Psychology Dictionary of Arguments

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Upton I 82
Self/Developmental psychology/Upton:
A. Empirical Self: The first step on the road to self-understanding is the recognition that ‘I’ exist as an individual, and have agency (the power to act) and distinct and unique experiences. This awareness is thought to begin to develop in infancy, when babies begin to show understanding that they have agency; that is, they can cause things to happen and have the ability to control objects (Cooley, 1902)(1).In this way a sense of agency emerges at around four months of age and is gradually consolidated.
A two-year-old child is more assertive, demanding and picky than a four-month-old baby. Indeed, the tantrums so often associated with the ‘terrible twos’ are suggested to reflect the frustration felt by toddlers when attempts to control the world around them fail. Empirical investigations of the existential self in infants and toddlers are limited and studies tend to be speculative (Damon and Hart, 1988)(2).

B. Categorical self: Empirical support for the emergence of the categorical self in late infancy/early childhood is provided by an investigation carried out by Lewis and Brooks-Gunn (1979)(3).
Rouge test: In this test, an experimenter surreptitiously places a dot of rouge on the nose of the child, who is then
Upton I 83
placed in front of a mirror and whose reactions are then monitored. Self-recognition is shown when the child touches their nose or attempts to wipe away the rouge. Lewis and Brooks-Gunn found that self-recognition emerges at around 18–24 months; at 18 months, 50 per cent of the group recognised the reflection in the mirror as their own, and by 20–24 months this increased to 65 per cent. However, it is important to remember that this is only behavioural evidence for awareness; it does not tell us anything about the subjective experience associated with this consciousness.
Children’s understanding of themselves as active agents (…) can be seen in their attempts to cooperate with others in play. They use their knowledge of their own power to act on their world, when they offer to share a toy or join in pretend play with a friend. It is in these routine relationships and interactions that the child’s understanding of him or herself continues to emerge Dunn (1988)(4).
Once children have gained a certain level of awareness of the existential self, they begin to form increasing awareness of their categorical self as they begin to place themselves – and to be placed by others – in different categories (e.g. gender, nationality). >Symbolic interactionism/Mead.



1. Cooley, C.H. (1902) Human Nature and the Social Order, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
2. Damon, W. and Hart, D. (1988) Self-understanding in Childhood and Adolescence. New York: Cambridge University Press.
3. Lewis, K and Brooks-Gunn, J (1979) Social Cognition and the Acquisition of the Self. New York: Plenum.
4. Dunn, J (1988) The Beginnings of Social Understanding. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Upton I 121
Self/Developmental psychology/Upton: Sense of self is (…) thought to be influenced by adolescent involvement in cliques and crowds. According to Erikson (1950)(1), community membership is central to the achievement of identity as it requires solidarity with a group’s ideals. Identification with cliques and crowds is argued to help adolescents defend themselves against the loss of identity that may be provoked by the identity crisis. Thus, adolescents deal with the difficulties they experience in committing to adult identities (the identity crisis) by making exaggerated commitments to certain style groups and by separating themselves from other style groups. >Youth culture/Developmental psychology.


1. Erikson. EH (1950) Childhood and Society, New York: WW Norton.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Developmental Psychology
Upton I
Penney Upton
Developmental Psychology 2011


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