The social construction of self

Social interaction builds self-awareness

The broad aim of this line of research is to explore the social construction of self. One way to achieve this is to explore cross-cultural differences in the early development of self-awareness.

In some countries early caregiver-infant interactions are characterized by high levels of proximal physical contact, whereas in others, distal contact strategies (high levels of speech and mutual eye gaze) are most commonly used. Culturally distinct experiences such as these may scaffold collectivistic (interdependent) versus individualistic (independent) concepts of self.

In support of this claim, we find that the quality of early caregiver-infant interaction can be used to predict infants’ pass rates on self-recognition tasks. Specifically, infants exposed to an individualistic parenting style have the advantage in a task requiring recognition of the self as a distinct individual (the mirror mark test of self-recognition), whereas infants exposed to a collectivist parenting style have the advantage in a task requiring recognition of the self as an interdependent object in the environment (the body-as-obstacle task).

The mirror mark test, to pass the child has to reach to touch the ‘surprise’ sticker

Remarkably, this is among the first data to empirically substantiate the idea that social factors play a role in the early construction of self (see: Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I. & Zeedyk, M.S. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: The early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science.doi: 10.1111/desc.12387).

The antecedents of self-awareness are an open question. For a long time, the development of self-recognition was considered a fixed cognitive development, perhaps deriving from the domain general development of secondary representation. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that self-other differentiation is impacted by, and impacts, social development. Arguably, we may need to define and measure self-awareness more broadly than mirror self-recognition if we are to elucidate the antecedents (and social consequences) of self.

Mini me PhD graduate Dr Yaro Goncharova has confirmed that Stipek’s (1990) self-concept questionnaire reliable multidimensional measurement of the development of self-awareness, encompassing self-recognition, self-evaluation, emotional responses to wrongdoing and autonomy. Interestingly, Yaro finds that this parent report scale has the same developmental correlates of mirror self-recognition.

Specifically, self-awareness can be predicted by concurrent developments in imitation, pretend play and prosociality. As these predictive factors operate independently, it seems that these relationships are unlikely to be due to the domain general development of secondary representation, and more about a developing self-system. Watch this space for her papers!