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Social Cognition 101: The Self as a Mental Representation


The “Social Cognition 101” series serves as an exemplary model for our endeavor in the realm of social cognition within the field of experimental psychology. This series aspires to delve deeply into the cognitive mechanisms that underpin our perceptions and understanding of individuals in social contexts, encompassing the intricate dynamics of self-awareness. As we explore these mechanisms, we'll gain insights into how these cognitive processes can sometimes lead to stereotyping and, crucially, how to effectively prevent such biases from taking root. Just as the "101" collection imparts invaluable knowledge and practical strategies, our journey through social cognition promises to unlock the transformative potential of knowledge and personal growth in the context of understanding and interacting with others.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

1. The Self as a Mental Representation

2. The Self Provides Information to Guide Self-Regulation

3. The Self Has Varied Motivations for Self-Regulation

4. The Self Serves as a Reference Point: Attribution Processes

5. Attributional Biases

6. Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP)

7. Heuristics & Shortcuts

8. Stereotyping: Cognition & Biases

Social Cognition 101: The Self as a Mental Representation

Over the course of history, numerous scholars and researchers have endeavored to gain insights into the intricacies of the self. William James’s (1907) analysis laid the groundwork for many enduring concerns, and sociologists Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead provided frameworks for understanding the self in social interaction (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). In the past several decades, social cognition researchers have taken up this challenge and enhanced our comprehension of the self (Beer, 2012). "The Self is a mental representation" is a statement that reflects a fundamental concept in the field of social cognition. It suggests that the way individuals perceive and understand themselves is constructed within their minds, and this mental representation of the self plays a crucial role in how they navigate social interactions and make sense of the world around them. This ongoing exploration of the self as a mental representation continues to shed light on the intricate interplay between individual psychology and social dynamics, offering valuable insights into human behavior and cognition.

In this sub-topic, a deeper exploration will be conducted into the elements of this mental representation, such as "Self-Concept," "Self-Schemas," "Self-Esteem," and "Culture and the Self (Independent vs. Interdependent Self)" (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). These components are the building blocks of the self as a mental representation, shaping how individuals perceive themselves and interact with others. This chapter begins with the definition of the self.

Figure 1: From left to right: Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske.
Figure 1: From left to right: Shelly Taylor and Susan Fiske.

What Is a Self?

The concept of the self is a central question that has intrigued philosophers, psychologists, and everyday individuals alike for centuries. Historically, philosophers like Plato, Kant, and various religious thinkers have posited the existence of an immortal soul as the essence of the self, transcending physical existence. However, contrasting this metaphysical perspective, philosophers such as David Hume challenged the notion of the self, regarding it as a mere collection of perceptions. In contrast to these philosophical debates, psychologists have taken a more empirical and detailed approach to exploring the self. Research in psychology has revealed that one distinctive trait that sets humans apart from many other creatures is our cognitive capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness. This mental representation of "me" plays a pivotal role in shaping our sense of self. Moreover, the development of self-awareness is significantly influenced by language, conversation, play, and pretend play (Lewis, 2011). Interestingly, a portion of the self exhibits a degree of self-awareness, sometimes referred to as implicit consciousness. This concept of implicit consciousness also encompasses the unaware facets of the self, and it is closely linked to the realm of the unconscious mind.

Researchers have delved into topics such as self-identity, self-esteem, self-regulation, and self-improvement. Notably, studies have suggested that the self holds a special place in memory processing, exhibiting superior information processing for self-relevant material (Markus, 1977; Rogers et al., 1977). Moreover, humans possess a unique inclination to attribute human-like characteristics to both living and non-living entities—a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism. This aspect becomes particularly relevant when considering infants and the origins of self-awareness. For the reason that the attributions made, including labeling emotions verbally, can shape a child's emotional development and self-perception (Lewis, 2012). Furthermore, what children learn, including cultural aspects such as emotions, interactions, rules, goals, and standards, is greatly influenced by the teachings and guidance they receive from their environment. This underscores the critical role of culture in shaping one's understanding of the self.

