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Consider Mary, who is currently in her last year as a pre-med student. She knew she always wanted to be a doctor and cannot picture herself as anything else. Her dream, life, and work revolve around medicine and science so naturally, her whole life has led up to the moment she receives her med-school acceptances. Unfortunately, Mary does not get into any of the medical schools she applied to. This hurts Mary, emotionally and physically. She feels as though she has lost her sense of self now that her dream has been crushed.
Mary responds terribly to her rejection letters and turns to unhealthy behaviors as a means of coping. Mary has only one important self aspect which is “pre-med student.” Her self representations or self complexity is low in that they are few and undifferentiated. If Mary had a higher self complexity, she would be able to react more positively to such negative events. For example, if her important self aspects included pre-med student, artist, and friend, she would have the other two aspects to rely on since they are equally a part of who she is.
The self-complexity theory is a part of one’s self concept structure. In this paper, I will examine the ways in which individual differences in the complexity of knowledge about the self are predictive of emotional stability and sensitivity to stress or negative events in general. I will do this by incorporating research that has found that those higher in self-complexity experience more positive outcomes, indicating an overall greater well being.
Some people’s self identities are more complex than others, and these individual differences can be significantly influential in determining psychological outcomes. The higher one’s self complexity, the greater that person’s psychological well being. “Don’t put all your eggs in one cognitive basket.” (Linville, 1985 p.94). People should not invest one thing in their whole self because when that thing disappears or does not live up to expectations, there would be nothing else to fall back on.Linville supports the argument of keeping many self aspects or roles distinct in order to maintain a balanced psychological well being. When people view themselves in various ways (friend, worker, mother), they have a complex sense of self so a negative event relevant to one specific role or aspect (ex. Poor performance evaluation) would not disproportionately affect the other self views relevant to other aspects.
Linville coined the term self complexity, defining it as “the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves.” (Linville, 1987). The more self aspects a person has is indicative of a higher self complexity which, according to Linville, serves as a buffer and moderates adverse impact of stress on illness and depression. A person who considers himself a friend, worker, student, and boyfriend, has a wide range of life experiences compared to someone who primarily sees himself as a student and hockey player with relatively narrow life experiences. The former would be said to have high complexity. Since having a complex self means having many different ways of looking at oneself, this can contribute to “the spillover process.” The spillover process suggests that higher overlap and less distinctions between self aspects can be detrimental to one’s well being because if a negative event affected one aspect, this would spillover to the other ones.
Linville writes, “feelings and inferences associated with the originally activated self aspect spill-over and color feelings and inferences regarding associated self aspects.” (Linville, 1986 p.664). A person who displays low self-complexity is more likely to listen to their affect with greater sensitivity. Linville’s self complexity-affective extremity hypothesis and experiments supports the claim that “people lower in self complexity will experience greater swings in affect and self appraisal in response to positive or negative life events.” (Linville 1987 p.664).
Traditionally, self-complexity is measured using Scott’s H statistic, calculated based on subjects’ sorting of adjective traits into clusters. Linville’s model’s multiple regression analysis and data strongly supported her buffering hypothesis and affective spillover as a response to positive and negative feedback, concluding that “subjects higher in self-complexity were less prone to depression, perceived stress, physical symptoms, and occurrence of the flu and other illnesses following high levels of stressful events.” (Linville 1987, p.666) How much a person truly believes in his or her authenticity of self aspects is also related to higher well being. According to research, this view was supported in studies. “Greater authenticity of self-aspects predicted not only better mental health, but also lower perceived stress.
In study 2, in which life events were assessed, the authenticity of self aspects also predicted fewer negative events.” (Ryan, LaGuardia, Rawsthorne, 2005 p.444). It is not about how complex or how many self aspects one has regarding his or her identity, but rather the quality and authenticity of those aspects. This is significant in predicting mental health. A diverse range of interests and a high level of self complexity buffers the effects of stress, and this can be seen through the experiences of medical students. The intense and rigorous training of medical school makes it harder for students to distract themselves with other interests or pursue different passions. This results in a strong focus on one self aspect identity.
