Personality, Lifestyle, and The Self

20 Self and Identity

The link between people’s personalities and their buying behaviour is somewhat unclear, but market researchers continue to study it. For example, some studies have shown that “sensation seekers,” or people who exhibit extremely high levels of openness, are more likely to respond well to advertising that’s violent and graphic. The practical problem for firms is figuring out “who’s who” in terms of their personalities. Marketers have had better luck linking people’s self-concept to their buying behaviour. Your self-concept is how you see yourself — be it positive or negative. Your ideal self is how you would like to see yourself — whether it’s muscular, more popular, more eco-conscious, or more conservative.


Part of what is developing in children as they grow is the fundamental cognitive part of the self, known as the self-concept. The self-concept is a knowledge representation that contains knowledge about us, including our beliefs about our personality traits, physical characteristics, abilities, values, goals, and roles, as well as the knowledge that we exist as individuals. Throughout childhood and adolescence, the self-concept becomes more abstract and complex and is organized into a variety of different cognitive aspects of the self, known as self-schemasChildren have self-schemas about their progress in school, their appearance, their skills at sports and other activities, and many other aspects. In turn, these self-schemas direct and inform their processing of self-relevant information (Harter, 1999), much as we saw schemas in general affecting our social cognition.


Although every human being has a complex self-concept, there are nevertheless individual differences in self-complexity, the extent to which individuals have many different and relatively independent ways of thinking about themselves (Linville, 1987; Roccas & Brewer, 2002). Some selves are more complex than others, and these individual differences can be important in determining psychological outcomes. Having a complex self means that we have a lot of different ways of thinking about ourselves. For example, imagine a woman whose self-concept contains the social identities of student, girlfriend, daughter, marketing student, and hockey player and who has encountered a wide variety of life experiences. Social psychologists would say that she has high self-complexity. On the other hand, a man who perceives himself primarily as either a student or as a member of the theatre ensemble and who has had a relatively narrow range of life experiences would be said to have low self-complexity. For those with high self-complexity, the various aspects of the self are separate, as the positive and negative thoughts about a particular self-aspect do not spill over into thoughts about other aspects.

Ideal Self

The ideal self consists of the attributes that you or someone else would like you to possess. The slogan “Be All That You Can Be,” which for years was used by the U.S. Army to recruit soldiers, is an attempt to appeal to this self-concept. Presumably, by joining the U.S. Army, you will become a better version of yourself, which will, in turn, improve your life. Many beauty products and cosmetic procedures are advertised in a way that’s supposed to appeal to the ideal self people seek. All of us want products that improve our lives.


Like any other schema, the self-concept can vary in its current cognitive accessibility. Self-awareness refers to the extent to which we are currently fixing our attention on our own self-concept. When our self-concept becomes highly accessible because of our concerns about being observed and potentially judged by others, we experience the publicly induced self-awareness known as self-consciousness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Rochat, 2009).

According to self-awareness theory(Duval & Wicklund, 1972), when we focus our attention on ourselves, we tend to compare our current behaviour against our internal standards. Sometimes when we make these comparisons, we realize that we are not currently measuring up. In these cases, self-discrepancy theory states that when we perceive a discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves, this is distressing to us (Higgins, Klein, & Strauman, 1987). In contrast, on the occasions when self-awareness leads us to comparisons where we feel that we are being congruent with our standards, then self-awareness can produce positive affect (Greenberg & Musham, 1981). Tying these ideas from the two theories together, Philips and Silvia (2005) found that people felt significantly more distressed when exposed to self-discrepancies while sitting in front of a mirror. In contrast, those not sitting in front of a mirror, and presumably experiencing lower self-awareness, were not significantly emotionally affected by perceived self-discrepancies. Simply put, the more self-aware we are in a given situation, the more pain we feel when we are not living up to our ideals.


Self-esteem refers to the positive (high self-esteem) or negative (low self-esteem) feelings that we have about ourselves. We experience the positive feelings of high self-esteem when we believe that we are good and worthy and that others view us positively. We experience the negative feelings of low self-esteem when we believe that we are inadequate and less worthy than others.

Our self-esteem is determined by many factors, including how well we view our own performance and appearance, and how satisfied we are with our relationships with other people (Tafarodi & Swann, 1995). Self-esteem is in part a trait that is stable over time, with some people having relatively high self-esteem and others having lower self-esteem. But self-esteem is also a state that varies day to day and even hour to hour. When we have succeeded at an important task, when we have done something that we think is useful or important, or when we feel that we are accepted and valued by others, our self-concept will contain many positive thoughts and we will therefore have high self-esteem. When we have failed, done something harmful, or feel that we have been ignored or criticized, the negative aspects of the self-concept are more accessible and we experience low self-esteem.