More importantly, mental representation of ourselves not only affects one's self-reported self-image but also influences how others socially evaluate them. Research has shown that the valence ratings of self-images by independent observers can predict expert evaluations of psychological adjustment, even when accounting for self-reported self-esteem and extraversion (Kim et al., 2023). This highlights the intricate interplay between self-perception and the perceptions of others in shaping social cognition.

AI generated image of"The Self"
Figure 2: AI generated image of "The Self".

How Do Individuals Gain Self-knowledge?

The development of self-knowledge in adults is a complex concept influenced by brain maturation and socialization throughout life. Different viewpoints exist, with some focusing on "intersubjectivity," emphasizing shared understanding and communication between infants and caregivers. As a result of this interaction during development, individuals can relate to and understand the mental and emotional states of others, as well as share one's own thoughts and emotions with them. Thus, individuals come to develop a sense of self and self-awareness through their interactions with others. Another perspective suggests that infants possess an implicit, basic sense of their own bodies and existence. This implicit embodied self is the foundation upon which self-knowledge is built. It refers to an early awareness of one's own physical presence and the capacity to engage with the environment through sensory experiences and bodily actions. The idea that this implicit embodied self evolves through interactions with others emphasizes the social and relational aspect of self-development. However, there is a debate about its conceptual and evaluative abilities.

Over time, self-representation becomes more complex and encompasses self-referential behavior like gender identity and age awareness, typically developing between 15 and 24 months of age (Lewis, 1990). However, this timeline may differ in cases such as Down's syndrome and autism. Additionally, children's understanding of others' intentions and abilities, known as the theory of mind, emerges around the second year of life and is related to self-recognition (Meltzoff, 1995). The development of a representational self can be measured with personal pronoun usage, mirror self-recognition, and pretend play, which are associated with specific brain regions.

AI created image of a baby discovering "The Self"
Figure 3: AI created image of a baby discovering "The Self".

Researchers in the field of social cognition have developed two primary categories of cognitive models to understand self-knowledge. These models offer distinct approaches to understanding how individuals come to know and define themselves within the social context. The first category, computational models, emphasizes specific self-related events and behaviors. Computational models are mathematical or computer-based representations of cognitive processes involved in social perception, reasoning, and behavior (Hackel & Amodio, 2018). These models are designed to simulate and explain how people make sense of social information, make decisions, and interact with others. They often involve algorithms and mathematical equations to represent the underlying cognitive processes. The second category, abstraction models, shift their focus towards the creation of summary representations that are abstracted from these very experiences (Linville & Fischer, 1993). These models involve reducing the complexity of social stimuli or situations to their essential components or abstract features. Abstraction models aim to understand how people extract, process, and represent these essential features in their minds. In both computational and abstraction models of social cognition, memory is fundamental for processing and interpreting social information. Together, these two categories provide a comprehensive framework for exploring the complex mechanisms behind self-perception and self-awareness, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of self-knowledge acquisition.

Whether through the mathematical representations of cognitive processes in computational models or the mental constructs and categories in abstraction models, memory systems contribute to how individuals understand and interact with the social world. Research findings have indicated that memory processing gives special attention to the self, demonstrating enhanced information handling for self-related content. However, findings on patients with Alzheimer's Dementia further support the idea that self-knowledge may be functionally independent of traditional memory systems, highlighting six potentially separable components of the self (Hodges & Patterson, 1997; Kazuki et al., 2000). These components include episodic memory, personality trait representations, factual life knowledge, personal continuity, agency, and self-reflection. Studying each component individually may help us understand the concept of the unitary self better.

To sum up, the development of a representational self is a bio-psychosocial process that combines brain maturation and cultural/social influences, which begin to shape it from birth. Moreover, self-knowledge is a multifaceted concept that goes beyond traditional memory systems, and understanding its development involves various cognitive and social factors.

AI-generated image of "self-knowledge"
Figure 4: AI-generated image of "self-knowledge".

