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Self discrepancy theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


The concept of self discrepancy theory explains the ultimate source of anxiety and dejection (Higgins, 1987, 1989, 1999b). The basic premise is that individuals experience anxiety when they feel they have not fulfilled their duties and obligations, but experience dejection when they feel they have not fulfilled their hopes and aspirations. This framework is also the precursor of regulatory focus theory.

According to this theory, throughout the lifespan, individuals learn the duties and obligations they must fulfill to preclude sudden, adverse events or punishments (Higgins, 1987). Over time, these duties and obligations consolidate to form an abstracted set of principles, designated as an ought self guide (Higgins, 1987). When individuals feel they might not have fulfilled these duties and obligations, they experience an impending sense of punishment, experienced as agitation and anxiety (Strauman, 1989).

Throughout their life, individuals also learn the achievements and aspirations they must realize to secure rewards, such as love and approval. These achievements and aspirations also coalesce to form an abstracted set of principles, referred to as the ideal self guide (Higgins, 1987). When individuals feel they might not be able to achieve these aspirations, they anticipate the withdrawal of these rewards--a gradual rather than abrupt sense of loss--experienced as dejection, disappointment, and depression (Strauman, 1989). A wealth of studies has corroborated the key propositions that underpin self discrepancy theory (for reviews, see Boldero & Francis, 1999 Boldero, Moretti, Bell, & Francis, 2005& Higgins, 1999b& Scott & O'Hara, 1993).

Many similar models have also characterized how deviations from some goal or target evoke unpleasant emotions and elicit behaviors, intended to redress these shortfalls (see Carver, 2004& Carver & Scheier, 1982, 1990, 1998& Duval & Wicklund, 1972). Although related, several features vary across these models. To illustrate, some researchers argue that negative emotions elicit the behaviors that redress deviations from some goal (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). Other researchers, in contrast, maintain the emotions merely inform the individuals that a discrepancy needs to be redressed (Carver, 2004).


As evidence of self discrepancy theory, Higgins, Shah, and Friedman (1997), accumulated evidence that vindicates self discrepancy theory. Participants were instructed to list traits they would like to exhibit, or feel they should exhibit--referred to as ideal and ought characteristics. In addition, participants specified the extent to which they exhibited each of these characteristics. Finally, the extent to which they experienced various emotions was assessed. Consistent with self discrepancy theory, participants who felt they had not fulfilled their ideals, called an actual-ideal discrepancy, reported an elevated incidence of dejection. In contrast, participants who felt they had not satisfied their oughts, referred to as an actual-ought discrepancy, reported an elevated incidence of agitation.

As Phillips and Silvia (2010) demonstrated, when several measures are introduced to control various limitations, self discrepancy theory is only partly supported. Specifically, discrepancies between the ideal and actual self seem to predict depression but discrepancies between the ought and actual self predict both anxiety and depression. Hence, contrary to self discrepancy theory, more immediate shortfalls can also evoke depressive symptoms.

The study that was conducted by Phillips and Silvia (2010) overrides several limitations of past research. First, in previous research, the sample size was often small, and hence the association between some discrepancies and emotions might have been obscured. Phillips and Silvia (2010) conducted a study in which the sample was 245. Second, often only one scale, such as the Selves Questionnaire, is administered to measure discrepancies. Similarly, mood is often measured with short unvalidated scales. Hence, factors specific to the scales cannot be disentangled from error associated with the measure itself. Phillips and Silvia (2010) administered three measures to assess these discrepancies and two measures to assess mood, subjecting these data to structural equation modeling.

Complications to self discrepancy theory

Qualifications to self discrepancy theory

The emotions that self discrepancies evoke partly depend on whether or not individuals feel they chose their goals themselves. According to Higgins (1987), when individuals feel their goals were imposed by someone in their life, failure to achieve their hopes and aspirations evokes shame and embarrassment rather than dejection and disappointment. Likewise, failure to satisfy duties and obligations that someone else imposed promotes resentment, representing antipathy towards the impending punishment (Higgins, 1987).

Nevertheless, Tangney, Niedenthal, Covert and Barlow (1998) showed that feelings of shame arise in response to any forms of discrepancy. Likewise, depression, not anxiety, was related to both actual-ought and actual-ideal discrepancies, which challenges self-discrepancy theory.

Factors that moderate the effect of self discrepancies

Brown and McConnell (2009) argued that some individuals are especially motivated to resolve self discrepancies. Specifically, individuals who experience erratic shifts in mood are particularly sensitive to these discrepancies.

To illustrate, some individuals feel they demonstrate the same traits in most or all facets of their life, called low self complexity. These individuals tend to experience unstable emotions (see also Self compartmentalization theory). Because their emotions vary appreciably over time, these individuals are especially sensitive to their affective state. To illustrate, as Dixon and Baumeister (1991) showed, these individuals are more inclined than anyone who exhibits elevated levels of self complexity to consider their emotions and intuitions to reach decisions.