Looking-Glass Self

Our self-concept is also formed through our interactions with others and their reactions to us. The concept of the looking-glass self explains that we see ourselves reflected in other people’s reactions to us and then form our self-concept based on how we believe other people see us (Cooley, 1902). This reflective process of building our self-concept is based on what other people have actually said, such as “You’re a good listener,” and other people’s actions, such as coming to you for advice. These thoughts evoke emotional responses that feed into our self-concept. For example, you may think, “I’m glad that people can count on me to listen to their problems.”

Student Op-Ed: Marketers’ Influence on Consumers’ Self-Esteem

Marketers can have a huge impact on a consumer’s self-esteem (Solomon, 2014). The concept of self-esteem refers to your personal value or the way you view yourself (Solomon, 2014). People with low self-esteem have low confidence, and try to avoid embarrassment, failure, or rejection (Solomon, 2014). In contrast, people with high self-esteem are confident, will take more risks, and are more willing to attract attention to themselves (Solomon, 2014). Some marketers may target consumers with low self-esteem and use messaging around their products or services that promise the benefits of high self-esteem. These tactics are typically employed to increase both  brand exposure and sales. Repetitive and extensive exposure to ads featuring idealized images of happy, attractive people can trigger a process known as social comparison which can have a direct impact on a consumer’s self-esteem (Solomon, 2014).

Marketers are advertising to consumers with low self-esteem to increase sales and liquidity of the company. The brand Dove created a “Dove Self-Esteem Project” which encourages consumers to write about and share with others what their version of ‘real beauty’ means (Millard, 2009). While Dove has created this platform, presumably to support female consumers in reframing the conversation around body positivity, beauty, and  self-esteem, the brand continues to position its products as a ‘solution’ for those seeking happiness and beauty (Millard, 2009). Moreover, where does this leave consumers who don’t purchase their products? How can those consumers feel anything but inadequate or ‘not good enough’ given the brand is so tightly positioned as a means to improving one’s quality of life (Millard, 2009)? Since the Dove Self-Esteem Project started, product sales have increased: Dove claims  that consumers’ self-esteem also increases when its products are purchased (and thereby also decreases when products are not purchased (Millard, 2009)).

The L’Oréal company specifically targets self-esteem by promoting thin models with a full face of make-up who state the company’s catchphrase, “you’re worth it” (L’Oréal Paris 2018). Despite the brand dedicating a page on its website to promote self-worth, once the consumer views the company’s ads social comparison can be triggered, leading to a decrease in self-esteem unless the product is purchased (L’Oréal Paris 2018). Moreover, L’Oréal claims that their products increase ‘true beauty’ and consequently, product sales have increased steadily since the promotion of ‘self-worth’ (L’Oréal Paris 2018). This gives further evidence to the fact that marketers have shifted messages away from product utility towards consumer happiness: messages that seek to improve self-esteem by promoting consumers’ “worth” because they “deserve to feel beautiful” suggest these products are the only means to these ends.

It could very well be that marketers are hoping to improve the self-esteem of their consumers, however I am concerned about the possibility that some consumers  are negatively impacted by messages that suggest only specific products can achieve results and give consumers the beauty, confidence, and happiness they might be longing for. In addition, I believe marketers have a moral responsibility to reinforce  that beauty comes from within, not from a jar, tube, or container. It’s not honest to suggest that a certain product will make you feel or be, your best, authentic self. While I am happy to see that Dove has made a self-esteem project for people to express themselves and feel heard, it’s important to acknowledge that the concept of beauty is different for each and every person. In researching this piece, I discovered that there is wide criticism of Dove’s definition of beauty: it is said to be too narrow and ignores the studies which claim that 69 per cent of women agree that they don’t see themselves reflected in advertising, television or movies (Millard, 2009). My hope is that marketers now and in the future will engage more responsibly and create more relatable content that inspires everyone and doesn’t guilt customers into their purchasing decisions.

