Possible Selves? Identifying Dimensions For Exploring the Dialectic Between Positive and Negative Selves in Consumer Behavior


Emma N. Banister and Margaret K. Hogg (2003) ,"Possible Selves? Identifying Dimensions For Exploring the Dialectic Between Positive and Negative Selves in Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 149-150.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 149-150


Emma N. Banister, UMIST

Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST



The purpose of this paper is to identify dimensions to use in exploring a range of 'possible selves’ and thus contribute to our understanding of the dialectic between positive and negative selves in consumer behavior. We report the development and testing of a set of scale items for measuring three aspects of the self-concept: actual, ideal and worst. Principal components analysis with varimax orthogonal rotation was used to identify five factors: energetic; orthodox; contemporary; disordered; masculinity-femininity. We use correlation analysis to explore the dialectic between actual, ideal and worst selves; and to examine the contribution of the negative self to identity formation.


The role of different negative (or unwelcome) aspects of identity and their relationship with consumption (and the associated rejection of products) have received scant attention compared with the extensive research into positive aspects of the self (e.g. actual, ideal). This relative neglect of negative selves represents a significant gap in our understanding of consumers’ self-concepts. This research draws upon notions of the self-concept and congruency. Traditionally, self-congruency (see for instance Sirgy 1982) has been central to theorizing about symbolic consumption. It has provided a means to understand how consumers seek to achieve self-consistency, by matching their self-concept (actual or ideal) to social prototypes (Niedenthal et al 1985) and product user stereotypes (Grubb and Grathwohl 1967; Sirgy et al 1997; Erickson 1996; Hyatt 1992). However, before we can extend this theorizing, using self-congruency, into the sphere of negative symbolic consumption, we need to establish the key features of possible selves, notably the worst self, in addition to actual and ideal selves.

An individual’s undesired or worst self is of particular relevance because negative symbolic consumption is about what a person is afraid of becoming. Consumers often imbue rejected products (and product user imagery stereotypes) with negative meanings. Various negative selves, and specifically the undesired or worst self, can be considered to be important reference points or 'implicit standards’ which individuals will use to assess how close they are to or distant from being like their most negative images of themselves (Ogilvie 1987). These negative self-images can be linked to negative product and brand imagery and constitute different aspects of negative symbolic consumption (i.e. distastes). The 'refusal of tastes’, may therefore say as much about us personally and socially as that which we opt to consume. It is significant that tastes are predominantly asserted in negative terms through the "refusal" of other tastes (Bourdieu 1984:56).

Research context

The product category of fashion and clothing provides a suitable research context because consumers use clothing in the constant negotiation of who they are, including the communication of group membership (McCracken and Roth 1989). The negotiation of appearance is a significant aspect of the development of the self. Consumers can thus use both the positive and negative meanings associated with their consumption choices in this product category to create and maintain their social and cultural identities.

Scale development

The research focused on the development of an instrument to explore the relationship between positive and negative aspects of the self concept. We report the development and testing of a set of 21 scale items for exploring three aspects of the self-concept: actual, ideal and worst. Principal components analysis with varimax orthogonal rotation was used for data analysis; followed by correlation analysis. Participants rated themselves on the scale in three different ways: their 'actual self’, their 'ideal self’ and their 'undesired self’.

Data collection, analysis and findings

Data was collected via the World Wide Web and Factor analysis was undertaken using principal components analysis with varimax orthogonal rotation. Five factors were found to potentially represent the dimensions of the self: energetic; orthodox; contemporary; disordered; masculinity-femininity. Exploratory data analysis was conducted using un-weighted factor sums, including t-tests and calculations to ascertain the discrepancies between the selves. The statistical analysis demonstrated that it was possible to identify dimensions that provide a consistent way in which to examine consumers’ different views of themselves. We established that the actual, ideal and worst self, although, by definition, very different, can be assessed via a number of common concepts.

Discussion and conclusion

This empirical study represents an important first step in the development of an instrument or exploring three different aspects of the self concept: actual, ideal and worst; and the potential interrelationships between different parts of the possible self, that is, the dialectic between positive and negative selves. Limited work exists on the interrelationships amongst different possible selves within the context of symbolic consumption. The instrument has the potential to contribute to our understanding of the relationship between 'worst self’ and product/brand imagery in symbolic product categories. This scale development could therefore represent a substantial advance in trying to extend theory building in symbolic consumption, which has traditionally drawn on the image congruency hypothesis, into areas of negative symbolic consumption. Finally, this study provides the basis for further examination of the role of the negative self in identify formation and identification.


Bourdieu, P (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Routledge, Kegan and Paul, London

Erickson, M.K. (1996) "Using Self-Congruity and Ideal Congruity to Predict Purchase Intention: A European Perspective" Journal of Euromarketing 6, 1 41-56

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Sirgy, M. J; Grewal, D; Mangleburg, T.F; Park, J; Chon, K-S; Claiborne, C.B; Johar, J.S; and Berkman, H (1997), "Assessing the Predictive Validity of Two Methods of Measuring Self-Image Congruence", Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science 25 (3) 229-241.



Emma N. Banister, UMIST
Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30 | 2003

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