The self-discrepancy theory was first developed by E. Troy Higgins in his work Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect in 1987. Self-discrepancy theory is a structure that helps bring understanding to the different types of negative emotions experienced by people who hold conflicting self-beliefs, or a discrepancy, about themselves (1).
This theory describes two different types self-images of the “actual self.” First, the “actual self” represents who a person actually is and second, represents the person that he or she believes that people in general or a significant other believes him or her to actually be (1).
Besides the two actual selves, there are several other potential types of selves, such as the “spiritual” self, the “superego,” the “social” self, and the “ideal self.” The “spiritual” self and the “superego” consist of one’s morals, values, and conscience. The “social” self represents one’s hopes to be approved of and the “ideal self” represents what one wishes were true of themselves (1).
Domains of self
The actual self consists of the attributes that the individual believes he or she possesses or the attributes that a significant other believes he or she holds (7).
The ideal self consists of the attributes that the individual or a significant other desires or prefers for him or her to acquire (7).
The ought self consists of the attributes that the individual or a significant other believes he or she should or ought to possess (7). An example from literature helps distinguish between the ideal self and the ought self in the sense of a hero’s “personal wishes,” or ideal self, verses his “sense of duty,” or the ought self (1).
Standpoints on the self
There are two standpoints, or perspectives, on the self, which are one’s own individual viewpoint of themselves and the viewpoint of themselves from a significant other. The standpoints on the self are important in the self-discrepancy theory because the standpoint of the self is based on one’s attitudes or attributes that can be judged by others. These two standpoints are represented as “own” and “other” (1).
Self-state representations and their motivational significance
The self-discrepancy theory developed six self-state representations, which formed through combining the three domains of the self with the two standpoints of the self. The six self-state representations are the actual/own, actual/other, ideal/own, ideal/other, ought/own, and ought/other. One’s self-concept is composed of the actual/own and the actual/other (1). The last four self-state representations are considered self-guides, which are internal standards made by a person to evaluate his or her self (6).
The self-discrepancy theory states that not all people will necessarily meet all six self-state representations and each person will experience different self-guides than others, such as some may experience the ought self-guides while others experience the ideal self-guides. This theory also states that people will differ on which self-guide they are motivated to reach. Not only will people seek to reach their self-guide, but also to match their self-guide with their self-concept so that the two are synonymous (1).
Types of self-discrepancies and quality of discomfort
In the self-discrepancy theory, there are two basic kinds of negative psychological situations that are associated with different kinds of emotional states. These are the absence of positive outcomes and the presence of negative outcomes. The absence of positive outcomes is connected with emotions that are dejection-related or emotions such as disappointment, sadness, or dissatisfaction. The presence of negative outcomes is linked with emotions that are agitation-related, which are emotions like anger, fear, or anxiety (1).
The types of self-discrepancies come forth from the relation between one’s self-concept and one’s self-guide, which brings about the dejection-related emotions or agitation-related emotions (1).
The four types of negative psychological situations are:
1. Actual/own versus ideal/own: in this case, a person’s genuine attributes from their own standpoint does not fit the attributes that that person ideally desires to possess (1). This self-discrepancy causes the person to feel dejection-related emotions because there is an absence of positive outcomes (4). Therefore, feelings of disappointment, shame, or discontent may occur for the person with incongruent self-concepts. Feelings of frustration from goals or desires not being attained may also arise through this discrepancy (1).
2. Actual/own versus ideal/other: in this case, a person’s genuine attributes from their own standpoint does not correspond to the attributes that a significant other in their life ideally hopes or wishes they would possess. This self-discrepancy causes the person to feel dejection-related emotions because there is an absence of positive outcomes. Therefore, feelings of shame, embarrassment, or sadness may occur for the person with incongruent self-concepts. Feelings of concern regarding one’s own reputation toward others or loss of affection in any way may arise through this discrepancy (1).
3. Actual/own versus ought/other: in this case, a person’s genuine attributes from their own standpoint does not match up to the attributes that a significant other in their life feels they should or ought to possess (1). This self-discrepancy causes the person to feel agitation-related emotions because there is a presence of negative outcomes (4). Therefore, feelings of fear, guilt, or anxiety may occur for the person with incongruent self-concepts. Feelings of frustration from goals or desires not being attained may also arise through this discrepancy (1).
4. Actual/own versus ought/own: in this case, a person’s genuine attributes from their own standpoint does not fit the attributes that that person desires to possess. This self-discrepancy causes the person to feel agitation-related emotions because there is a presence of negative outcomes. Therefore, feelings of disappointment or discontent may occur for the person with incongruent self-concepts. Feelings of frustration from goals or desires not being attained may also arise through this discrepancy (1).
Body image and self-discrepancies
The self-discrepancies in a person can affect not only their emotions, but also their view of their body image. A person may become very dissatisfied with their body shape due to the discrepancy between how they think they look (ideal self) and how they really look (actual self). When these two selves do not match up, research has indicated that that person, to the extent that that person perceives their body image negatively due to the incongruent self-representations, the more vulnerable that person will be to a body image disturbance. Studies show that those who overestimated their body size had the ideal and actual self-representation discrepancies when measuring their own body (7).
The self-discrepancy theory imparts reasoning that women and girls have stronger self-guides than men, meaning that women tend to have more discrepancies in their self-representations than men. This may explain why there are more body image disturbances and eating disorders among women than in men (7). The self-discrepancy theory has been used to help researches measure and understand the cognitive views and motives of people who have a body image disturbance (7).
