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Early Child Development

and Care
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and social cognitive

Daniel Hart & William Damon


RutgersThe State University

Clark University
Published online: 09 Jul 2006.

To cite this article: Daniel Hart & William Damon (1988) Selfunderstanding and
social cognitive development, Early Child Development and Care, 40:1, 5-23,
DOI: 10.1080/0300443880400102
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Self-understanding and social cognitive


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Rutgers-The State University

Clark University
(Received 31 May 1988)
Self-understanding is described as a multi-faceted conceptual system.
Utilizing the distinctions among facets proposed by William James, a
new model of self-understanding development is presented. According
to the model, the various facets of self-understanding evolve through a
sequence of four developmental levels. The relationship between
development in self-understanding, as described by the model, and
interpersonal reasoning is considered in a study of children. The results
indicate that self-understanding develpment is related to, but
independent from, the development of interpersonal reasoning.
Theoretical and research implications of these findings are considered.
KEY WORDS: Self-understanding, Cognition, Childhood, Friendship,
Authority, Morality

OUR PURPOSE in this article is to examine the developmental

relationships between self-understanding and social cognition. There
has been an unfortunate tendency among some researchers to
describe development in one as merely a reflection of development in
the other; to claim, for instance, that self-understanding exhibits the
same ontogenetic transformations exhibited in other domains (e.g.
Montemayor and Eisen, 1977), or that age-related changes in social
reasoning follows from the development of the self (e.g. Kegan, 1982).
Broad claims of isomorphism such as these obscure both the
distinctive qualities of self-understanding and social cognition, and
the relationships between the two domains. In the first part.of this
article, the nature and development of self-understanding is
thoroughly described. This explication serves as a basis for an
Address correspondence to Daniel Hart, Department of Psychology, Rutgers-The
State University, Camden, NJ 08102, USA.


examination of the relationship of self-understanding to social

cognitive development, an issue which is taken up in the second half.

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The nature of self-understanding

Understanding oneself is a fundamental human concern that starts

early and continues throughout life. The toddler searching for
familiar facial features in a mirror, the teenager brooding over a
friend's teasing remark, the philosopher working through abstract
verbal puzzles about personal continuity, all are captured by the
same intriguing problem: the nature of self. It is a problem that
attracts not only intellectual curiosity but the deepest sorts of
emotional response. For a conceptual exercise, it bears more than the
usual cognitive risks and rewards, for it provides the material for selfjudgment and evaluation.
Thoughts and attitudes about oneself form a conceptual system
that we call 'self-understanding.' This system's domain encompasses
all the considerations that an individual uses to define the self and to
distinguish the self from others. Included among these considerations
may be (depending on the individual) physical and material qualities
(e.g., size, possessions), activities and capabilities (e.g., hobbies,
talents), social or psychological characteristics (e.g. manners, habits,
dispositions), and philosophical beliefs (e.g., moral values, political
Further, self-understanding can extend beyond the definition of
one's current characteristics to the consideration of one's past and
future life directions. It may include notions of how one changes over
time, and of how one remains the same over time. Included too may
be conceptions of the processes accounting for personal changes, and
beliefs about one's own role in shaping or guiding these processes. It
even may include reflections on one's own consciousness of selfhood.
As part of its task of distinguishing self from others, selfunderstanding incorporates one's self-interests and how these may
differ from the interests of others. Self-understanding also draws
connections between the interests of self and others, defining ways in
which mutual self-interests may overlap. Finally, self-understanding
includes evaluative insights that provides the cognitive bases for selfesteem, shame and guilt, and personal identity.
The odd thing about self-understanding, as conceptual systems go,
is that it is the self that does the understanding of itself. This leads us

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commonly to make reflexive statements like 'I am mad at myself,' or