The Intricacies of the Self; Exploring Mental Representations and Self-awareness

The concept of the self as a mental representation is fundamental to understanding the interconnectedness of social, cognitive, and emotional abilities in humans. It serves as the core of a developmental system that evolves as engaging with others. Throughout the development, this unified system differentiates and specializes, much like branches growing on a tree trunk, allowing for the integration of knowledge while preserving functional independence. At the heart of this process lies the development of consciousness, which acts as the cornerstone. It transforms sensory experiences into a theory of mind, social interactions into meaningful relationships, and basic emotions into self-conscious feelings. Human consciousness enables all of these transformations to occur. This ability emanates from intricate self-system and mental representation of one's self. It empowers to reflect on past, present, and future selves, shaping cognitive, social, and emotional landscape. This facet of the self emerges through the interplay of biological processes in the brain and the influence of the cultural contexts. Recent advances, such as the Reverse Correlation (RC) method, have allowed researchers to visualize these mental representations of the self. Studies have demonstrated the significant connection between one's self-image and how they are perceived by others. Furthermore, these findings reveal that self-images offer insights beyond what individuals report about themselves, underlining the RC method's value in making implicit aspects of self-image explicit (Kim et al., 2023). While some may argue that the link between self-images and social evaluation is rooted in facial appearance, research suggests otherwise. Although facial attractiveness may influence self-images to some extent, the valence of self-images is not solely determined by physical appearance. Importantly, social evaluation was associated with self-images, not facial attractiveness, indicating that self-images reflect multifaceted psychological factors beyond mere physical attributes.

So, what exactly does the self do? The term "self" encompasses a wide range of meanings, from the self-awareness of infants to the multiple selves that adults exhibit. To address these variations, it is helpful to conceptualize the human body and mind as a complex system. Complex systems exhibit key characteristics like self-regulation, distinguishing between self and other, and the ability to perform intricate actions without constant self-awareness. Some self-systems also possess a mental representation, enabling self-awareness and the capacity to understand that one possess self-knowledge. It is important to note that not all information within this complex system is always accessible to self-awareness, suggesting inherent limitations. What sets humans apart from other creatures is the presence of self-awareness and its cognitive elaboration through cultural learning. This self-awareness hinges on a mental representation of "me" that distinguishes humans from non-human animals. Within the realm of emotions, there exist both emotional states, which can be innate or learned, and the mental representation of those states. These facets of the self begin to develop in early childhood. Intentions and actions sometimes appear to arise effortlessly, leading to self-deception and introducing the concept of a multifaceted, modular self-system.

AI-generated image of "Intricacies Of The Self"
Figure 5: AI-generated image of "Intricacies Of The Self".


One's self-concept is a multifaceted and intricate construct that undergoes changes over the course of a lifetime. Starting in childhood, the manner in which individuals are treated by parents, teachers, and friends, along with their participation in different religious, ethnic, or cultural activities, significantly influences the development of their identity. Individuals initiate the process of recognizing their personal traits and the societal expectations placed upon them. These roles, such as being a student or a partner, become integral to one's identity. Additionally, a private sense of self is upheld while different facets are presented to the world. The intricate combination of beliefs and perceptions regarding the self is termed the self-concept (Fiske & Taylor, 2017).

The mental representations of self exhibit high complexity. At times, the central focus revolves around maintaining self-esteem and a consistent self-image. The need for affiliation and effectiveness also exerts influence on cognition, emotions, and actions. This adaptability gives rise to an ever-changing self-encoding process, largely occurring within the framework of person-situation interactions. Within different contexts, distinct facets of the self are activated, guided by the norms and pressures inherent to each situation. This working self-concept concept highlights the idea that diverse facets of the self can direct social conduct in accordance with the specific context. Rather than a single, unified entity, the self-concept is an amalgamation of various selves that come to the forefront in different settings (Markus & Wurf, 1987). How we perceive ourselves in a social gathering is likely to contrast markedly with our self-perception in an educational setting. This variance in the working self-concept elucidates how self-perception guides behavior across varying circumstances.

