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Chapter 11 Study Guide

Terms in this set (35)

Because children can verbally communicate, research on self-understanding in childhood is not limited to visual self-recognition, as it is during infancy (Harter, 2012, 2013). Mainly through interviews, researchers have probed many aspects of children's self-understanding. Here are five main characteristics of self-understanding in young children:

Confusion of self, mind, and body. Young children generally confuse self, mind, and body. Most young children conceive of the self as part of the body, which usually means the head. For them, the self can be described along many material dimensions, such as size, shape, and color.

Concrete descriptions. Preschool children mainly think of themselves and define themselves in concrete terms. A young child might say, "I know my ABC's," "I can count," and "I live in a big house" (Harter, 2006). Although young children mainly describe themselves in terms of concrete, observable features and action tendencies, at about 4 to 5 years of age, as they hear others use psychological trait and emotion terms, they begin to include these in their own self-descriptions (Thompson, 2006). Thus, in a self-description, a 4-year-old might say, "I'm not scared. I'm always happy."

Physical descriptions. Young children also distinguish themselves from others through many physical and material attributes. Says 4-year-old Sandra, "I'm different from Jennifer because I have brown hair and she has blond hair." Says 4-year-old Ralph, "I am different from Hank because I am taller, and I am different from my sister because I have a bicycle."

Active descriptions. The active dimension is a central component of the self in early childhood. For example, preschool children often describe themselves in terms of activities such as play.

Unrealistic positive overestimations. Self-evaluations during early childhood are often unrealistically positive and represent an overestimation of personal attributes (Harter, 2012, 2013). A young child might say, "I know all of my ABC's" but does not; or might comment, "I'm never scared," which is not the case. These unrealistic positive overestimations of the self occur because young children (1) have difficulty in differentiating their desired and actual competence, (2) cannot yet generate an ideal self that is distinguished from a real self, and (3) rarely engage in social comparison—exploring how they compare with others. Young children's self-evaluations also reflect an inability to recognize that they can possess opposite attributes, such as "good" and "bad" or "nice" and "mean" (Harter, 2006).
Children's self-understanding becomes more complex during middle and late childhood (Carpendale & Lewis, 2015). And their social understanding, especially in taking the perspective of others, also increases.

Self-Understanding Five key changes characterize the increased complexity of children's self-understanding in middle and late childhood:

Psychological characteristics and traits. In middle and late childhood, especially from 8 to 11 years of age, children increasingly describe themselves in terms of psychological characteristics and traits, in contrast with the more concrete self-descriptions of younger children. Older children are more likely to describe themselves as "popular, nice, helpful, mean, smart, and dumb" (Harter, 2006, p. 526).

Social descriptions. In middle and late childhood, children begin to include social aspects such as references to social groups in their self-descriptions (Harter, 2006). For example, a child might describe herself as a Girl Scout, as a Catholic, or as someone who has two close friends.

Social comparison. Children's self-understanding in middle and late childhood includes increasing reference to social comparison (Harter, 2006). That is, elementary-school-age children increasingly think about what they can do in comparison with others.

Real self and ideal self. In middle and late childhood, children begin to distinguish between their real and ideal selves (Harter, 2006). This change involves differentiating their actual competencies from those they aspire to have and think are the most important.

Realistic. In middle and late childhood, children's self-evaluations become more realistic (Harter, 2006). This change may occur because of increased social comparison and perspective taking.
The development of self-understanding in adolescence is complex and involves a number of aspects of the self (Harter, 2012). The tendency to compare themselves with others continues to increase in the adolescent years. However, when asked whether they engage in social comparison, most adolescents deny it because they are aware that it is somewhat socially undesirable to do so.

Let's examine other ways in which the adolescent's self-understanding differs from the child's:

Abstract and idealistic thinking. According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, many adolescents begin thinking in more abstract and idealistic ways. When asked to describe themselves, adolescents are more likely than children to use abstract and idealistic labels. Consider 14-year-old Laurie's abstract description of herself: "I am a human being. I am indecisive. I don't know who I am." Also consider her idealistic description of herself: "I am a naturally sensitive person who really cares about people's feelings. I think I'm pretty good looking."

Self-consciousness. Adolescents are more likely than children to be self-conscious about and preoccupied with their self-understanding. This self-consciousness and self-preoccupation reflect adolescent egocentrism.