Researchers studied these experiences and found that there was also a strong sense of group identity which could essentially promote unhealthy group norms that could place individuals at risk.“ In a comparison of medical students and economics students, Blakey and colleagues found that medical students were more socially exclusive and isolated from other disciplines, with more medical students living with, playing sports with and forming relationships with students from their own course than the economics students.” (Mavor, McNeill 2014)
This shows that medical students had a more narrow view of looking at themselves and thus, lower self complexity. Evidence shows that those with higher self complexities have been found to have lower levels of stress/sickness and a greater tolerance for frustration. (Kalthoff & Neimeyer, 1993) These studies replicated Linville’s studies by using college students to assess variations over time associated with depression. People with low self complexities, generally have lower well being. Low self complexity is associated with a higher degree of narcissism which greatly hinders one’s psychological health. Rhodewalt & Morf studied the correlation between the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) and self complexity. They hypothesized that the NPI would relate to positive self images with low complexity, and that the NPI would be associated with “antagonism and hostility, characteristics that should contribute to narcissists’ frequently observed interpersonal difficulties.” As expected, the NPI was associated with positive self-images and low self complexity (Study 1). Those who scored high on the NPI were also associated with greater hostility and antagonism (Study 2).
The relationship between narcissism and self complexity is evident in this research. Interestingly, not only is narcissism and depression linked to low self complexity but so is borderline personality disorder which shows that well being is greatly influenced by one’s self concept. According to a study, subjects who were diagnosed with borderline personality disorder received much lower self complexity scores than those with other forms of personality disorders or those with none at all. “Borderlines also used significantly fewer trait-role adjectives to describe themselves as compared to controls, and were significantly more likely to receive a self-complexity classification of low, rather than high, self-complexity.” (Gardner, 1997). It was also noted that 70% of the subjects in the borderline personality group identified themselves using fewer roles or traits and as having lower self complexity, compared to 30% in the control group.
Another form of unhealthy behavior indicating low well being is the prevalence of escapism (escape from the self or self awareness) and self regulation. Supporting the overarching claim that low well being signifies low self complexity, the role of self complexity in self regulation was explored by Dixon and Baumeister (1991). Self regulation in this view, makes the assumption that individuals who face any sort of self discrepancy will work towards reducing it. Their experiment measured how fast people escaped from a highly self-focusing task or situation after experiences of failure or success. They predicted that “the fastest escapes were found among people who were low in self complexity and who experienced initial failure.” (Dixon and Baumeister, 1991) Specifically in the experiment, subjects would receive a success or failure feedback prior to having to write an essay in a room with a huge mirror.
In this situation, all participants would have a heightened sense of awareness because they would be watching themselves while writing the essay. The mirror either faced them (high self focus) or was turned away from them (low self focus). When the mirror was faced to those with lower self complexity who received failure feedback, those subjects finished the essay and left the room more quickly than those with higher complexity. This study suggested that having low self complexity made it harder to cope with failure, especially under increased self awareness.
Furthermore, it can be interpreted that those with low self complexity left the room more quickly because of a need to escape self awareness since a greater proportion of their self concept was affected by the failure or negative feedback. The results of the study clearly supports the idea that high self complexity serves as a buffer against failure, thus increasing psychological well being. Self esteem is vital in the area of psychological health and well being. Low self esteem could be detrimental to people’s’ mental health and impact how they view themselves. Going back to the example with Mary, when she did not get into medical school, her self aspect of “student” is negatively impacted and because of her low self complexity, her entire self concept is devastated. As a result of a weakened self aspect, Maria’s overall self esteem weakens as well. Many studies conclude that there is a positive correlation between self esteem and self complexity. (Bigler, Neimeyer, & Brown, 2001; Campbell, 1990; Campbell et al., 1991).
Thus, a high self complexity can be in many ways indicative of greater well being, if the person with a complex sense of self also has high self esteem. This logically makes sense and supports the original argument because people with low self esteem also tend to be uncertain of their self aspects. Research indicates that subjects higher in self-esteem had more complex self representations, and tended to experience more positive outcomes compared to those with low self complexity. “Since self-esteem was also positively correlated with this measure (r = .25, p <.05), it seems that high self-esteem subjects not only have higher self-complexity in terms of differentiation (H and the number of groups), but also in terms of integration.” (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002).
Koch & Shepperd also found that all of the measures determining change in mood ratings pointed out that participants with low self esteem and low self complexity demonstrated more frequent changes. This suggests that self esteem and self complexity are also related to mood variability. The first study resulted in a positive association between self esteem and measures of self complexity based on the H statistic and trait sorting task. The results of the experiment confirmed that high self-esteem people do in fact have more complex self representations. High self complexities, where the individual has a sense of control over their self aspects, lead to both better well being and smoother psychological adjustment.
