Hazel Rose Markus' 1986 paper "Possible Selves" redefined how psychologists think of the relationship between self and culture. In it, she and co-author Paula Nurius develop the concept of possible selves: the ideal selves that we would like to become, that we could become, and that we are afraid of becoming.
We each have a repertoire of possible selves that serve as the "cognitive manifestation of enduring goals, aspirations, motives, fears, and threats [which] provide the essential link between the self-concept and motivation." For example, the small business owner who wants to get rich while being her own boss holds a possible self who has the easy, free life of a successful entrepreneur, while she also has a possible self who has failed and has had to move in with her aging parents. These possible selves represent and embody the hopes and fears of the individual who has them, and are influenced by both that person's individual persona and the others that surround him or her. In Barack Obama, for example, many young people of color have found the source for a new possible self: President of the United States.
Markus and Nurius developed a questionnaire that listed 150 possibilities for the self: everything from creative to wrinkled to alcoholic to being a Supreme Court justice to traveling around the world. They asked study participants whether each of these possibilities had described them in the past, whether the item was ever considered as a possible self, how probable the possible self was for them, and how much they would like the item to be true for them.
They found a strong optimistic bias, with many more of the participants having considered possible selves in which they were rich, thin, and well-traveled than ones in which they were poor or in prison. The authors concluded, then, that these possible selves serve as a powerful incentive, providing focus and organization in order to achieve goals.
The authors state:
To suggest that there is a single self to which one "can be true" or an authentic self that one can know is to deny the rich network of potential that surrounds individuals and that is important in identifying and descriptive of them. Possible selves contribute to the fluidity or malleability of the self because they are differentially activated by the social situation and determine the nature of the working self-concept. At the same time, the individual's hopes and fears, goals and threats, and the cognitive structures that carry them are defining features of the self-concept; these features provide some of the most compelling evidence of continuity of identity across time.
The conceptions we have of our possible selves allow us to develop a vision of our future, set goals in order to make that vision a reality, and establish patterns of behavior allow us to attain those goals. They are crucial to human motivation and internal behavior, and are one of the richest aspects of being human.
Read the whole paper.
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