AI-generated image of "Self-Concept"
Figure 6: AI-generated image of "Self-Concept".

Furthermore, the self-concept is shaped not only by the situational context but also by the connections established with significant others (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). These relationships leave an imprint on the self-concept, with our understanding of these important individuals becoming an integral component of one's identity. Parents, siblings, close friends, and past and current partners all contribute to the self-concept through the knowledge we possess about them. The activation of mental representations of significant others can induce the emergence of specific relational selves, a phenomenon known as transference. Consider the scenario of returning home for the holidays. Even as an independent and grown individual, the relational selves as a daughter and a younger sister can suddenly become active. This can result in behaviors that contradict the typical self-concept, underscoring the influence of these relational selves on molding interactions.

In many social situations, people often interpret themselves in ways that complement others. They might defer when their relational partner assumes a dominant role, and assume a leading position when the partner defers. Within close-knit groups, personal identities may blend with group identities, motivating individuals to make notable self-sacrifices. Relational selves provide both stability, stemming from enduring representations of significant others, and variability, as different social situations activate different facets of our identity. Thus, self-concept is not a static entity but a dynamic and context-dependent mosaic of selves.

AI-generated image of "Self-Concept as dynamic and context-dependent mosaic"
Figure 7: AI-generated image of "Self-Concept as dynamic and context-dependent mosaic".


Self-schemas are cognitive-affective structures representing one's qualities within a specific domain (Fiske & Taylor, 2017). Individuals tend to be more certain about some attributes of themselves while having less clarity about others. These self-schemas primarily pertain to dimensions that hold significance to them. They play a crucial role in organizing how information related to that specific domain is processed. Moreover, possible and feared selves, the envisioned versions of the self we aim to achieve or fear becoming, wield a significant impact on the way self-perception is shaped. These ideas govern thoughts, direct the selection of social roles, and determine the circumstances one can pursue. Importantly, possible selves can evolve in response to external influences, subsequently impacts behavior.

The study from Oyserman, Bybee and Terry (2006) highlights a prominent instance of a short-term intervention, yielding significant and positive outcomes spanning a two-year timeframe. This intervention produced notable enhancements in academic performance, manifesting as augmented test scores and improved grades, along with a notable surge in academic motivation. Concurrently, it engendered reductions in manifestations of depression, instances of school absenteeism, and incidents of misbehavior. The observed transformations were attributed to alterations in the prospective self-concepts that students had assimilated into their overall identity framework. This underscores the pivotal role played by one's self-schemas and the dynamic evolution of potential self-concepts in shaping self-perception and decision-making in life.

How self-schemas, ability, and possible selves interact to regulate performance
Figure 8: How self-schemas, ability, and possible selves interact to regulate performance (Fiske & Taylor, 2017).


Self-esteem's importance becomes evident in mental self-representation, impacting the evaluation of oneself. It pertains not only to identity but also the assessment of one's attributes. This valuable resource assists in the upkeep of well-being, the establishment of suitable objectives, the enjoyment of positive experiences, and the adept management of demanding circumstances (Christensen, Wood, & Barrett, 2003; Creswell et al., 2005; Sommer & Baumeister, 2002; Wood, Heimpel, & Michela, 2003).

Interestingly, self-esteem has a social dimension as well. The act of sharing oneself with others is naturally enjoyable because it stems from a concern for their opinions (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012). The drive for self-esteem is based on the fundamental need for human connection and the search for external validation (Leary & Baumeister, 2000). In this regard, self-esteem can serve as a sociometer, offering a broad indication of how others perceive us.

AI-generatedAI-generated image of "Self-esteem as a sociometer"
Figure 9: AI-generated image of "Self-esteem as a sociometer".

