4 Psychological Strategies That Boost Self-Concept

How Self-Serving Strategies Help Maintain Self-Concept

Holding an image of the self
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Your self-concept is defined as the view that you hold of yourself. These few can often be positive, negative or mixed depending on the various influences that contribute to the development of self-concept such as your upbringing, experiences and culture.

There are a number of strategies that you might use to maintain or even improve your self-concept. Sometimes these self-serving strategies are harmless or beneficial, but sometimes they can have serious drawbacks. For example, you might fall victim to beliefs and biases that boost your self-esteem at the expense of seeing things as they really are. In others instances, you might engage in behaviors that boost your esteem in the short-term yet hurt your chances for success in the long-term.

Let’s explore a few of the most common self-serving strategies that people use to boost self-concept.

Self-Serving Beliefs

Self reflection in mirror
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One of the primary ways people maintain a positive self-concept is by believing that they are more likely to experience good events and less likely to experience bad events. Social psychologists refer to this way of thinking as unrealistic optimism or the optimism bias.

People not only view themselves as less likely than their peers to experience a negative event such as divorce, bankruptcy or a serious illness, they also tend to view themselves has having more positive personality traits such as kindness, trustworthiness, intelligence and maturity.

How do we manage to hold such an optimistic view of ourselves even when reality might tell us otherwise? Researchers suggest that we not only tend to see our own traits in an overly positive way, we also seek out information that makes us look good. For example, people who like to stay up late at night are going to pay more attention to a new article suggesting that night owls are more creative and intelligent.

Self-Serving Behaviors

Self handicapping behavior
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Since people are motivated to hold a positive view of themselves, they often engage in behaviors designed to uphold these views. One example of this is known as self-handicapping. This strategy involves creating barriers to success so that when people try and fail, they can then blame their lack of success on these obstacles.

For example, the night before a big exam a student might stay out late with friends instead of studying and sleeping. When she bombs the test the next day, she can blame her failure on her late-night activities rather than her lack of intelligence.

Self-Serving Comparisons

Comparing heights
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The social comparison process is one of the key ways that we come to know ourselves. By comparing our beliefs, attitudes, ideas and abilities to those who are the most similar to us, we build an image of who we are in relation to others in our peer group.

Sometimes we compare ourselves to people who are better off than us, which is known as an upward social comparison. When we engage in this process, we might find that we are lacking and look for ways to improve ourselves in order to be more like the people around us.

However, comparing ourselves to those that are worse off that we are, known as a downward social comparison, is one way that we can feel better about ourselves and maintain a positive self-concept.

For example, imagine that you are just signed up for a community softball team. You feel intimidated at first because you have never been very good at sports. During your team's first practice, you find yourself comparing your performance to those of several teammates who are much less skilled than you. Afterward, you feel much better about your performance. You might not be the best softball player, but you are still better than those other players by comparison.

Self-Serving Biases

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People also possess a number of built-in cognitive biases that contribute to a positive self-concept. When we look back on events in our past, we tend to remember ourselves as better than we were. If you were trying to remember your GPA in high school, for example, chances are you would estimate it to be a bit higher than it really was.

Another common self-serving bias is the tendency to believe that the majority of people share our opinions, beliefs or behaviors, a phenomenon known as the false consensus effect. By thinking that the vast majority of people are like us, we trick ourselves into believing that we are "normal" or even "desirable."

Misremembering is not the only bias that influences self-concept. People also tend to make self-serving attributions about their own behaviors, a phenomenon known as the self-serving bias.

Researchers have found that when people fail, they tend to blame outside forces. For example, when a student bombs a midterm exam, she might blame an inept teacher, her noisy classmates or a distracting roommate. Success, on the other hand, is more likely to be attributed to internal characteristics. When that same student aces the final exam, she is likely to credit her intelligence and hard work for the achievement.


Sanderson, C.A. (2010). Social Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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