Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Some people think they know themselves well, but do they really?

Some people will tell you that they have a clear sense of who they are, and that their sense of self is stable over time. Psychologists refer to this as having high "self-concept clarity". In a new study, Jean Guerrettaz and Robert Arkin shine a spotlight on these self-proclaimed self-knowers. The researchers find that their confidence is often fragile, and that somewhat paradoxically, it is people confident in their sense of self whose self-esteem is most undermined by challenging questions about who they are.

Guerrettaz and Arkin asked 91 undergrads to fill out a questionnaire about their confidence in their self-knowledge (their "self-concept clarity" to use the jargon), and then to provide ten traits to answer the question "Who am I?". The students were then given the challenge of providing either two or eight examples of when in life they'd exhibited what they considered to be their two most important traits. After all this, the participants said how hard they'd found the challenge and they completed a measure of their self-esteem.

Here's the key finding - the students who claimed to have high self-concept clarity said they found it more difficult to recall eight than two examples demonstrating their most important traits. What's more, struggling to find eight examples of each trait left their self-esteem drained, as compared to their high self-concept peers who only had to find two examples.

It's as if the awkward experience of the trickier version of the challenge had undermined these confident students' prior belief that they knew themselves well, leaving them feeling bad. In fact, after the trickier version of the task, the confident self-knowers ended up with self-esteem at the same level as the students who'd scored low in self-concept clarity at the study start.

Let's turn for a moment to these students with low self-knowledge. They actually said they found the challenge of producing eight examples for each personal trait no harder than producing two; and their self-esteem was no lower after the trickier challenge than after the easier version. Presumably this is because they didn't start out feeling confident in their sense of self, and the awkwardness of the self-reflective challenge came as no surprise to them.

These intriguing findings suggest that some people who believe they know themselves well may not actually know themselves as well as they think. When challenged to describe themselves and justify their answers, the difficulty of the experience jars with their prior belief that they are self-aware. Ironically then, it is people who are more modest about their self-knowledge who may actually know themselves better, at least in the sense of being more in tune with their own limited self-knowledge!


Guerrettaz, J., & Arkin, R. (2014). Who Am I? How Asking the Question Changes the Answer Self and Identity, 14 (1), 90-103 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.955049

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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