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What's Your "Ought Self" Like?

Actual self, ought self: Beware of the discrepancy!

Our ideal self is the person we want to be. Our ought self is our understanding of what others want us to be—what we ought to be and do. Then there is our actual self. What happens when our actual self doesn't match the ideal or ought selves?

E. Tory Higgins defined the relation between these various selves—actual, ideal and ought—in his self-discrepancy theory. The ideal and ought selves are our "guides" or standards that we use to organize information and motivate action. The motivational properties of these selves are related to the specific emotions that are associated with the discrepancy between the actual self and either the ideal or ought self. For example, when our actual self does not align with our ideal self, we typically feel disappointed, sad, or despondent. When our actual self does not match our ought self, we typically feel agitated, guilty, distressed, and anxious. As the picture above suggests, our perceptions or misperceptions of self and the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves can have dire consequences. However, the health effects of self-discrepancy theory are not my focus. I want to consider how self-discrepancy might relate to our needless task delay.

A recent study indicates that procrastinators have a greater actual-ought self discrepancy than non-procrastinators. Joe Ferrari (DePaul University), Mark Driscoll (former undergraduate student at Marquette University), and Juan Francisco Diaz-Morales (Complutense University, Madrid) examined the self of chronic procrastinators by having research participants sort self-descriptive statements in relation to their perceived actual, ought, and undesired selves.

Their Research

Early in the term, student volunteers completed a measure of procrastination. A couple of weeks later, these participants were asked to sort 48 index cards into piles. Each index card had an attribute or characteristic of the self written on it; these included both self-concept and self-presentational traits. For example, self-concept statements on the card included words or phrases like: hard worker, good at meeting deadlines, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, forceful. Self-presentational tactics included: excuse-making, justification, enhancement, intimidation.

The sorting task was conducted in three phases. First, participants sorted the cards to reflect their true (actual) selves. This was followed by sorts for the ought self and the undesired self. Self-discrepancy scores were calculated for each of the three self-domains such that the number of cards sorted that mismatched minus the number of cards that matched for actual-self and ought-self constituted the actual-ought discrepancy score. The same procedure was used for the actual-undesired discrepancy and ought-undesired discrepancy scores.

Their Findings

The scores on the procrastination measure were used to group the participants into high and low procrastination groups. Participants in the high procrastination group ("procrastinators") had greater discrepancies than non-procrastinators in how they perceived their self-concept characteristics and self-presentational tactics. Specifically, procrastinators had larger discrepancies between actual—and ought-selves as well as actual—and undesired-selves. As the authors note, the results are consistent with previous research "... such that actual-ought discrepancy was the best predictor of procrastination as assessed by the AIP [Adult Inventory of Procrastination]" (p. 120).

What Does All This Mean?

The motivational properties of ideal and ought selves basically represent a dichotomy between approach and avoidance, respectively. These self-guides also influence our motivation in other ways. For example, what we pay attention to is different for the ideal and ought selves. The ideal self guides us to pay attention to cues for achievement and successful goal pursuit. This is what Higgins labels a "promotion focus." In contrast, the "prevention focus" is defined by the ought self for which we pay attention to avoiding harm. This is also true of the motivational properties of the undesired self. We work to avoid this self, the prevention focus.

Not surprisingly, there is a contrast in how these approach and avoidance motivations relate to our emotions. When we achieve goals related to our ideal self (our promotion focus), we feel pleasure. When we achieve goals related to our ought self (the prevention focus), we feel relief. There are certainly individual differences in whether we typically focus on the ideal self and approach motivations, or the ought (or undesired) self and avoidance motivations.

With the actual-self/ought-self discrepancy noted in this research, we may infer that avoidance may take the form of procrastination. Certainly, the emotions associated with this discrepancy, namely agitation, guilt, and anxiety, are emotions well known to chronic procrastinators. Unfortunately, the research conducted to date raises more questions than it answers in terms of how our sense of the ought self as defined by Higgins and colleagues relates to procrastination.

Concluding Comments

All research, particularly in the social sciences, is at best penultimate. We're always left with new questions and possibilities. That said, we're also able to piece together more of our "likely stories" about the world and how it works.

In the case of procrastination, the likely story we might tell based on the research of Ferrari and his colleagues is that procrastinators feel the weight of the ought self, what is expected of them, "what they ought to be doing" instead of what they're actually doing. Even when they finally achieve their goals, perhaps with their typical "last-minute efforts," the emotion is often one of relief as opposed to real pleasure in their accomplishments. When they aren't acting, when their actual selves are far off their ought selves, their emotions are typically agitation, guilt, and anxiety.

We've seen this form of avoidance in relation to the expectations of others earlier with our consideration of socially-prescribed perfectionism. When we're trying to live up to others' expectations (others' prescriptions of our ought self), we're more likely to procrastinate. We've also discussed this in relation to making the tasks in our lives our own—authentically living our lives in a way where we identify with our tasks in relation to our values and goals (see, for example, the post about existentialism, self-deception, and procrastination).

To the extent that we live our lives in pursuit of our ideal selves (our hopes), as opposed to trying to live up to our ought selves or trying to avoid our feared undesired selves, we may well be on the path to effective, authentic action and less needless task delay motivated by falsely internalized goals.

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Ferrari, J.R., Driscoll, M., & Diaz-Morales J. F. (2007). Examining the self of chronic procrastinators: Actual, ought and undesired attributes. Individual Differences Research, 5, 115-123.

Higgins, E. T. (1989) Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect, Psychological Review, 94, 319-340

Higgins, E. T., Roney, C., Crowe, E., & Hymes, C. (1994). Ideal versus ought predilections for approach and avoidance: Distinct self-regulatory systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 276-286.

Lay, C.H. (1995). Trait procrastination, agitation, dejection, and self-discrepancy. In J.R. Ferrari, J.A. Johnson & W.C. McCown, Procrastination and task avoidance: Theory, research and treatment. New York: Plenum Press.

Orellana-Damacela, L.E., Tindale, T.S., & Suarez-Balcazar, Y. (2000). Decisional and behavioral procrastination: How they relate to self-discrepancies. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 15, 225-238.

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