When someone experiences a traumatic experience, their psychological adjustment is critical in order to sustain healthy well being. Researchers aim to make self complexity a more specific term, by incorporating both positive and negative self complexity in order to extend Linville’s work on its buffering effects. Morgan and Janoff-Bulman (1994) proposed that both positive and negative self aspects should be examined separately. According to their new model, inspired by Linville’s, high self complexity (as long as it is positive) can be seen as a buffer against feelings or symptoms of depression after a failure that affected a specific self aspect. In regards to trauma, “Psychological adjustment for those who had experienced a traumatic event was best predicted by the presence of many independent positive self-representations.” (Morgan and Janoff Bulman, 1994 p.63)
In this study, subjects were organized into two groups, trauma and no trauma, and their self complexities were examined in relation to their adjustment post trauma. Self complexity was measured using the standard adjective/trait model. It was concluded that a high positive self complexity is strongly associated with better adjustment in both the trauma group and the no trauma group, demonstrating that high SC is important in the aftermath of adversity. This research also suggests that further studies on self complexity, positive and negative, should be assessed in order to fully understand the relations between self complexity, various forms of coping, and other major factors of post traumatic stress disorder. Differentiating between positive and negative self complexities makes sense because a death, for example, could activate negative self aspects (helpless friend, distracted worker) which would reduce a person’s ability to think constructively or positively. This would have an overall negative effect on that person’s emotional well being.
Another study conducted by Kerrie Channer. She writes, “A significant positive correlation was found between negative SC and poorer posttraumatic psychological adjustment. A significant negative relationship was found between positive SC and depression scores.” (Channer, 2015 p.2) Control was a significant factor in the context of the stress buffering effects of self complexity. When individuals did not have control over their self aspects, increased self complexity was associated with higher depression scores. Channer also discusses the real world utility of the self complexity measure in identifying those with PTSD and its potential treatments. Further research supports the idea that low self complexity is associated with decreased well being, in the context of trauma. . Slone and Roziner assessed the impact of self complexity on well being and mental health among Israeli adolescents who were exposed to the Second Lebanon War, and were experiencing trauma as a result.
“Adolescents with low SC are at risk for damaged WB [well being] and psychiatric consequences from political violence exposure. This opens a diagnostic avenue for identification of at-risk adolescents in this socio-political context toward whom clinical programs should be directed.” (Slone & Roziner 2013). The importance of positive self complexity and its direct link to well being is also seen in auditory hallucinations in the context of psychosis. The research associated with this found that positive self complexity was strongly associated with increased well being, while negative self complexity was inversely related in both the control group and the group experiencing auditory hallucinations. The participants were recruited from inpatient and outpatient services, were given a card sort task relating to self complexity, and given questions to assess affect, self esteem, and stress. (Bell and Wittkowski, 2015 p.1)
Self complexity has many real world implications and should be further investigated, as it could be beneficial to intervene and better certain clinical practices utilizing this line of research. A person’s well being is affected by how he or she responds to negative life events. Self complexity should therefore be associated with how individuals respond to those events, or as Shelley Keith puts it, strain. Strain and well being are negatively correlated. An interesting study conducted to assess forms of deviant behavior takes self complexity a step farther by relating the concept to crime. Strain according to Keith includes any event humans perceive as negative, including any form of failure, loss of something of value, death, and poor grades. These strains affect people emotionally and those people who can deal or cope with these emotions have a higher well being.
Keith concluded, “Those who are lower in self-complexity, or those with few overlapping identities, should be more likely to respond to strain with crime than those who are higher in self-complexity..Strong support was found for the conditioning effect of self complexity on serious crime while partial support was found for this effect on property crime” (Keith, 2014 p. 764). She also supports the claim that high self complexity results in better well being by concluding that those with higher self complexity are better equipped to handle the effects of strain because their many and differentiated self aspects serve as coping resources. Self complexity is still not fully understood by researchers because of the fact that the self itself is such an enigma.
Accessing the mind and consciousness through science is not easy and sometimes even unrealistic. The research demonstrated in this paper showed how studying people and human experiences with the application of science and experiments is the best way to achieve knowledge about aspects of the self. Higher self complexity has been linked to better health, psychological adjustment, and better coping in the face of adversity. It is important to never limit yourself to one concept or type of person, and to differentiate self aspects by growing as a person and staying open minded. People should strive to not be like Mary, and have many definitions of who they are and what they value. Self complexity should be further investigated and challenged in order to examine the theory more closely, combat inconsistencies, and apply the model to relevant areas of clinical psychology.
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