Brown and McConnell (2009), indeed, showed that deviations from some goal or standard, analogous to self discrepancies, are more likely to affect the behavior of individuals who exhibit low rather than high self complexity. In their study, participants completed a series of anagrams and were, erroneously, informed their performance was inadequate. Their mood was also assessed both before and after the feedback. Furthermore, their level of self complexity was determined. Finally, before they attempted another sequence of anagrams, participants were granted an opportunity to practice this task. Some of these participants were told that practice has been shown to improve ability on this task& the other participants were told that practice is fruitless.

If the participants exhibited low self complexity, their level of practice depended on their emotional state. Specifically, if the feedback significantly dampened their mood, they become more inclined to practice extensively--but only if informed this practice might be effective. In other words, their behavior was contingent upon their emotional state (Brown & McConnell (2009).

If the participants exhibited high self complexity, their level of practice was unrelated to their emotional state. They were less sensitive to these affective reactions (Brown & McConnell, 2009). This pattern of observations, thus, confirms that individuals who demonstrate self complexity are less sensitive to self discrepancies and the corresponding emotions.

Other models of discrepancy

Multiple discrepancies

Some alternative frameworks consider other standards that might elicit discrepancies (see also evaluation theory& Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002& Diener & Lucas, 2000). Multiple discrepancy theory, for example, as delineated by Michalos (1985), assumes that individuals might feel unhappy or dissatisfied if the resources they have acquired does not match or exceed the resources that other key figures in their life have attained, called a social comparison discrepancy. Second, individuals might feel unhappy or dissatisfied if they had could access more resources in the past than now, called past comparison discrepancy. Finally, consistent with self discrepancy theory, individuals might feel unhappy or dissatisfied if they have not acquired the resources they want, called a desire discrepancy.

As Michalos (1985) showed, these three discrepancies--social comparison, past comparison, and desire--explained approximately 50% of the variance in happiness and satisfaction. Desire discrepancies were the main predictor of these measures.

The undesired self

Some researchers argue that discrepancies from undesired, rather than ideal, selves correlate more strongly with mood states and life satisfaction. In one study, conducted by Ogilvie (1987), the undesired, ideal, and actual selves were assessed. To gauge the undesired self, participants describe themselves at their worst (see also Ogilvie, Cohen, & Solomon, 2008). Discrepancies between undesired and actual selves were positively, and strongly, associated with life satisfaction. In contrast, discrepancies between ideal and actual selves were negatively, but only modestly, associated with life satisfaction.

According to Ogilvie (1987), ideal self is not often grounded in actual experience and, therefore, is hazy. Undesired self, in contrast, is often derived from experiences in which social roles were disrupted or precluded in some way.

Implications of discrepancies

According to a variety of theories, discrepancies between the existing traits, status, or possessions of individuals and some standard evokes negative affective states, such as agitation or dejection. Discrepancies between existing and desired wealth is one of the most pronounced determinants of these emotions (see Solberg, Diener, & Robinson, 2004), perhaps amplified by the elevated standards of affluence that advertisers often advocate (Brown, Kasser, Ryan, Linley, & Orzech, 2009). Two courses of action can be pursued to curb these discrepancies.

First, many individuals strive to accumulate more resources or enhance their traits. Nevertheless, this endeavor does not seem to improve wellbeing significantly. As Easterlin (2001) showed, for example, subjective wellbeing does not seem to improve appreciably as income rises across the lifespan. The correlation between income and subjective wellbeing often approximates .1 and seldom exceeds .25 (e.g., Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, & Diener, 2004).

Attempts to curb rather than fulfill desires has been shown to improve wellbeing. In a study conducted by Brown, Kasser, Ryan, Linley, and Orzech (2009), for example, participants answered a series of questions about whether their current and desired financial status diverge, such as "How well does your current financial status right now approach what you want". Unsurprisingly, a discrepancy between current and desired financial status was inversely related to measures of wellbeing, as represented by emotions and life satisfaction.

More interestingly, however, this relationship persisted even after various indices of financial status were controlled, such as annual income, household income, savings, debt, and assets. Accordingly, the adverse consequences of discrepancies between current and desired financial status do not reflect actual wealth--and thus most likely represent unrealistic desires (Brown, Kasser, Ryan, Linley, & Orzech, 2009).

Furthermore, as Brown, Kasser, Ryan, Linley, and Orzech (2009) showed, mindfulness training fostered a diminution in desires, and thus a reduction in discrepancies and improvement in wellbeing. That is, individuals who attended a mindfulness training course, which spanned four weeks, were less inclined to feel their actual and desired financial status diverge from one another. During this training, individuals learnt to focus their attention on their immediate environment--their sensations, emotions, thoughts, and urges, for example (see mindfulness). Mindfulness increases the extent to which individuals value their ongoing experiences instead of material possessions as well as instills a sense of acceptance with their existing life.

