Theories of Self-Concept Maintenance



Self-esteem is defined in Essential Social Psychology as “an individual’s personal evaluation of their own self-concept” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 390).  Self-esteem is characterized as high or low, stable, fragile, vulnerable or unstable.  In any characterization, individuals strive to maintain or enhance their self-esteem.  In this regard, researchers have posited several different theories to explain self-concept maintenance.  This paper discusses similarities and differences of three self-concept maintenance theories, two founded on comparison of the self with the self, specifically, Control Theory of Self-Regulation and Self-Discrepancy Theory, and one founded on comparison of the self to others, specifically, Social Comparison Theory as depicted by a fictional character in a video vignette – Kathy (Laureate Education, Inc. [Laureate], 2011).

Kathy – Positive Self-Esteem

The vignette centers on an employee review.  The boss reviews the employee’s performance scores on a scale of 1 to 5 in categories of organizational agility, communication, and planning and prioritizing, scoring 3, 3, and 5, respectively.  The boss gave Kathy an opportunity to discuss her performance in each category.  Kathy’s responses are indicative of an individual with healthy, positive self-esteem.

Kathy’s response to the first item indicates she takes responsibility for isolating herself during the recent project, and reassurance to the boss that she will begin “branching out and looking for feedback and ideas” from other departments.  She evidences no feelings of defensiveness or dejection from the criticism.

Similarly, Kathy accepts responsibility for a shipping error in discussing the second category.  Further, she self-initiated a constructive solution to the problem and explained the new system to the boss as both a preventive measure against issues in the future for herself and as a potentially useful tool for others within the company.  Kathy’s willingness to share a helpful tool with others indirectly indicates she does not believe herself to be in competition with others for her to be valued within the company and/or as an impact on her self-esteem.  She is clearly confident in her abilities.

The boss gives Kathy an excellent rating in the final category of planning and prioritizing.  Kathy’s response is appreciative and respectful.  She does not elaborate on her abilities other than to claim she enjoys planning and prioritizing.

Lastly, when the boss gives Kathy her overall score of 3.5 out of 5, Kathy thanks him for his advice assuring him of future improvement.  Further, she verbally commits to a modest improvement over the next year, while aiming higher indicating Kathy is setting a realistic goal for herself that she can commit to, while at the same, giving herself a loftier ideal as well.

Control Theory of Self-Regulation

This is the first of two theories that focus on “comparing the self with …the self” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 11).  Specifically, this is a “theory proposing that we use our self-awareness to assess whether or not we are meeting our goals and, if not, make efforts to improve the self in line with these goals” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 382).  Despite the simplified definition, the process as described in Crisp and Turner (2010) actually consists of a cognitive feedback loop in which a person compares their self to a standard (private or public, dependent upon their personal awareness factor).  This is the test phase.  If the individual does not meet the standard of comparison, theoretically, they take steps to meet the standard.  This is the operation phase.  Once the person has completed the steps involved, they compare themselves to the standard again.  Once again, a test phase.  If, at that point, the person has met the standard, they exit out of the feedback loop.  If, however, they have not met the standard, the person once again initiates the operation phase to take steps to meet their goals.  This continues until such time as the person meets the standard.

It is possible Kathy exercised this particular model in response to a shipping error that occurred during her job.  When the boss discussed it with Kathy she mentioned to him that the error was “definitely on my shoulders, and I felt terrible about it.  As a solution though, I created a new grid to help me decide who to contact and how for every likely scenario, so I have an easy reference to ensure that kind of mistake doesn’t happen again” (Laureate, 2011, p. 1).  In response to an error made at work, Kathy’s perception of herself and her job performance was likely diminished.  To compensate, Kathy proactively set in motion steps to rectify the situation, preventing errors in the future and bringing her perception of her job performance back in line with her standard of comparison.