Assessments of self-esteem occur on both explicit and implicit levels. Sometimes, these explicit and implicit evaluations conflict, leading people to spend more time understanding their self-conceptions (Briñol, Petty, & Wheeler, 2006). Those with high explicit but low implicit self-esteem often exhibit defensive behaviors (Jordan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2003). The distinction between implicit and explicit self-esteem highlights that not only do we consciously seek to feel good about ourselves, but our unconscious self-evaluations also significantly influence our judgments and actions. This influence extends to our preferences for people, places, and things that resembles oneself—a phenomenon known as implicit egotism (Pelham, Carvallo, & Jones, 2005). Unconscious self-evaluations aren't limited to the trivial; they can even shape major life decisions.

Self-esteem reflects beliefs about what must be achieved or done to establish worth as individuals (Crocker & Knight, 2005). Beyond general self-esteem, domain-specific self-evaluations influence the overall sense of self-worth. These self-worth contingencies shape selectivity regarding the areas on which self-esteem is built. While pursuing a positive self-image is commendable, an excessive pursuit of high self-esteem can have disadvantages (Crocker & Knight, 2005).

In essence, self-esteem serves as a driving force in life. High self-esteem individuals actively seek opportunities to enhance their self-image, while those with low self-esteem tend to avoid situations that might diminish it. Furthermore, people carefully choose the domains on which they build their self-esteem, recognizing that a balanced approach is often the key to a healthier self-concept.

AI generated image of "Building the Self-Esteem"
Figure 10: AI-generated image of "Building the Self-Esteem".

Neural Bases of Self-views

The neural bases of self-views play a crucial role in the ability to navigate the world effectively. To function well, one must distinguish between what is "me" and what is "not me." This distinction involves activity in the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex (Kircher et al., 2002; Turk et al., 2002). Subjective sense of self seems to emerge from the functions of a left-hemisphere interpreter, which integrates various self-relevant processes across different brain regions (Gazzaniga, 2000).

In a study conducted by Ochsner et al. (2005), participants had their brains scanned while they rated adjectives describing themselves, a friend, their friend's perception of them, or someone less close to them. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was consistently active during all tasks involving personal evaluations, highlighting its role in social judgment. A broader network, including the posterior cingulate/precuneus and parts of the temporal lobe, was also activated during both self and other evaluations. Notably, evaluations of oneself and close others engaged distinct brain pathways compared to evaluations of less-close individuals. To discern self-ratings from ratings of close others, the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) came into play. Self-appraisals activated both the mPFC and the right rostrolateral PFC. Moreover, Brodmann's area 10 showed activity during self-judgment. Brodmann's area 10, also known as the frontopolar prefrontal cortex, is involved in higher-order cognitive functions and executive processes include complex decision-making, social cognition, prospective memory (remembering to do things in the future), and monitoring and integrating information from various sources for goal-directed behavior. Thus, activation in this area suggests that self-knowledge has a degree of independence from information about close others within the medial prefrontal cortex.

Brain areas implicated in self-views (medial and lateral views)
Figure 11: Brain areas implicated in self-views (medial and lateral views) (Fiske & Taylor, 2017).

When it comes to self-views, neuroimaging can distinguish between processing self-schematic information and non-self-schematic information. Contemplating information related to your self-concept triggers specific brain regions responsible for automatic, emotional, and motivational processes. These regions include the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala. As your self-concept solidifies in a particular domain, its neural representation appears to shift toward brain regions associated with affective, motivational, and automatic processing (Lieberman, Jarcho, & Satpute, 2004).

Culture Cognition and Emotion

Culture plays a significant role in shaping cognition and emotions. One fundamental difference lies in the concept of individualism versus collectivism (Fiske & Taylor, 2017; Oyserman & Lee, 2008; Triandis, 2018). In Western societies, individualism is emphasized, focusing on personal goals, independence, and self-expression. In contrast, East Asian societies tend to prioritize collectivism, emphasizing group harmony, interdependence, and meeting community expectations.

