Psychology of Growth

Outdoor Education
& self constructs

Definitions of Various Self Constructs
Self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-confidence & self-concept

James Neill
Last updated:
16 Oct 2005


What is "self"?

What constitutes the "self" has been pondered by philosophers, poets, artists, and others for millennia.  More recently, psychologists have sought to define and research a range of self constructs.

Definitions of self constructs

Self-esteem: Self-esteem refers to general feelings of self-worth or self-value.

Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is belief in one's capacity to succeed at tasks.  General self-efficacy is belief in one's general capacity to handle tasks.  Specific self-efficacy refers to  beliefs about one's ability to perform specific tasks (e.g., driving, public speaking, studying, etc.)

Self-confidence: Self-confidence refers to belief in one's personal worth and likelihood of succeeding.  Self-confidence is a combination of self-esteem and general self-efficacy.

Self-concept: Self-concept is the nature and organization of beliefs about one's self.  Self-concept is theorized to be multi-dimensional.  For example, people have separate beliefs about physical, emotional, social, etc. aspects of themselves.

Developmental patterns in the development of self-constructs

Early on in development, children tend to have a vague, general concept of themselves, which gradually diversifies into concepts about themselves as students at school, in relation to peers, in relation to family, emotionally, physically, and so on. 

It is unclear whether self-concepts are formed top-down (specific beliefs flow from general beliefs) or bottom-up (general beliefs flow from specific beliefs).

Gender differences in self-constructs

Males tend to report higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence than do females.  More specifically, females rate their Verbal self-concept higher, whereas males tend to rate their Mathematical self-concept higher.

Females tend to report greater increases in self-constructs as a result of interventions.  This could be because:

  • females tend to start lower (therefore they have more "room for growth") and
  • females tend to be more open to verbal processing of experience and expression of feelings.


Historical conceptions of "self"

Character development, personal growth, and development of self-constructs are commonly valued goals in Western society, and are largely taken for granted as desirable.  However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon: 

Between 700 and 1500, the concept of the "self" referred to only the weak, sinful, crude, "selfish" nature of humans. The evil "self" was contrasted with the divinely perfect nature of a Christian soul. Joseph Campbell believed the concept of an independent, self-directed "self" didn't start to develop until about 800 years ago. So, it is a relatively new idea (somewhat older than the idea that we are not at the center of the universe) which has grown in importance. In medieval times, values and meaning were dictated by the community ("do what you are told to do"). Today, modern "self" theory says each person is expected to decide what is right (almost by magic and without much reliance on the accumulated wisdom of the culture) and to know him/herself well enough to determine what courses of action "feel right." In short, we must know ourselves, so we can set our life goals and self-actualize. The cultures of 1200 and 2000 are two very different worlds.
- Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd, 1996, Changing Your Self-concept and Building Your Self-esteem

"Self" in the 20th Century

Previous to the 20th century, social institutions, including schooling and psychology (which barely existed) did not emphasize the development of positive beliefs about self.  There was greater emphasis, for example, on developing relationship to divinities and organized systems of government.  With the ousting of religion as the dominant organizational culture in Western society, and the rise of capitalism with its emphasis, particularly in North America, on expression and valuing of personal freedom, a 'cult of the self' has blossomed.

Indeed, self-constructs seem to be positively associated with other desirable qualities, such as better quality of life, higher academic performance, and so on, but there is debate about whether improving self-esteem, self-concept, etc. causes improved performance, or vice-versa.  What's more, there is evidence that high self-esteem when combined with prejudice can lead to increased increased aggression.

Education and parenting in North America has been criticized for overemphasizing praise and affirmation of children.  Simply boosting self-esteem without boosting personal skill, it has been argued, creates vacuous self-belief which leads to more serious problems arising from the self-deception (see "Can self-esteem be bad for your child?").

This area deserves further research.  Among other tasks, attention needs to be paid to distinguishing  shallow self-esteem boosting methods from well developed, effective approaches to personal and social development.