Self-Discrepancy Theory

Similar to the Control Theory of Self-Regulation, Self-Discrepancy Theory involves a comparison “of the self with …the self” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 11).  However, Higgins (1987) proposes Self-Discrepancy Theory “focuses not only on the awareness of discrepancies between actual and ideal identity, but also on people’s emotional response to such discrepancies” (as cited in Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 13).  Further, rather than comparison to a single private or public standard self, Higgins postulates there are three distinct types of schema related to the self: actual, ideal and ought.  The actual self reflects current traits and characteristics.  The ideal self represents potential desired traits and characteristics.  The ought self reflects traits and characteristics we believe we should possess, “based on a sense of duty, responsibility or obligation” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 13).  This theory seems akin to the id, ego, and superego of consciousness, wherein the id reflects the basest desires, the superego is the super strict schoolmarm constantly nagging the ego and id to behave in ways appropriate to convention, and the ego is the regulatory negotiator between the two.  Instead of guilt occurring from disagreement between the factions, other negative emotional outcomes are likely.  Specifically, this theory proposes that “people are motivated to ensure that their actual self matches their ideal and ought self; the greater the discrepancy between the actual self and a self-guide …the greater the psychological discomfort that will be experienced” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 13).  Specifically, a discrepancy between actual and ideal selves results in disappointment and sadness whereas a discrepancy between actual-ought selves produces emotions such as “anger, fear, and nervousness” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 14).

Returning to the vignette, this theory is just as likely in response to the shipping error.  Kathy’s job performance was diminished.  Her actual self as an effective employee compared to her ideal self or ought self would evidence a discrepancy.  This discrepancy may have caused Kathy discomfort, emotionally, psychologically and/or physically.  In response to this discomfort and to minimize the discrepancies between her actual self and ideal/ought selves, Kathy put in place a solution to rectify the situation causing the shipping error.

Social Comparison Theory

Social Comparison Theory “proposes that we form a definition of the self by comparing ourselves with those around us” (Crisp & Turner, 2010, p. 391).  Indeed, the theory “argues that people evaluate their abilities as well as their opinions through reference to a social reality” (Hogg & Cooper, 2007, p. 10).  According to Fiske (2010), social comparison serves an understanding function and a self-enhancement function.  When individuals feel inadequate, they are likely to make downward comparisons with those who are less adequate or accomplished.  If an individual is seeking self-improvement, they are more likely to make an upward comparison to someone slightly better than himself or herself on that particular domain, hence inspiring them to improve.  An individual desiring a realistic assessment of their self makes both upward and downward comparisons in an attempt to form a valid assessment (Fiske, 2010, Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010).

There are no obvious indications of Kathy utilizing the Social Comparison Model directly in this vignette.  However, as a direct result of her employee review, she is likely to engage in this type of comparison in her reflections upon the review and its outcomes.  For instance, the boss made Kathy aware of his expectations of employees in general and her specifically as relates to the categories of communication and organization.  This newly acquired social awareness (public awareness) (Crisp & Turner, 2010) will allow Kathy to compare her self-concept, traits, and attributes to those of other employees within the company.  She can then take steps to improve skills in areas she feels are lacking.  It is important to note, however, Kathy appears to have relatively stable positive self-esteem.  She was capable of accepting responsibilities for her shortcomings, devise strategies for improvement, and accept praise without arrogance.  Further, at no time did she exhibit defensiveness or blame others for her deficiencies.  This is indicative that although her employment is important to her and part of her healthy self-esteem, she has a well-rounded sense of self comprised of a variety of domains unrelated to her effectiveness at her job.


This paper outlined and described three different types of self-concept maintenance theories, specifically Control Theory of Self-Regulation, Self-Discrepancy Theory, and Social Comparison Theory utilizing a video vignette of an employee’s job review for examples evidencing these theories.  The debate rages on between which theory is the best theory.  In this particular example, the Self-Discrepancy Theory seems most appropriate as evidenced by Kathy’s proactive steps taken to compensate for an error made on the job.  Further, of the three theories described, the Self-Discrepancy Theory allows for a more complex interaction between versions of the self and interactional components such as psychological and emotional discomfort.  On the other hand, these are just three of a variety of different theories available to the social psychologists.  Further, these theories are not mutually exclusive.  For instance, the Social Comparison Theory model can incorporate aspects of the Self-Discrepancy Model as versions of the actual, ideal and ought selves could involve social behaviors and expectations of the self.


Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2010).  Essential social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Fiske, S. T. (2010).  Social beings: Core motives in social psychology (2nd Ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Fiske, S. T., Gilbert, D. T., & Lindzey, G. (Eds.).  (2010). The handbook of social psychology (Vol. 1, 5th ed.).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hogg, M. A., & Cooper, J. (Eds.).  (2007). The Sage handbook of social psychology (concise student edition, ed.).  Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer).  (2011). Week 2: The virtual office .  Available from Walden University.

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2 thoughts on “Theories of Self-Concept Maintenance

  1. Pingback: Personality Types « 2013yearbookblog

  2. In researching for an assignment from Dr. E Social psychology Walden University I found this article which I find ironic because I have the exact assignment. I hope that I am able to convey my findings and evaluation as elegently as you have.

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