Perceptions of Self: the Effects of Self-Concept Discrepancy, Possible Selves and Dispossession

J. Michael Munson, Santa Clara University
[ to cite ]:
J. Michael Munson (1993) ,"Perceptions of Self: the Effects of Self-Concept Discrepancy, Possible Selves and Dispossession", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 433-435.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 433-435


J. Michael Munson, Santa Clara University

Three recent studies on self-concept and various aspects of consumer behavior (Gould 1993; Morgan 1993; Pavia 1993) all reflect a sense of frustration with its conventional conceptualization and measurement. Noting inadequacies in the traditional ways of assessing self, Gould contends that a better measure is one which also includes psychographic and demographic characteristics, in addition to the more usual traits. Morgan suggests that "Possible Selves" may hold more promise. Pavia is less concerned with how to conceptualize self-concept per se, and does not offer a clear definition of the construct; rather her focus is more on how dispossession affects self-concept. Key ideas, contributions, and limitations of each of these studies will be discussed below.

Gould's primary goal is to assess how the "procedural aspects of self-concept - private self-consciousness (SC) and self-monitoring (SM) - affect the self-report of the contents of self-concept and related life-style items." While it is unclear how these two apparent "traits" of self-concept are "procedural," the study does help clarify our understanding of the conceptual and operational distinctions between SC and SM. A major contribution of Gould is combining SC and SM within the same study to assess their individual and possible interactive effects. Moreover, he notes the strong possibility that subscales in the Self Consciousness Scales (SCS) developed previously may be related to the instruments measuring Self Monitoring (SM), especially the two SCS dimensions of Public Self Consciousness and Social Anxiety. Therefore he minimizes potential confounding by using only one dimension of the SCS (Private Self-Consciousness).

The study, however, raises both conceptual and methodological questions. There remain ambiguities regarding the expected behaviors of individuals characterized by various levels of high vs. low SC or SM. For example, the definition of private self-consciousness seems problematic: "...the trait equivalent of state self-awareness or self-focus (Fenigstein et al 1975)... It [SC] is thought to affect attitude-behavior consistency in reflecting the degree that a person is able to access and know his/her own attitudes-a person higher in private SC being more likely to exhibit such consistency than others" (Carver and Scheier 1981; Miller and Grush 1986). It remains unclear from this definition why a high SC individual would exhibit more "behavioral consistency." Contending so would seem to assume the absence of social or environmental influences.

Regarding methodological issues, the quota sampling procedures used raise some caveats, and we gain only sketchy insight into the sample's demographic characteristics, limiting external validity. Questions also arise regarding the instrument used to assess self-concept discrepancy and the specific task instructions for its completion. A rather unconventional 30-item inventory was used, containing a variety of disparate items, ranging from traditional self-attributes (masculine/feminine, achievement) to much less traditional items (decent housing, taxes, height). Rather than a measure of self-concept, this instrument is perhaps more appropriately described as a melange of items, some indexing aspects of self, others life-style and demography. Key psychometric properties of the self-concept measure are also unknown or unreported.

Regarding task instructions, one would like to know more about this rather unique way of assessing self-concept discrepancy (i.e., a 10 point scale with a "1" indicating the person felt his/her actual states to be "very close" to ideal (a small discrepancy) and a "10" indicating actual states to be "very far" from ideal (a large discrepancy). Would the self-reported discrepancies be similar if actual and ideal images were each respectively assessed first, and then the researcher (not the respondent) computed the total discrepancy score between the two self components? The factor analysis also raises some questions; the rationale for using principal components with varimax rotation, rather than oblique, is not articulated. Although this yielded 8 factors the eighth factor was dropped and the remaining seven were interpreted. A more appropriate procedure, given the decision to drop this factor, would have been to rerun the analysis, constraining results to a 7-factor solution. This might yield a different set of final factors, loadings, and interpretations.

These limitations notwithstanding, this study improves our understanding of the possible ways in which SC and SM individually and jointly affect self-concept and self-report measures. The results are encouraging in that the effects of SC and SM remained even after controlling for specific demographics. Future studies should strive to incorporate fuller, more conventional measures of self-concept and investigate other types of task instructions.

Morgan (1993) identifies three main goals: (1) to review the evolution of self-concept research in consumer behavior and its limitations; (2) to explore Belk's (1988) extended self paradigm; and (3) to elaborate theoretical definitions of Possible Selves (PSs), as well as specific propositions and empirical considerations and benefits from incorporating this perspective into consumer behavior. Regarding the first goal, one must disagree with her contention that much of the prior research "... lack[s] of development of a theoretical base..." Such criticism, while applicable to some studies, is too sweeping for at least three reasons. Many earlier studies were: (1) built upon the notions of symbolic communication and the theoretic propositions that some objects (products, brands,) and/or actions may be imbued with "surplus meaning" or badge value and therefore useful to the consumer for communicating desired aspects of self to others; (2) grounded in congruity theory, with it's attendant notions of matching products (brands) to one's self-concept (actual, ideal, etc.) and assuming that the closer the match, the greater the likelihood of preference, usage, ownership, etc.; (3) built upon the conceptual notion that the discrepancies between components of self (ex., actual, ideal) can motivate behavior to reduce the gap via approach or avoidance of some product or brand.

Regarding the second major goal, the study does little to explore Belk's (1988) paradigm of extended self per se, or how the construct of PSs is theoreticially linked to, or different from extended self. Citing his contention that "...self extends not only to the present material environment, but extends forward and backward in time" (Belk 1988, p. 674), Morgan implicitly suggests that this is the conceptual link between extended self and PSs. She further suggests that "... if [the possible self] is incorporated into the current conceptualization of consumers' extended self, [it] may serve to allay some of the concerns regarding the operationalization of the extended self." However, this assertion remains untested and perhaps overly optimistic, for it's truthfulness requires a much more thorough discussion of how extant notions of possible selves are similar and dissimilar to those of extended self. Without such explication it will remain unclear to many why both conceptualizations of self (possible and extended) are needed, or for what types of research situations or consumption problems each conceptualization may prove more useful.

