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What are the major distinctions between self-efficacy, self-concept and self-esteem? How do these components of the self affect people's interaction with others?


            Discussions surrounding the self have held the interest of sociologists and psychologists alike for decades. In modern times, research regarding the components of the self, inclusive of the self-concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy, has been deemed essential to understanding and defining the "self".

            In as much as there is much attention focused on the self and it's components, there remains considerable confusion about the self and self-concept as well as self-esteem and self-efficacy.  The major problem appears to be the inability to separate and view one concept as different from the others.

            It is impossible to consider the aforementioned aspects of the self without recognizing how closely they relate to each other.  The similarities between these three (3) components of the self however, are not the main focus of this paper.  Instead, it seeks to outline several possible meanings of self-concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy and the way in which each has been understood within a social context, so as to accurately grasp the significant ways in which they differ.  Further, attention will be given to the impact of these elements of self on social relationships.

            If one considers the history of thought on the "self" prior to the seventeenth (17th) century it is easy to be surprised at how far understanding of the "self" has come.  Far from the idea of the self as a "non physical incumbent of a physical body"(Burns, 1979 p. 188), present day understandings mirror the notions developed by Locke (1960) and Hume (1928).  They propose that human beings have the power to think intelligently and to reason and reflect on themselves (Burns, 1979).

            That truth is the foundation upon which the 'self-concept' may be understood.  Man must "stand outside himself" in order to formulate thoughts and feelings about who he is.  These thoughts and feelings about his 'self' define his self-concept (Rosenberg, 1979).  "It is an organised collection of beliefs and self-perceptions about oneself" (Baron & Byrne, 2000, p. 160).

            There are three elements that make up the self-concept namely: social identity elements, disposition and physical characteristics.  Social identity elements concern the ways in which we as humans are assigned labels and classified based on "socially defined categories" which include race, religion, legal status, name, age and such the like.  The disposition elements has to do with the tendencies or attributes which the individual views himself as possessing, and may include his abilities, values as well as specific habits or act (Rosenburg, 1979).  Lastly, physical characteristics refer to the human body and way in which it appears to the individual in his mind (as cited in Schilder, 1968, p. 107).

            Particularly noteworthy is the idea of "possible selves", that is future self-concepts, what a person may and will become.  The notion is plausible since we do grow and change as the years pass and seldom remain exactly the same.  With the existence of a "clear image of future selves" problems may arise in our interactions with others as they see only what is presently before them (Baron & Byrne, 2000).  A further challenge occurs when only a limited number of " possible selves" can be discerned.  Individuals with this challenge often respond negatively to criticism and are often devastated by disappointment.

            While the self-concept can be viewed as the " 'cognitive part of the self", Self-esteem may be seen as the "affective portion of the self" (Hamachek, 1978).  Randall E. Osborne (1993a) provides a lucid definition: "a relatively permanent positive or negative feeling about self that may become more or less positive or negative as individuals encounter and interpret successes and failures in their daily lives."

            Self-esteem results from the process of self-evaluation, which may be carried out, so as to achieve "self-assessment, self-enhancement, or self verification (Baron & Byrne, 2000, p. 170).  Self-evaluation usually involves some reference or comparison to the ideas and or practices of others.  Individuals with low self-esteem especially, practice this form of self-evaluation (as cited in Wayment & Taylor, 1995, Journal of Personality p. 63).

            Nonetheless, the effect of social comparisons is dependent on whom the individual chooses as his or her standard for measurement.  If for example a 'downward comparison' is made with someone worse off than the individual, then a contrast effect occurs which serves to boost self-esteem (Crocker, 1993).  Self-esteem may also be lowered if the comparison is made with someone that we know well who has some inadequacy.  An assimilation effect occurs in this instance because on is "associated with the inadequacy" (Baron & Byrne, 2000, p. 172).  On the other hand, 'upward comparisons' may serve to lower self-esteem levels; but once again, the effect is dependent on the group for comparison.  It is interesting to note that humans are hardly ever affected or concerned with the achievements of strangers but become severely affected when persons within or close social groups demonstrate superiority (Major, Sciacchitano & Crocker, 1993).

