Self-image is the mental picture, generally of a kind that is quite resistant to change, that depicts not only details that are potentially available to objective investigation by others (height, weight, hair color, gender, I.Q. score, etc.), but also items that have been learned by that person about themself, either from personal experiences or by internalizing the judgments of others. A simple definition of a person's self-image is their answer to the question "What do you believe people think about you?".

Self-image may consist of three types:

  1. Self-image resulting from how the individual sees themself.
  2. Self-image resulting from how others see the individual.
  3. Self-image resulting from how the individual perceives others see them.

These three types may or may not be an accurate representation of the person. All, some or none of them may be true.

A more technical term for self-image that is commonly used by social and cognitive psychologists is self-schema. Like any schema, self-schemas store information and influence the way we think and remember. For example, research indicates that information which refers to the self is preferentially encoded and recalled in memory tests, a phenomenon known as "self-referential encoding".[1] Self-schemas are also considered the traits people use to define themselves, they draw information about the self into a coherent scheme.[2][3]


Poor self-image may be the result of accumulated criticisms that the person collected as a child which have led to damaging their own view of themselves. Children in particular are vulnerable to accepting negative judgments from authority figures because they have yet to develop competency in evaluating such reports. Also, adolescents are highly targeted to suffer from poor body image issues. Individuals that already exhibit a low-sense of self worth may be vulnerable to develop social disorders.

Negative self-images can arise from a variety of factors. A prominent factor, however, is personality type. Perfectionists, high achievers, and those with "type A" personalities seem to be prone to having negative self-images.[4] This is because such people constantly set the standard for success high above a reasonable, attainable level. Thus, they are constantly disappointed in this "failure."

Another factor that contributes to a negative self-image is the beauty values of the society in which a person lives. In the American society, a popular beauty ideal is thinness. Oftentimes, girls feel that they do not measure up to society's "thin" standards, which leads to them having a negative self-image.[5]


When people are in the position of evaluating others, self-image maintenance processes can lead to a more negative evaluation depending on the self-image of the evaluator. That is to say stereotyping and prejudice may be the way individuals maintain their self-image. When individuals evaluate a member of a stereotyped group, they are less likely to evaluate that person negatively if their self-images had been bolstered through a self-affirmation procedure, and they are more likely to evaluate that person stereotypically if their self-images have been threatened by negative feedback.[6] Individuals may restore their self-esteem by derogating the member of a stereotyped group.[7]

Fein and Spencer (1997) conducted a study on Self-image Maintenance and Discriminatory Behavior. This study showed evidence that increased prejudice can result from a person's need to redeem a threatened positive perception of the self. The aim of the study was to test whether a particular threat to the self would instigate increased stereotyping and lead to actual discriminatory behavior or tendencies towards a member of a "negatively" stereotyped group. The study began when Fein and Spencer gave participants an ostensible test of intelligence. Some of them received negative feedback, and others, positive and supportive feedback. In the second half of the experiment, the participants were asked to evaluate another person who either belonged to a negatively stereotyped group, or one who did not. The results of the experiment proved that the participants who had previously received unfavorable comments on their test, evaluated the target of the negatively stereotyped group in a more antagonistic or opposing way, than the participants who were given excellent reports on their intelligence test. They concluded that the negative feedback on the test threatened the participants' self-image and they evaluated the target in a more negative manner, all in efforts to restore their own self-esteem.[8]

A present study extends the studies of Fein and Spencer in which the principal behavior examined was avoidance behavior. In the study, Macrae et al. (2004) found that participants that had a salient negative stereotype of "skinheads" attached, physically placed themselves further from a skinhead target compared to those in which the stereotype was not as apparent. Therefore, greater salience of a negative stereotype led participants to show more stereotype-consistent behavior towards the target.[9]


Residual self-image is the concept that individuals tend to think of themselves as projecting a certain physical appearance,[10][11] or certain position of social entitlement, or lack thereof.[12] The term was used at least as early as 1968,[13] but was popularized in fiction by the Matrix series, where persons who existed in a digitally created world would subconsciously maintain the physical appearance that they had become accustomed to projecting.[14]


Victims of abuse and manipulation often get trapped into a self-image of victimisation. The psychological profile of victimisation includes a pervasive sense of helplessness, passivity, loss of control, pessimism, negative thinking, strong feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame and depression. This way of thinking can lead to hopelessness and despair.[15]

Children's disparity

Self-image disparity was found to be positively related to chronological age (CA) and intelligence, two factors thought to increase concomitantly with maturity: Capacity for guilt and ability for cognitive differentiation.[16] However, males had larger self-image disparities than females, Caucasians had larger disparities and higher ideal self images than Blacks, and socioeconomic status (SES) affected self-images differentially for the 2nd and 5th graders.[17]


A child's self-awareness of who they are differentiates into three categories around the age of five: their social self, academic persona, and physical attributes. Several ways to strengthen a child's self-image include communication, reassurance, support of hobbies, and finding good role models.[18]

Evolved awareness in mirror

When does a child become aware that the image in a mirror is his own? Research was done on 88 children between 3 and 24 months.[19] Their behaviors were observed before a mirror. The results indicated that children's awareness of self-image followed three major age-related sequences:

Physical activity

Regular practice of endurance exercise was related to a more favourable self-image. There was a strong association between participation in sports and the type of personality that tends to be resistant to drug and alcohol addiction. Physical exercise was further significantly related to scores for physical and psychological well-being. Adolescents who engaged regularly in physical activity were characterised by lower anxiety-depression scores, and displayed much less social behavioural inhibition than their less active counterparts.