Regarding the third major goal, the study does make consumer researchers more aware of the construct of PSs. Morgan's discussion of the theoretic bases of PSs and the recent work in psychology provide useful background on the construct, as do her two specific propositions aimed at drawing PSs into consumer research: (1) individuals are able to identify and articulate a distinct PS dimension; (2) individuals are able to attribute certain consumption behaviors to the approach (avoidance) of envisioned positive (negative) PSs. Given the theoretic as opposed to empirical orientation of this study, these propositions are perhaps the study's biggest contribution. In effect, they define the starting point for those interested in PSs and their relevance to consumer behavior.

Beyond these propositions, however, four other important questions relevant to the possible utility of the PS construct in consumer behavior not identified by Morgan are also suggested. First, can we conceptually and empirically distinguish among the major, conventional measures of self-concepts - actual, ideal, social, looking glass, extended, and possible selves? A good empirical study, using multitrait-multimethod procedures, would help to answer whether PSs had a viable future in consumer behavior. Second, does the number, content, and intensity of various PSs vary as a function of such factors as the individual's involvement, and personality traits (ex., cognitive complexity, self-consciousness)? Third, with how many "possible selves" must consumer behavior researchers be concerned? The discipline must guard against becoming seduced by the potential unboundedness seemingly implied by this construct (as well as by extended self). Without extreme vigilance researchers could find themselves invoking a multitude of ambiguously conceptualized PSs for defining and explaining consumer behavior. This concern is all the more valid in light of Markus and Nurius' (1986) contention that all but the most routine human actions will implicate a PS, thereby implying the necessity to identify and operationalize each relevant PS across a multitude of possible marketing situations. Fourth, does the content of various PSs self-schema include identical dimensions (attributes, contents, traits), with each being assessed under dissimilar situations, or are the contents (dimensions, etc.) of each PS totally unique?

Pavia (1993) uses depth interviews to explore the relationships between self-perceptions and the dispossession experiences of people with HIV infection. She argues that one would expect HIV infection " profoundly challenge a person's sense of self..." and that the aim of her research is "... to understand changes in self-perception through an exploration of the dispossessional experiences of infected persons." Unfortunately, due to various methodological and conceptual limitations, these goals are not fully realized. The small sample size (n=10) constrains external validity. More importantly, questions of internal validity arise because no precise operational measures are suggested for the two most important variables under study (self-concept and dispossession behavior); hence it's not possible to quantitatively assess their relationship. Dispossession seems to be loosely defined and to cover many different things, including reduced income, decisions about who to leave things to, getting away or escaping from existing, unsatisfactory relationships, as well as activities required to qualify for state health benefits.

Also the reasons given for targeting AIDS suffers, while all relevant, are not necessarily unique to AIDS-infected individuals. With the exception of the final reason (i.e., "Many [AIDS sufferers] face negative reactions to their diagnoses from co-workers, friends and family"), these reasons don't preclude looking at other populations to study dispossession and its relation to self, including for example, terminal cancer patients or those undergoing chemotherapy.

Going beyond Pavia's (1993) study, many researchers would be interested in learning more about how specific dimensions of self-concept, or specific self-images (eg., actual, ideal, or various PSs) "change" as a consequence of two things: the progression of the individual through the four stages of HIV infection, and as a consequence of the individual's dispossession behavior. Does knowing one has the HIV virus differentially affect various PSs (current, expected and hoped-for)? One might conjecture that the self-concept may involve a variety or PSs: the denying self, progressing to the angry, enraged, or bitter self, transitioning to the depressed, perhaps despondent self; and moving ultimately to a more contented, or integrated self in the final stage. Admittedly, while these notions are speculative, the measurement of such potential changes in self-concept as the individual transitions through the various stages of HIV infecton would seemingly offer invaluable information for those involved in treating and administering services to this group.

The "conclusion" that material goods are not seen as valuable as personal relationships by HIV-infected individuals is probably applicable, again, to many situations where imminent death is the ultimate prospect- not just among people with AIDS. That HIV-infected individuals have a greater sense of loss at losing control over what they formally did or could do, compared to loss of control over "What they owned" is not surprising. As the man named Arnold in Pavia's study said: "I am what I do." His sentiments and those of other respondents are consistent with previous research suggesting that self defining activities and behaviors, those actions implicating our abilities to socialize and our interpersonal relationships, are generally more important and valued aspects of self-definition and identify than are objects.

If dispossession and its possible relationship to self-concept is to become an important consumer behavior research topic, then more elaborate conceptualization and operationalization of these two key constructs is required. Nonetheless, Pavia's study does make several useful contributions: (1) it gives us insight into the "human condition" of AIDS victims and the catastrophic effect it has on their lives, including the social stigma and the loss of job, friends, and family; (2) it promotes understanding of the tragic sense of personal loss which AIDS victims feel, and that a large component of this loss is in their sense of self; (3) it increases our understanding of the types of objects which are dispossessed and the associated pain; (4) it gives us some glint into the gross inadequacies of the social, economic, and political systems which fail to provide for the needs of AIDS victims. Studies in this vein are highly consistent with the recent appeal of Alan Andreasen, the Association for Consumer Research president, for more research addressing relevant social marketing issues. Such research has important implications for both the medical and service communities which treat HIV-infected individuals.


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Pavia, Teresa (1993), "Dispossession and Perceptions of Self in Late Stage HIV Infection," in Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. XX. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.