Academic journal article Social Work

Assessing and Changing Self-Concept: Guidelines from the Memory System

Academic journal article Social Work

Assessing and Changing Self-Concept: Guidelines from the Memory System

Article excerpt

|Regarding the self-concept:~ What began as an apparently singular, static, lump-like entity has become a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted dynamic structure that is systematically implicated in all aspects of social information processing.

H. Markus and E. Wurf, 1987

Adding to a long-standing appreciation of the enormously influential role of the self-concept in our individual constructions of reality, the epigraph reflects significant changes in our understanding of the forms that role takes. Earlier work has discussed the difficulties in concretely grounding and operationalizing the elusive self-concept as well as the limitations imposed when such a central feature of social functioning remains vaguely defined (Nurius, 1989, 1993). Recent advances in allied fields regarding understanding of the human memory system provide promising approaches to better understanding the self-concept.

This article extends prior work by focusing on implications for self-concept change and interventions designed to facilitate therapeutic self-concept change goals. Although the clinical focus of this article is the self-concept, the linkages described here generalize to many other clinical loci as well. Memory structures and processes related to self-identity information function in essentially the same fashion as do memory structures and processes related to other types of information about the person or about his or her social world. Thus, change goals that involve developing substantially new memory structures or working differently with memory structures, such as enhancing problem-solving, coping, and relapse prevention patterns, can apply many of the recommendations offered here.

Architecture of Memory

As seen in Figure 1, human memory is a highly interactive system. Long-term memory is what most people think of when we speak of memory, and two types are distinguished: declarative and procedural. Declarative memory consists of general knowledge about oneself and the world (semantic memory), which has a great deal of overlap with other people's general knowledge, and very specific autobiographical memories gleaned from one's own experiences and subjective introspection (episodic memory). In contrast to the "knowing about" type of declarative knowledge, procedural memory consists of "knowing how" knowledge--the skills, rules, and strategies for doing things. The physical form that memory structures take is referred to as schemas or schemata.

Short-term memory is often referred to as active or working memory to denote that it is the portion of our total memory store that has been activated and is presently dominant in our awareness and cognitive "work space." Because we do not have simultaneous access to all of our memories related to our sense of self, our concept of the moment derives largely from that subset of self-schemata currently salient in working memory, that is, our working self-concept. The sensory perceptual system serves as the conduit for our memory system to the outside world and works closely with the "executive controller," which is actually a metaphor for the numerous communication and interchange processes among the memory components.

We tend to develop habits with respect to which of these processes we rely on and how we use them. Memory functioning that has become highly patterned and automatic is referred to as mindless or unconscious processing. Under such conditions we tend to overlook, ignore, or discount data in our environment, and memory functioning becomes highly concept driven (that is, we use our memories to fill in the information gaps, to make inferences and predictions). It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a detailed discussion of consciousness, including distinctions among preconscious, unconscious, and mindless information access and processing. A more apt, although more cumbersome, term for "mindlessness" may be "awarelessness," that is, a relatively low degree of mental alertness and attentiveness to the stimuli at hand. …

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