'I don't know myself very well.' In such seemingly contradictory
dualisms, T and 'myself are both part of the same 'self that is being
Here we turn to the self theory of William James, still the classic
psychological analysis of this elusive concept. James' framework, with
some more recent modifications to be discussed below, has shaped our
investigations from their inception. When we explore the selfunderstanding of children and adolescents, we focus in large part on
their understanding of the experiential territory that James mapped
out a century ago.
James divided the self into two main components, the 'me' and the
T . The 'me' aspect is 'the sum total of all a person can call his'.
(James 1892/1961, p.44). The primary elements of the 'me' are what
James called the 'constituents'. These constituents are the actual
qualities that define the self-as-known. They include all the material
characteristics (body, possessions), all the social characteristics
(relations, roles, personality), and all the 'spiritual' characteristics
(consciousness, thoughts, psychological mechanisms) that identify
the self as a unique configuration of personal attributes.
James analyzed his three primary constituents in terms of their
nature and relation to one another. His suggestion was that each
individual organizes the constituents of the 'me' into a hierarchical
structure that assigns differential value to each of the various
material, social, and spiritual constituents. James's assertion was that
all individuals hierarchize the basic constituent 'me' categories
similarly, with 'the bodily me at the bottom, the spiritual me at the
top, and the extra-corporeal material selves and the various social
selves between' (p.57). When James writes of individuals organizing
their 'me' constituents into hierarchies, he is of course referring to
individuals' cognitive representations of the 'me' aspect of self. This is
the place of self-concept in James' theory. As such, it presents a fairly
comprehensive notion. It suggests a self-concept that cognizes all
aspects of the self that one can objectively know, either through one's
own observations or through feedback from others.
For our purposes it is important to note here that this Jamesian
version of a self-concept, however comprehensive, did not imply any
developmental component. Although James admitted to some
individual variation in how the 'me' constituents were formulated, he
did not recognize the possibility that their hierarchical interrelations

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might vary significantly across individuals or within one individual

over time. Thus James foresaw no need for developmental
comparisons between modes of'me' organization.
James' introduction of the second major aspect of self, the 'self-asF, drives his theory deep into the heart of the selfs exclusive domain.
For the T incorporates precisely those experiential features of self
that elude all other constructs. It is the T more than any other aspect
of the person that requires a special 'self notion to express.
James presented the T as the 'self-as-knower,' the aspect of self that
initiates, organizes, and interprets experience in a subjective manner.
Individuals- are aware of the 'I' through four types of experience:
agency, distinctness, continuity, and reflection. Each of these
experiences has profound consequences for the individual,
particularly in creating the sense of personal identity.
From the sense of agency derives a belief in the autonomy of the
self, a conviction that one actively structures and processes one's own
experience. From the sense of continuity derives stability of self: as
James wrote, '...each of us spontaneously considers that by 'I' he
means something always the same' (p.63). From the sense of
distinctness from others derives individuality: 'Other men's
experiences, no matter how much I may know about them, never
bear this vivid, this peculiar brand' (p.71). From reflection derives
the self-consciousness that shapes the personal identity's eventual
meaning to oneself.
Here we depart a bit from James' approach. In his own writings,
James advocated avoiding the T for the purposes of empirical study
because of the 'IV indeterminate nature. It is of course difficult to
observe or characterize a phenomenon that is totally subjective and
that, therefore, may change unpredictably from moment to moment.
Also, unlike the somewhat circumscribed nature of the 'me' (which
consists of a definable collection of definitions that one and others
construct for one's self), the T enters into all of a person's interactions
with the world. It determines the very meaning of all life events, since
it influences a person's interpretation of every encountered person,
place, or experience; and even provides itself with a reflection on
itself. James' conclusion was that inquiry into the T was best left to
philosophy or religion, and that psychologists interested in selfconcept should focus on the 'me.'
But some years later, George Herbert Mead proposed an