            From the foregoing one may now comprehend that "the self is what we know about ourselves", the "self-concept is what we think of ourselves, and the self-esteem what we feel about ourselves" (Hamachek, 1978, p. 6).  Yet, there remains one crucial element of the self that merits our attention--Self-efficacy.  Albert Bandura, (1986), considered this aspect of the self; as part of his Social Cognitive Theory; and consequently suggested that the term refers to an "individual's belief that he or she possesses the skills or capabilities necessary to carry out the actions that are required

for success in a given situation".

            The most engaging quality of efficacy is that it is a product of learnt behaviour.  An individual must therefore use his "social, cognitive, and behavioural" skills in an organised fashion in order to achieve success.  This requires much in the way of 'trial and error' testing along with consistent effort.  It is by way of this process that the individual becomes aware of his propensity with regard to specific situations. Self-efficacy is a positive emotion and persons (as a general rule) seek out opportunities to display "self-efficacious behaviour" (Stephan & Stephan, 1990).

                        Now that a close look at self-concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy has been taken, it becomes easier to adequately outline the important ways in which all three (3) aspects of the self differ and the ways in which our daily interactions are affected by each.

            The self-concept is unique because unlike the others it is virtually impossible to verify.  Since the individual can see himself in terms of "literally thousands of characteristics" (Allport and Odbert, 1936; Gordon, 1968, 1976), a vast majority cannot be discerned by objective scientific methods.  The disposition of a person is equally impossible to identify without the presence of any action.  To describe oneself as kind or courageous lends itself to a multiplicity of subjective meanings, many of which are ambiguous.  An example of the challenge can be seen if one attempts to determine if an

individual is kind if he gives away fifty dollars ($50) or one hundred dollars ($100).

            An additional distinctive quality is the flexibility of the self-concept and the fact that it may be changed by life situations.  This flexibility lends itself to changes in perception, that is, rather how we are perceived.  In their study of self-concept and interpersonal interactions, results from McNulty and Swann, (1994) indicate that "self perceptions influence the other person's perceptions, and those perceptions in turn have an effect on self-perceptions."

            In contrast, self-esteem is less fluid in its nature.  Even though a person' self esteem can be increased temporarily by "false feedback about how well they did on a personality test..." (Greenberg et al., 1992), self-esteem is generally maintained at a stable level (Baron & Byrne, 2000).  Self-esteem as the affective aspect of the self is perhaps the strongest indicator of attitudes towards the self, in that persons with high or low levels of esteem tend to openly demonstrate the behaviours fitting for each.

            An important phenomenon of self-esteem's effect on interaction is the human tendency to associate with those who think well of us and to avoid persons who do not.  This is reflective of the need of each individual to "sustain the desired self-image" (Hamachek, 1978 p. 264).  Extreme cases of interpersonal selectivity are often seen in individuals with low self-worth.  "The loner who has no friends or the suspicious soul who avoids friends who might be "too honest" about him, both limit the possibility of feedback which might in fact, spur them to greater insights into themselves and their

behaviour (Hamachek, 1978 p. 264).  In addition, it is important to remember that self-esteem that is low may have negative effects, not only on our interactions, but also upon our mental and emotional health.

Self-efficacy is another powerful aspect of the self.  It is possibly more dynamic than the other aspects discussed because it, more so than others, determines action or inaction.  Self-efficacy also determines how much effort people put into dealing with challenges as well as their resilience in the face of adversity.  Additionally it "influences the amount of stress and anxiety individuals experience while engaged in a task".

            Persons with a strong sense of efficacy are highly motivated to take on challenges, seeing them as tasks to be mastered.  Failure is not a deterrent, rather commitment and determination increases with each setback.  These individuals are generally a pleasure to be around due to their positive and energetic outlook.  Individuals who suffer from low self-efficacy tend to have a negative attitude towards problems which arise, often viewing them "tougher than they really are" (Pajares, 2001).  These persons frequently experience bouts of depression and anxiety as a result of their lack of skills, and often avoid "interpersonal interactions" (Morris, 1985).

            The close relationship between self-concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy is unmistakable, yet noticeable distinctions are evident and should be highlighted if one is to understand the pivotal role which the self and by extension its components play in the outworking of roles in human interaction.





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