It is likely that discussion of recreational or exercise involvement may provide a useful point of entry for facilitating dialogue among adolescents about concerns relating to body image and self-esteem. In terms of psychotherapeutic applications, physical activity has many additional rewards for adolescents. It is probable that by promoting physical fitness, increased physical performance, lessening body mass and promoting a more favourable body shape and structure, exercise will provide more positive social feedback and recognition from peer groups, and this will subsequently lead to improvement in an individual's self-image.[20]

Automatic activation of stereotypes and threat

Does self-image threatening feedback make perceivers more likely to activate stereotypes when confronted by members of a minority group? Participants in Study 1 saw an Asian American or European American woman for several minutes, and participants in Studies 2 and 3 were exposed to drawings of an African American or European American male face for fractions of a second. These experiments found no evidence of automatic stereotype activation when perceivers were cognitively busy and when they had not received negative feedback. When perceivers had received negative feedback, however, evidence of stereotype activation emerged even when perceivers were cognitively busy.[21]

Women's sexual behavior

A magazine survey that included items about body image, self-image, and sexual behaviors was completed by 3,627 women. The study found that overall self-image and body image are significant predictors of sexual activity. Women more satisfied with body image reported more sexual activity, orgasm, and initiating sex, greater comfort undressing in front of their partner, having sex with the lights on, trying new sexual behaviors, and pleasing their partner sexually than those dissatisfied. Positive body image was inversely related to self-consciousness and importance of physical attractiveness, and positively related to relationships with others and overall satisfaction. Body image was predictive only of one's comfort undressing in front of partner and having sex with lights on. Overall satisfaction was predictive of frequency of sex, orgasm, and initiating sex, trying new sexual behaviors, and confidence in giving partner sexual pleasure.[22]

Men's sexual behavior

One hundred and ten heterosexual individuals (67 men; 43 women) responded to questions related to penis size and satisfaction. Men showed significant dissatisfaction with penile size, despite perceiving themselves to be of average size. Importantly, there were significant relationships between penile dissatisfaction and comfort with others seeing their penis, and with likelihood of seeking medical advice with regard to penile and/or sexual function. Given the negative consequences of low body satisfaction and the importance of early intervention in sexually related illnesses (e.g., testicular cancer), it is imperative that attention be paid to male body dissatisfaction.[23]

See also


  1. Rogers, T.B., Kuiper, N.A., Kirker, W.S. (1977) Self-Reference and the Encoding of Personal Information, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 677-688.
  2. Schacter. Psychology 2nd Ed. Worth Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.
  3. Schacter, Daniel L.; Daniel T. Gilbert; Daniel M. Wegner (2011). Psychology (2 ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers. p. 494.
  4. Adler, Ronald B., Lawrence B. Rosenfeld, and Russell F. Proctor, II. Interplay: The Process of Interpersonal Communication, 25.
  5. Fein, S., & Spencer, S.J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73(1), 31-44.
  6. Florack, A., Scarabis, M., & Gosejohann, S. (2005). The Effects of Self-Image Threat on the Judgment of Out-Group Targets. Swiss Journal of Psychology 64(2), 87-101.
  7. Fein, S. & Spencer, S. J. (1997). Prejudice as self-image maintenance: Affirming the self through derogating others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 31-44.
  8. Macrae (1994). Self-image Maintenance and Discriminatory Behavior. Revue internationale de psychologie sociale, 153-171.
  9. Literature and Psychology No. 4, Vol. 49; Pg. 43; ISSN 0024-4759.
  10. Stephen R. Lankton, Carol H. Lankton, Enchantment and Intervention in Family Therapy (1986), p. 57.
  11. Kum-Kum Bhavnani, Ann Phoenix, Shifting Identities, Shifting Racisms: A Feminism & Psychology Reader (1994), p. 31.
  12. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association: Volume 16, Issues 3-4 (1968), p. 594. (stating "Women remain 'depriving competitors,' and the residual self image is 'I don't have the equipment to attract men.'")
  13. Matt Lawrence, Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy Behind the Matrix (2004), p. 212.
  14. Braiker, Harriet B., Who's Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation (2006)
  15. Katz, P., & Zigler, E. (1967). Self-image Disparity: A Developmental Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5(2), 186-195.
  16. Phillips, D.A., & Zigler, E.F. (1980). Children's self-image disparity: Effects of age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and gender. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39(4), 689-700.
  17. Bourland, Julia. Parenting13. 4 (May 1999): 168-169.
  18. Amsterdam, B. (1972). Mirror self-image reactions before age two. Developmental Psychobiology. 5(4), 297-305.
  19. Kirkcaldy, B.D., Shephard, R.J., Siefen, R.G. (2002) The relationship between physical activity and self-image and problem behaviour among adolescents. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology. 37(11), 544-550.
  20. Spencer, S.J., Fein, S., Wolfe, C.T., Fong, C., Duinn, M.A. (1998) Automatic Activation of Stereotypes: The Role of Self-Image Threat. Personality and social psychology bulletin. 24(11), 1139-1152.
  21. Ackard, D.M., Kearney-Cooke, A., Peterson, C.B. (2000) Effect of body image and self-image on women's sexual behaviors. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 28(4), 422-429.
  22. Johnston, Lucy, Tracey McLellan, and Audrey McKinlay. 2014. "(Perceived) Size Really Does Matter: Male Dissatisfaction With Penis Size." Psychology Of Men & Masculinity 15, no. 2: 225-228.
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