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important modification to James' position (Mead, 1934). Mead's

modification suits our present purposes well, since it grants some
access to the subjective self for the study of self-understanding. Mead
suggested approaching the T through the 'me' by studying
individuals' knowledge of both their objective and subjective selves.
This, of course, is not the same as studying the actual experience of the
subjective self. But it does broaden the domain of self-understanding
beyond the circumscribed 'me' to include at least conceptual
knowledge of the 'I.' Another way of putting this is to say that the
Jamesian 'me' in this new definition becomes a bit enlarged in order
to incorporate some vital intellectual sense of the 'I.' In this most
comprehensive definition, which we have adopted, self
understanding is an individual's knowledge of the self-as-object as
well as of the self-as-subject; of the self-as-known as well as of the selfas-knower; of the 'me' as well as of the 'I.' The reason that we adopt
the term self-understanding rather than self-concept is to make this
inclusiveness clear; for traditionally self-concept has referred solely to
the James' 'me' (with James himself setting the precedent).
In other words, self-understanding in our usage starts with an
individual's self-definition, the domain of the Jamesian 'me.' But it
also includes the individual's conception of the self-as-subject, in
particular the individual's understanding of his/her agency,
continuity, distinctness, and reflection. It does not, however, include
the actual T itself, because the self-as-subject extends well beyond the
realm of self-understanding to the entire domain of psychological

The developmental model of self-understanding development

The multi-faceted nature of self-understanding precludes a unidimensional model of development. Based upon our review of the
literature (Damon and Hart, 1982, 1988), and our cross-sectional
(Hart and Damon, 1986) longitudinal (Damon and Hart, 1986; Hart
and Damon, 1985; Hart, Maloney, and Damon, 1987), cross-cultural
(Hart, Lucca-Irizarry, and Damon, 1986) and clinical (Hart,
Schorin, and Damon, in press) studies, we have proposed and verified
the multi-faceted developmental model of self-understanding
depicted in Figure 1.

Figure i. A developmental model for self-understanding.

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The developmental model of self-understanding is organized

horizontally along two major dimensions, represented by the front
and side faces of the cube depicted in Figure i. The front-face
dimension corresponds to the Jamesian 'Me' or 'self as object' (James,
1892/1961), and the side-face dimension to the conceptual awareness
of the Jamesian 'I' or 'self as subject'. Four self-as-object schemes are
posited: the physical self-scheme, the active self-scheme, the social
self-scheme, and the psychological self-scheme. These various selfschemes are represented by the columns on the face of the model in
Figure 1. The physical self-scheme includes within it the various
physical and material characteristics of self: height, weight,
appearance, possessions, and so on. Within the active self-scheme are
the selfs typical activities (e.g. 'bowl once a week') and capabilities
('good pilot'). The social self-scheme is constituted of the individual's
social relationships ('I have a mother') and social personality
characteristics ('friendly', 'shy'). Finally, the psychological selfscheme represents the variety of psychological characteristics that the
individual perceives in the self: beliefs ('I believe in freedom'),
affective states ('I'm moody'), and cognitive faculties ('smart' or
Development in the 'Me' component of self-understanding is
graphically depicted by the rows on the front face of the model. Each
row represents a developmental level. At the first developmental
level, Categorical Identifications, the self as 'Me' is understood as a
number of separate categorical identifications with taxonomic value
only. Categories like group memberships, typical activities, and
physical characteristics are offered as simple face descriptions without
further underlying significance. Rather, they are seen as sufficient in
themselves. At the second developmental level, Comparative
Assessments, the self is denned in relation to others and to normative
physical or social standards. Self-understanding focuses on
comparisons between the performances and capabilities of self versus
the performances and capabilities of real or imagined others. Such
comparisons can be explicit ('I do X better than he does') or implicit
('I can't stay in the sun very long'). In either case, categories of self are
transformed into relational statements that make a claim about the
selfs capabilities or quality or performance.
At developmental
level 3, Interpersonal Implications, self-understanding focuses on
characteristics of self as they determine the nature of one's
interactions with others. The main concern is now transformed from

