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Self-Motives  

Aiden P. Gregg

All normal adult human beings possess a self and an identity. Their evolutionary emergence may be partly understood as the result of humans developing several sophisticated cognitive capacities. But having emerged, self and identity now serve as objects of keen motivational concern. Accordingly, various motives relating to self and identity have been conceptualized, theorized, and researched. These include four self-evaluation motives (SEMs; self-enhancement, self-assessment, self-verification, and self-improvement), six identity motives (IMs; self-esteem, continuity, distinctiveness, belongingness, efficacy, and meaning), and three fundamental needs (FNs; efficacy, autonomy, and relatedness). Some of these self-motives represent very general self-appraisals that people strive for, while others represent more specific preconditions for thriving psychologically, and there is some overlap. The motive to rationally self-assess (discover the truth about oneself) has obvious pragmatic utility. But it competes with the motives to irrationally self-enhance (discover good things about oneself) and to irrationally self-verify (confirm preconceptions about oneself), whose utility is complex and debated. A more active, but also reality-oriented, motive to self-improve (make oneself better) supplements them. Much research on these SEMs addresses the extent to which, and the conditions under which, one motive prevails over another, with the potency of each being occasionally subject to radical skepticism. Controversies also abound over the criteria for validly inferring the operation of SEMs, as many purported measures are dogged by nonmotivational confounds. As regards IMs and FNs, these deal with more domain-specific strivings, such as preserving a sense of who one is over time, or taking charge of one’s own destiny. Most may be tentatively classified into three categories of strivings: to have an impact on the world (agency), to make sense of the world (coherence), or to relate to others in the world (communion). In human beings, all such strivings are intimately intertwined with self and identity. Moreover, the fact such motives and needs exist, and durably operate, points to them serving some important adaptive function. Much applied research accordingly indicates that satisfying them promotes better psychological health and occupational performance. For SEMs, however, a more nuanced picture emerges. In particular, when people successfully self-enhance (i.e., have high self-esteem), they feel subjectively better, and self-report many benefits, but the evidence for objective advantages is thinner. Moreover, although low self-esteem may impair relationships through self-doubt, people who engage in antisocial behavior generally have high self-esteem. Regardless, the centrality of self and identity to human motivation can scarcely be overestimated. Who we are, compared to who we strive to be, is a key determinant of our well-being, and at least a modest determinant of important life outcomes.