Contradictions within the self. As adolescents begin to differentiate their concept of the self into multiple roles in different relationship contexts, they sense potential contradictions between their differentiated selves (Harter, 2006, 2012). An adolescent might use this self-description: "I'm moody and understanding, ugly and attractive, bored and inquisitive, caring and uncaring, and introverted and fun-loving" (Harter, 1986). Young adolescents tend to view these opposing characteristics as contradictory, which can cause internal conflict. However, older adolescents and emerging adults begin to understand that an individual can possess opposing characteristics and to integrate these opposing self-labels into their emerging identity (Harter, 2006, 2012).
The fluctuating self. The adolescent's self-understanding fluctuates across situations and across time (Harter, 2006). The adolescent's self continues to be characterized by instability until the adolescent constructs a more unified theory of self, usually not until late adolescence or even early adulthood.

Real and ideal selves. The adolescent's emerging ability to construct ideal selves in addition to actual ones can be perplexing and agonizing to the adolescent. In one view, an important aspect of the ideal or imagined self is the possible self—what individuals might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming (Markus & Kitayama, 2010, 2012; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Thus, adolescents' possible selves include both what adolescents hope to be and what they dread they will become (Lee & others, 2015; Pierce, Schmidt, & Stoddard, 2015). The attributes of future positive selves (getting into a good college, being admired, having a successful career) can direct future positive states. The attributes of future negative selves (being unemployed, being lonely, not getting into a good college) can identify what is to be avoided. A recent study of adolescents in Hong Kong found that those reporting pragmatic support ("If I need to know something about the world, I can ask my parents," for example) had possible selves that were focused more on career and school, and they were more likely to think they could attain their hoped-for possible selves and avoid their feared possible selves (Zhu & others, 2015).

Self-integration. In late adolescence and emerging adulthood, self-understanding becomes more integrative, with the disparate parts of the self more systematically pieced together (Harter, 2006, 2012, 2013). Older adolescents and emerging adults are more likely to detect inconsistencies in their earlier self-descriptions as they attempt to construct a general theory of self, an integrated sense of identity.
In a recent study, higher levels of self-control assessed at 4 years of age were linked to improvements in the math and reading achievement of early-elementary-school children living in predominantly rural and low-income contexts (Blair & others, 2015). Also, one study revealed that children from low-income families who had a higher level of self-regulation made better grades in school than their counterparts who had a lower level of self-regulation. Another study found that self-control increased from 4 to 10 years of age and that high self-control was linked to lower levels of deviant behavior. In this study, 7-year-old children with low self-regulation living in low-SES conditions had more emotional problems than their 3-year-old counterparts. Thus, low self-regulation was linked to an increase in low-SES children's emotional problems over time.


Few studies of self-regulation have focused on adolescents. On the one hand, advances in cognitive skills (logical thinking, for example), increased introspection, and the greater independence of adolescence might lead to increased self-control. Also, advances in cognitive abilities provide adolescents with a better understanding of the importance of delaying gratification in exchange for something desirable (such as a good grade in a class) rather than seeking immediate gratification (listening to music rather than studying). On the other hand, an increased sense of invincibility (which can lead to risk taking), impulsiveness, and social comparison might produce less self-control.
A key component of self-regulation is engaging in effortful control, which involves inhibiting impulses and not engaging in destructive behavior, focusing and maintaining attention despite distractions, and initiating and completing tasks that have long-term value, even if they may seem unpleasant.

Some researchers emphasize the early development of self-regulation in childhood and adolescence as a key contributor to adult health and even longevity.
Self-control increases in early and middle adulthood. Researchers have found a decline in perceived self-control of health and cognitive functioning in older adults.

Although older adults are aware of age-related losses, most still effectively maintain a sense of self-control. Recent research indicates that self-control plays an important role in older adults' quality of life, including lower levels of depression and obesity.




Selective optimization with compensation theory states that successful aging is linked with three main factors: selection, optimization, and compensation (SOC). The theory states that individuals can produce new resources and allocate them effectively to tasks they want to master.
Selection, optimization, and compensation involve the following:
Selection is based on the concept that older adults have a reduced capacity and a loss of functioning, which require a reduction in performance in most life domains such as memory and physical skills.

Optimization suggests that it is possible to maintain performance in some areas through continued practice and the use of new technologies. Examples might include doing crossword puzzles to maintain memory skills and exercising to optimize strength.

Compensation becomes relevant when life tasks require a level of capacity beyond the current level of the older adult's performance potential. Older adults especially need to compensate in circumstances that impose high mental or physical demands, such as when thinking about and memorizing new material very rapidly, reacting quickly when driving a car, or running fast. When older adults develop an illness, the need for compensation increases.


From 25 to 34 years of age, participants said that they personally invested more time in work, friends, family, and independence, in that order. From 35 to 54 and 55 to 65 years of age, family became more important to them than friends in terms of their personal investment. Little changed in the rank ordering of persons 70 to 84 years old, but for participants 85 to 105 years old, health became the most important personal investment. Thinking about life showed up for the first time on the most important list for those who were 85 to 105 years old.