large blind area, with many issues that they have not identified or dealt with yet. However, others can see these issues clearly. These people might have low self-esteem.
In summary, perception of self contributes to self-knowledge and one’s relationships with others. It has a significant impact on people’s social lives.
- Bem, Daryl. Self-Perception New York: Academic Press, 1972.
- Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1957.
- Luft, Joseph and Harrington Ingham. “The Johari Window, a Graphic Model of Interpersonal Awareness.” Proceedings of the Western Training Laboratory in Group Los Angeles: University of California, 1955.