Availability of self-discrepancies
In the self-discrepancy theory, the type of discrepancy and the accompanying emotional effects depends upon the availability and the accessibility of the self-discrepancy. The availability refers to how much a person’s self-concept and self-guides differ concerning their attributes that the person possesses. To figure out the availability of a certain self-discrepancy, one must compare each attribute in the self-state representations to each other. For instance, when actual/own is compared to ideal/own, they are named either match or mismatch attributes according to the degree of similarity. An example of this would be that if the attribute of “slightly attractive” in the actual/own self-state representation were compared to “attractive” in the ideal/own self-state representation, then that would be a mismatch. Thus, the higher the degree between attributes of the two self-state representations (actual/own vs. ideal/own), the more significant the self-discrepancy will be available to the person experiencing the mismatch of self-state representations. The greater the magnitude of the self-discrepancy that the person encounters, the more intense discomfort that person will experience (1).
Accessibility of self-discrepancies
The availability of the self-discrepancy depends on the accessibility of the self-discrepancy. Accessibility refers to the possibility of activation of a stored concept. There are three factors that play into the salience of the accessibility of an available self-discrepancy, which are how recent the concept has been activated, how frequently the construct is activated, and the applicability to the activating event. When a concept is used more frequently, then that concept will be used in interpreting events that occur in one’s life. The self-discrepancy theory does not presume that everyone is aware of the availability or accessibility of their self-discrepancies they experience (1).
The self-discrepancy theory assumes that even though a person is not fully conscious of their self-discrepancies or significant influence of negative emotions of those discrepancies, the availability and accessibility of one’s self-discrepancies can be used in assigning meaning to the events that one encounters (1).
Evidence for self-discrepancy theory
There are many evidences for the self-beliefs and discomforting emotions that result from differing self-guides and a person’s self-concept (1).
Research has shown that the inconsistencies between self and standards have a distinct influence on the emotions that result from the discrepancy, which is what the self-discrepancy theory supports (4). There is even a correlation between a weakened immune system and self-representations discrepancies (5). Several researchers have proven a correlation between anxiety disorders, insomnia, eating disorders, and body image distortions. Depressive disorder and subclinical depressive symptoms are also linked to the incongruity of actual self-representation and ideal self-representation (6).
James reported that a person will feel disappointed when an outcome does not match what one has hoped for and desired to accomplish. This is an example of the discrepancy of actual/own vs. ideal/own because what actually is does not matching what one wished would be (10).
Duval and Wicklund also concluded that when a person attempts to become more self-aware, they will feel disappointed and dissatisfied when their ideal self and actual self does not correspond (11).
Cooley reported that people will experience feelings of shame or unworthiness when there is a difference between their genuine self and their social self. This is an example of actual/own vs. ideal/other discrepancy.
Piers and Singer stated that people will feel shame when their ideal self fails to align with their parent’s goals or wishes. The feeling of shame comes from the discrepancy of ideal/other (12).
Shame will arise when one fails to meet the expectations of a significant other. One may also experience feelings of losing face or disappointing their significant other due to not meeting their wishes (9).
Feelings of fear or anxiety will occur when one’s behavior does not match the ideal behavior that a significant other desires for them. This is due to the worry of how the other person will react and concern for the other’s approval of themselves. This discrepancy is describe as actual/own vs. ought/own according to the self-discrepancy theory (13).
Depression will arise from one not meeting their own expectations of themselves or their goals that they have set. This discrepancy is an example of actual/own vs. ideal/own (14).
Results of Higgins’ research about the four types of negative psychological discrepancies
- Actual/own versus ideal/own: discrepancy is correlated with sadness or disappointment from one’s view of their own failure and not matching up their own ideals (1).
- Actual/own versus ideal/other: discrepancy is correlated with disappointment from feeling anxious concerning losing face in a social setting and losing respect for who they are (1).
- Actual/own versus ought/other: discrepancy is correlated with anxious feelings and fear of how other’s will view them and the consequences of not attaining the goals of others (1).
- Actual/own versus ought/own: discrepancy is correlated with fear of disapproving of oneself and not reaching one’s own standards (1).
Feelings of dejected-related emotions and agitation-related emotions that come from self-discrepancies have been tested and confirmed in the self-discrepancy theory research conducted by Strauman and Higgins (15).
Unique features of the self-discrepancy theory
The theory compares a person’s actual self-concept to their self-guides in negative psychological situations and portrays the different types of discrepancies that will arise when one’s self-concept does not match their self-guides (1).
The theory evaluates a person’s self-guides from the standpoint of one’s own standard placed on themselves. The theory compares one’s own view of themselves to their significant other’s view of them (1).
The theory explains how the availability of a discrepancy, or magnitude of the inconsistency, and the accessibility or context of a discrepancy affects one’s self-discrepancy (1).
Conclusions of the self-discrepancy theory
The self-discrepancy theory describes the association between the feelings of discomfort with one’s discrepant self-state representations (1).
The theory describes how the availability and accessibility of a self-discrepancy affects the magnitude of the discomfort associated with the incongruent views of oneself. People will suffer more dejection-related feelings when the accessibility of the discrepancy is significant between their ideal self-guides and self-concepts. People will suffer more agitation-related feelings when the magnitude of the discrepancy is greater between their ought self-guides and their self-concepts (1).
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(14) Bibring, E. (1953). The mechanism of depression. In P. Grecnacre (Ed.), Affective disorders pp. 13—48). New York: International Universities Press.
(15) Strauman, T. J.,. & Higgins, E. T. (in press). Automatic activation of distinct self-discrepancies and emotional syndromes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.