The Extended Self

Some consumers may either unconsciously or consciously, use their consumption choices—for examples the brands they favour and purchase—as a way to express who they are, what they value, and how they want to be perceived. When their sense of self is further defined by these possessions, we call it the Extended Self. When a consumer selects a particular pair of sneakers, jeans, or cell phone, they are expressing some sense of “self” and identifying how they want to stand out from some, or fit in with others. In this manner, the brands we select and the possessions we showcase reflect both a sense of autonomy (i.e. distinction or uniqueness) and affiliation (i.e. conformity) (Kleine and Kleine, 1995). The brands we select also communicate our own values: for example, consumers who choose brands that are “green” (sustainable) may be expressing a value for environmental conservatism and climate action.

Social Comparison Theory

We also develop our self-concept through comparisons to other people. Social comparison theory states that we describe and evaluate ourselves in terms of how we compare to other people. Social comparisons are based on two dimensions: superiority/inferiority and similarity/difference (Hargie, 2011). In terms of superiority and inferiority, we evaluate characteristics like attractiveness, intelligence, athletic ability, and so on. For example, you may judge yourself to be more intelligent than your brother or less athletic than your best friend, and these judgments are incorporated into your self-concept. This process of comparison and evaluation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have negative consequences if our reference group isn’t appropriate.

Reference groups are the groups we use for social comparison, and they typically change based on what we are evaluating. In terms of athletic ability, many people choose unreasonable reference groups with which to engage in social comparison. If a man wants to get into better shape and starts an exercise routine, he may be discouraged by his difficulty keeping up with the aerobics instructor or running partner and judge himself as inferior, which could negatively affect his self-concept. Using as a reference group people who have only recently started a fitness program but have shown progress could help maintain a more accurate and hopefully positive self-concept.

We also engage in social comparison based on similarity and difference. Since self-concept is context specific, similarity may be desirable in some situations and difference more desirable in others. Factors like age and personality may influence whether or not we want to fit in or stand out. Although we compare ourselves to others throughout our lives, adolescent and teen years usually bring new pressure to be similar to or different from particular reference groups. Think of all the cliques in high school and how people voluntarily and involuntarily broke off into groups based on popularity, interest, culture, or grade level. Some kids in your high school probably wanted to fit in with and be similar to other people in the marching band but be different from the football players. Conversely, athletes were probably more apt to compare themselves, in terms of similar athletic ability, to other athletes rather than kids in show choir. But social comparison can be complicated by perceptual influences. As we learned earlier, we organize information based on similarity and difference, but these patterns don’t always hold true. Even though students involved in athletics and students involved in arts may seem very different, a dancer or singer may also be very athletic, perhaps even more so than a member of the football team. As with other aspects of perception, there are positive and negative consequences of social comparison.

We generally want to know where we fall in terms of ability and performance as compared to others, but what people do with this information and how it affects self-concept varies. Not all people feel they need to be at the top of the list, but some won’t stop until they get the high score on the video game or set a new school record in a track-and-field event. Some people strive to be first chair in the clarinet section of the orchestra, while another person may be content to be second chair. The education system promotes social comparison through grades and rewards such as honor rolls and dean’s lists.

Self-Affirmation Theory

There are certain situations, however, where these common dissonance-reduction strategies may not be realistic options to pursue. For example, if someone who has generally negative attitudes toward drug use nevertheless becomes addicted to a particular substance, it will often not be easy to quit the habit, to reframe the evidence regarding the drug’s negative effects, or to reduce self-awareness. In such cases, self-affirmation theory suggests that people will try to reduce the threat to their self-concept posed by feelings of self-discrepancy by focusing on and affirming their worth in another domain, unrelated to the issue at hand. For instance, the person who has become addicted to an illegal substance may choose to focus on healthy eating and exercise regimes instead as a way of reducing the dissonance created by the drug use.

Self-Affirmation in Consumer Behaviour

How might consumers reconcile their consumption and disposal behaviour using self-affirmation theory? Many years ago, shortly before having my first child, I had planned to only use cloth diapers and not succumb to the convenience of disposable diapers. I romanticized about being an “ideal” parent who would make sustainable consumer decisions throughout my life as a parent. While my intentions may have been honourable, they were also naive: little did I know how the first few days, weeks, and even months of parenting could bring on so much stress, chaos, and uncertainty (never mind sleep deprivation).

Deciding to place convenience above all else, I used disposable diapers from day one: and while in the back of my mind I felt dissonance about this decision, I reduced that dissonance by toilet-training my daughter at an early age (thus ending our dependence on a disposable product). I also sought out other acts of sustainability (making baby food; buying second hand clothing) to further reduce dissonance.

Text Attributions


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