Self-discrepancies between either the actual and ought self or the actual and ideal self also diminish a sense of purpose in life. For example, in one study (Stanley & Burrow, 2015), participants were asked to write about some differences or similarities between their actual self and either their ought or ideal self. Next, participants answered questions that gauge the degree to which they experience a sense of purpose in life. Self-discrepancies diminished purpose in life. Subsequent analyses showed that a reduced sense of agency mediated this relationship.

Suicide and escape theory

According to escape theory, when individuals feel they cannot attain important standards, representing a pronounced self discrepancy, they experience a strong motivation to escape the self (Baumeister, 1990). This need to escape can manifest as suicidal ideation, drug use, excessive sleep, or other behaviors.

Indeed, Chatard and Selimbegovic (2011) confirmed that, after individuals recognize they cannot fulfill some standard, thoughts about suicide are more accessible. Furthermore, characteristics or conditions that amplify the awareness of individuals about themselves--in essence, magnifying the self--tend to increase the salience of these suicidal thoughts. Suicide thoughts are the primary precursor of suicidal behaviors and attempts (Nock et al., 2008). In addition, when individuals recognize they cannot fulfill some standard, they are also more attracted to drugs that can alter their state of consciousness, representing another attempt to escape the self.

Specifically, in Study 1, participants first completed a measure of private self consciousness (e.g., "I'm always trying to figure myself out") and public self consciousness (e.g., "I'm usually aware of my appearance"). They also completed questions that assess the tendency to escape in stressful situations, measured by items that reflect how people cope with stress, epitomized by statements like "I daydream about things other than this", "I just give up trying to reach my goal", "I sleep more than usual", or "I drink alcohol or take drugs in order to think about other things".

Next, some of the participants, all of whom were university students, were asked to reflect upon the feelings they would experience if they failed to secure a job after completing their studies and became destitute. Other participants imagined the feelings they would experience during times of war, to prime thoughts about death instead. Finally, some participants completed neither of these two tasks.

Finally, participants completed a word completion task. Fragments of words were presented, such as ha-g or cof-in. Some of the items related to suicide, such as hang. Other words related to death, such as coffin. Finally, some of the words were related to neither death nor suicide.

As predicted, when individuals reflected upon the prospect of failure, they later recognized more words that relate to suicide, like hang--especially if self consciousness and escape motivations were elevated. Another measure that was administered, desire to maintain control, did not moderate this relationship. Presumably, failure evoked thoughts about suicide, particularly when the self was salient and escape was regarded as an effective means to resolve stress. Failure did not, however, increase the accessibility of thoughts about death in general.

Study 2 showed that elevated standards were especially likely to initiate these thoughts about suicide. Study 2 was similar to Study 1, but was conducted in Switzerland and Cote d'Ivoire. In Switzerland, the expectations of people are higher& they expect they should be able to secure a job and evade poverty. Interestingly, in Switzerland, relative to Cote d'Ivoire, failure was especially likely to evoke thoughts about suicide. Presumably, the high standards translate to more pronounced self discrepancies in people who imagine failure and unemployment. These pronounced self discrepancies magnify the motivation to escape the self.

In Study 3, some participants, all residents of Switzerland, were informed that 90% of Swiss citizens were satisfied with their life. In addition, all participants completed a measure of happiness as well as the task that gauges the accessibility of thoughts that relate to suicide. Unsurprisingly, in participants who were not happy, suicidal thoughts were more accessible: They recognized more words that relate to suicide. Interestingly, limited happiness was more likely to evoke suicidal thoughts after people are told that most residents of their nation are satisfied. This information, presumably, heightened the discrepancy between themselves and societal standards. Study 4 uncovered a similar pattern of results in the Czech Republic.

Study 5 examined whether images about failure do not only elicit thoughts about suicide but also increase the desire of marijuana smokers to smoke more of this drug. In this study, some participants recalled a failure whereas other participant recalled a time in which they felt considerable anger. Next, they completed the task that gauges the accessibility of thoughts associated with suicide. Finally, they estimated when they would next smoke marijuana. When participants reflected upon failure, suicide thoughts were more accessible and the need to smoke marijuana very soon was more pronounced.

The final study showed that body dissatisfaction was likely to evoke thoughts about suicide, especially after the thin ideal was emphasized. Interestingly, this body dissatisfaction, coupled with high standards, also increased the likelihood that participants would recognize words associated with escape, such as peace, escape, and serene. That is, they were able to derive these words from fragments like pe-ce--although the actual study was not in English.

These findings are consistent with escape theory (Baumeister, 1990). According to this theory, a series of phases precede a suicide attempt. First, individuals become aware of a major discrepancy between themselves and the standards they are expected to achieve, manifesting as a sense of failure or disappointment. Second, individuals ascribe this failure to themselves and not to transient circumstances. Next, they become acutely aware of themselves, always evaluating their behavior. This awareness then amplifies their negative emotions. Finally, they reject their existing perspectives and sources of meaning, called cognitive deconstruction. This rejection enables the individuals to escape their conceptualizations of themselves and, at least momentarily, curb their negative emotions.


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Last Update: 7/5/2016