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drawing relational analogies between self and others (as was the case
at level 2) to identifying one's manner of interacting with others.
Implicit or explicit comparative statements, therefore, assess the
quality of one's interactional capacities. Beyond comparisons, there is
also a concern at level 3 for the nature of any stable personality traits
that may define one's place and manner of operating in the social
network. At level 4 Systematic Beliefs and Plans categories of the self-asobject are organized through systematic beliefs and*life plans.
Characteristics of self draw their meaning for one's identity through
such beliefs and plans, which may include philosophical or moral
belief systems, ideological choices, or any variety of personal goals. It
is at this level, therefore, that a consciously systematic conception of
self is first achieved.
The side face of the model corresponds to the 'self-as-subject' or the
T in William James's description (1892/1961). Rather than attempt
to represent the actual development of the T component of the self,
which James believed would be impossible, the side face of the model
presents the developmental changes that occur in an understanding of
three of the four types of awareness that derive from the I (in our own
empirical work, we have found it difficult to elicit children's and
adolescents' understanding of self-reflection, and, for this reason,
have omitted this dimension from our model). The developmental
progressions for the T components of self-understanding are
described separately below. They are described separately because
our research indicates that there is not a general developmental
sequence applying to all three components of the T . Instead, each
component represents a distinctive type of self-understanding that
develops along its own trajectory, although there certainly are
commonalities among the three developmental paths, as well as
conceptual connections to the general sequence for the 'Me'
described above.
Within the agency component of self-understanding, at level 1, the
individual believes that biological or social forces determine the
existence and formation of self. At level 2, the individual asserts that it
is the self s own talents, abilities, efforts, or wishes, that shape the
direction of one's life. Level 3 agency understanding emphasizes the
influence of communication with others as a force directing the self s
life course. And finally, at level 4, the individual's own personal or
moral evaluations of life possibilities are believed to determine the
nature of the self.

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The understanding of personal continuity develops through four

levels as well. At level i, personal continuity is viewed as deriving
from the unchanging nature of physical characteristics or other
categorical identifications. At level 2, self-continuity is attributed to
permanent cognitive and active capabilities, such as one's memory or
knowledge. At level 3, self-continuity is established with reference to
the ongoing recognition of self by others. At the last level, level 4, selfcontinuity is believed to derive from the relation between one's earlier
and present characteristics of the self.
Finally, there are four developmental levels for the development of
an understanding of personal distinctness. At Level 1, the self's
distinctness over time is defined with reference to simple categorical
identifications such as one's body or possessions. The Level 2
understanding of distinctness is based on comparisons between self
and other along isolated personality, behavioral, or cognitive
dimensions. At Level 3, self-distinctness is believed to stem from one's
unique combination of psychological and physical characteristics. At
the last level, Level 4, self-distinctness is established with reference to
one's unique subjective experiences and interpretations of the world.
Applications of the self-understanding model

Our presentation of the model is necessarily brief and abstract; here,

we provide several examples of self-understanding from a clinical
study that demonstrate both how actual reasoning corresponds to the
model, and how the model can be applied. In one study (Schorin and
Hart, 1988), self-understanding was elicited from anorexic and nonanorexic adolescent females. Our hypothesis derived from a reading
of the clinical literature was that anorexic adolescents are likely to
have developmentally immature understandings of agency, relative
to age-matched non-anorexics. This hypothesis was confirmed
through statistical analyses that revealed that Level 1 responses were
more typical of the anorexics than of the normal adolescents. An
example of an understanding of agency from each group is provided
below in order to demonstrate the form and significance of this
difference. In response to a standard interview question used to elicit
an understanding of agency 'How did you get to be the way you are
now?', one 15-year-old anorexic responded:
I think I got the caring for people part from my mother, I think I inherited that. I



think I inherited a good sense of humor too. I was raised with humor. My mother can
tell a joke and it changes me.

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Within the framework of the model, this is a typical example of a

Level i understanding of agency, because it reflects a belief in the
determination of self by external, social forces (the mother). Compare
the anorexic's responses with an age-appropriate response from a
non-anorexic adolescent:
How didyou get to be likeyou are now? I really tried hard... I tried really hard to be like I
am now.

