Psychology For Dummies
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Personal identity consists of the things that make you stand out in a crowd — for example, your megawatt smile or sparkling wit. According to David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, the personal identity is comprised of a public self and a private self, each with its own components.

Three important aspects make up the public self:

  • Appearance: Being aware of your appearance is very much a part of your identity. This is not a perspective unique to Western civilization. Cultures all over the world engage in elaborate attempts to improve appearances and enhance personal beauty, as defined by each particular culture. Some philosophers state that a sense of aesthetics is essential for the good life.

  • Style: George Clooney, Harry Styles, and Rihanna have style — and, in Harry's case, it's literally within his name! The way they talk, their body language, and their facial expressions are undeniably “them.” Everyone has a peculiar way of speaking and moving. These things make up a person’s style. Don’t get confused by the Clooney, Styles, or RiRi examples though; style isn’t about being “cool.” Your style is unique to you, whether it’s cool or not.

  • Personality: Personality theories attempt to account for individuality based on differences among personalities. Personalities are enduring, and they don’t change easily.

The private self consists of characteristics that are difficult for others to see and observe — their thoughts, feelings, and daydreams and fantasies.
  • Thoughts: Knowing what someone is thinking is hard, unless they tell you. Some people are better than others at figuring out what people are thinking, but it’s really nothing more than a sophisticated guessing process.

  • Feelings: Mental health professionals often evaluate new patients at psychiatric hospitals with something called the mental status examination. The professional observes the patient, partly to figure out how the patient feels. This observable aspect of how someone feels is the affect.

  • Daydreams/fantasies: Who would you be without your daydreams and fantasies? Again, fantasies are typically private, especially the sexual ones. Yours are unique to you, and they define you.

Your social identity

What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your religion? Each of these questions is a component of one aspect of your social identity — those things that identify you with a particular societal category.

Group affiliation refers to things such as your vocations and social clubs. Many people identify themselves by their type of work. But another important dimension of the social identity is the kinds of social clubs and cliques a person affiliates with. Your social identity is comprised of certain identity factors that, when taken all together, equal the social “you.” These factors include kinship, race and ethnicity, and religious beliefs.


Kinship is central to social identity. Your relatives are your “kin,” and most people get their last names from their families of origin. In the United States, last names are legal names and a fairly reliable way to identify people. Although many people have the same name, many more do not.

Ethnicity and nationality

Ethnicity is another important aspect of social identity and is defined as a classification of belonging to a particular group based on a similar cultural tradition. The categories are rather arbitrary in name, but they do include a lot of information. Some people are more comfortable not identifying ethnic differences between people because they fear discrimination.

Religious and group affiliations

Religious affiliation affects a person’s social identity to varying degrees. An individual’s religious identity is a core aspect in determining who they are.


Unfortunately, sometimes having a looking-glass self (basing your sense of self on how you think others perceive you) can be a bad thing. As long as other people see you in a good light, all is well. But this is often not the case. Children, for example, are sometimes belittled, put down, or verbally abused by their own parents. Even adults know that others don’t always hold them in the highest esteem, so many people don’t have very high regard for themselves.

Buss provides a good review of six main sources of self-esteem:

  • Appearance: People usually feel better about themselves when they feel attractive. A lot of social psychology research has demonstrated that people judged to be attractive are granted more favors and preferred for social interaction more than those who are not.

  • Ability and performance: People feel better about themselves when they get good grades, perform well at work, and do things successfully. The more a person is able to accomplish for themselves, the more likely they are going to feel good about themselves.

  • Power: When a person feels like they are in control of their life, they're more likely to feel good about themselves. There are at least three sub-sources of a sense of power: dominance, status, and money. Domination can be achieved by coercion, competition, or leadership. Status and money pretty much speak for themselves.

  • Social rewards: Three types of social rewards tend to make people feel good about who they are:

    • Affection: People like you.

    • Praise: Someone tells you that you’re doing a good job.

    • Respect: Others value your opinions, thoughts, and actions.

  • Vicarious elements: This source of self-esteem is all about feeling good about yourself because of things “outside” rather than “inside.” Reflected glory makes you feel good because you get a boost from being around or associated with successful, powerful, or popular people. It’s the "I know famous people" form of self-esteem. Having nice material possessions can also make some people feel better about themselves.

  • Morality: Morality involves being a good person and living according to the standards and rules of social conduct that you admire. For the most part, morality is a relative term. But, when someone feels that they've taken the moral high ground (however they define it) in a situation, they are likely to have positive self-esteem.

About This Article

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Adam Cash is a clinical psychologist who has practiced in a variety of settings including forensic institutions and outpatient clinics. He has taught Psychology at both the community college and university levels. He is currently in private practice specializing in psychological assessment, child psychology, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

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