The impact of individualism and collectivism extends its influence in human cognition, thus mental representation domains' of the self. This distinction extends to self-perception (Darwish & Huber, 2003). Those with an independent sense of self view themselves as distinct individuals and strive to achieve personal goals. On the other hand, individuals with interdependent self-construals consider their relationships with others and the social context when defining themselves. These cultural differences also impact memory and social inferences (Uleman, 2018). European Americans tend to overlook social context when making inferences, while those with interdependent self-construals pay more attention to relational aspects. Moreover, emotional experiences are influenced by one's sense of self (Hess & Hareli, 2017). People with an independent sense of self often experience ego-focused emotions like pride or frustration over personal achievements or setbacks. In contrast, cultures with interdependent self-conceptions tend to experience other-focused emotions, such as the Japanese concept of "amae" which involves being lovingly pampered by others. Furthermore, the sense of self also affects self-esteem (Chung & Mallery, 1999). Those with an independent sense of self are more likely to endorse self-esteem items, while the importance of self-esteem varies between independent and interdependent cultures. In interdependent cultures, approval from others for adhering to social norms is a better predictor of life satisfaction.

Summary of key differences between an independent and an interdependent perception of self
Figure 12: Summary of key differences between an independent and an interdependent perception of self (Fiske & Taylor, 2017).

Situational factors in different cultures also play a role. In the United States, situations encourage self-enhancement, while Japanese situations promote self-criticism. Researchers have questioned the nature of self-esteem across cultures. People from interdependent cultures who score high on Western self-esteem scales exhibit behaviors consistent with high self-esteem in Western cultures. Additionally, even in interdependent cultures, there are tendencies to self-enhance indirectly (Kitayama & Karasawa, 1997).

William James advocated separating structural and content aspects when considering cross-cultural differences. Certain structural aspects may be universal, while content aspects are heavily influenced by culture. One's culture shapes one's self-concept. Independent cultures view the self as unique, autonomous, and distinct from others, while interdependent cultures see the self as part of social relationships, adjusting behavior according to others' thoughts, feelings, and actions. Furthermore, the content of self-awareness differs between Western and non-Western cultures, with the Western idea of a single, independent self contrasting with the "we-self" found in cultures like Japan and India. This highlights the complex interplay between culture, cognition, and emotion in shaping our identities.


The self is not a static entity but a complex and context-dependent mosaic of selves that come into play in different situations and relationships. Self-concept is shaped by the roles individuals assume in society, the influential people in their lives, and their personal assessments of their attributes. Self-schemas are essential for organizing and handling self-related data, while potential selves steer aspirations and fears, influencing decisions and actions. Neuroscientific research has revealed the neural bases of self-views, highlighting the left hemisphere's role in distinguishing between "me" and "not me." Additionally, self-esteem plays a vital role in self-perception, affecting one's well-being, goal-setting, and social interactions. Additionally, culture exerts a substantial influence on the shaping of perceptions about oneself, where individualism and collectivism represent separate cultural models affecting self-construal, emotional responses, and self-esteem. Understanding the interplay between culture, cognition, and emotion is crucial in comprehending the complexities of the self.

In the quest to answer the question "Who are you?" philosophers continue to ponder the nature of the self, while psychologists explore its role in memory, social interactions, and various aspects of human behavior. The self, as a mental representation, remains a captivating subject at the intersection of these intellectual pursuits, inviting continued exploration and inquiry into the essence of the self in social cognition. It is a concept that continues to evolve, offering valuable insights into the intricate interplay between individual psychology and social dynamics, enriching our understanding of human nature and our place in the world.

AI-generated image of "Who are you?"
Figure 13: AI-generated image of the question "Who are you?".

In conclusion, the concept of the self as a mental representation is a multifaceted and dynamic aspect of human cognition and behavior that has intrigued philosophers, psychologists, and scholars throughout history. From William James's foundational ideas to the frameworks of Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead, the exploration of the self has evolved and deepened over time. Contemporary research in social cognition has contributed significantly to our understanding of the self, shedding light on its various components, such as self-concept, self-schemas, self-esteem, and the influence of culture on the self.

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