This response corresponds to Level 2 in the model, because it reveals

an understanding of self in which effort and motivation influence the
life course of the individual.
The anorexic's Level 1 understanding of agency commits her to a
belief in the lack of control over her own life, a belief that results in a
sense of helplessness in the face of many of the demands of adolescence
requiring decisions (e.g. about educational, relationship, and career
directions). One possibility is that the self-starvation characteristic of
the anorexia syndrome is an attempt to defend some sense of personal
control through the strict regulation of a biological mechanism. An
awareness that the anorexic's understanding of agency is oriented to
biological mechanisms and external determination can provide the
clinician with a lens through which the syndrome can be viewed.
Furthermore, the model suggests the direction in which the anorexic's
understanding of agency will move, as she escapes from the grip of the
syndrome and develops a more developmentally appropriate
Because of space limitations we cannot give examples of each level
of reasoning in all the various facets of self-understanding. However,
these two brief examples provide a glimpse of the richness of selfunderstanding, as well as suggest how its development is intertwined
with an individual's life circumstances. The examples also illustrate
how the model can be used to illuminate the developmental processes
involved in adolescent adjustment difficulties (see also Damon and
Hart, 1988; Hart, Schorin, and Damon, in press).
Developmental relationships with social cognition

In the preceding section, we described the nature of selfunderstanding and its development. The purpose of this detailed

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exposition is to highlight the unique developmental qualities of selfunderstanding, which have been frequently overlooked (Damon and
Hart, 1982). The absence of comprehensive descriptions of selfunderstanding development prior to the one presented in our work is
in marked contrast to the abundance of developmental descriptions
of other concepts such as logical reasoning (Piaget, 1929), moral
judgment (e.g. Damon, 1977; Kohlberg, 1983), social conventions
(e.g. Turiel, 1983), friendship (e.g. Youniss, 1979), social perspectives
(e.g. Selman, 1980), and person perception (Livesly and Bromley,
1973) to name but a few. Here, we shall consider the developmental
relationships that exist between self-understanding and these other,
more frequently studied concepts.
What type of developmental relationship should a researcher
expect to find between self-understanding and the various domains of
development? One common line of theorizing is that a single general
structure pervades all of a child's or adolescent's reasoning, and as
this general structure evolves into a qualitatively new one, reasoning
in different domains evidences parallel changes. Most usually,
researchers have assumed that the sequence of general structures is
best captured by Piaget's stages of logical reasoning. The research
strategy is to place individuals at different stages of development
based on performance in Piagetian tasks and then attempt to identify
reflections of that stage in the individual's reasoning in the domain of
interest. For instance, Noppe (1983) tested children and adolescents
on several different formal operational tasks, and also asked them to
write descriptions of themselves. Her hypothesis was that those
individuals who achieved formal operational thought and therefore
were capable of hypothetico-deductive reasoning would describe
themselves differently than those capable only of the reality-bound
cognitive processing characteristic of the concrete operational
thinker. The self-descriptions of formal operational adolescents might
be more oriented than those of concrete operational adolescents
towards psychological characteristics because of an ability to deduce
causes (motives, emotions), from results (behaviors). Within this sort
of theoretical paradigm, however, it is surprising that Noppe found
no significant differences in the self-description of the two groups of
A similar argument has also been made by some self theorists, who
have argued that developments in various domains are primarily a
reflection of the development of the self. This conception of the self is
inherent in much of the self-esteem literature, in which a single global

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self-esteem score is presumed to represent a person's self (e.g.

Coopersmith, 1967; for exceptions, see Harter, 1983 and Rosenberg,
1985). One example is Kegan's (1982, 1985) theory of the
development of self. In Kegan's theory, the self is a construct that
includes self-understanding but also is considerably broader,
covering the diversity of phenomena that might be subsumed within
Erikson's construct of identity or Loevinger's model of ego
development. Nonetheless, because self-understanding is one
constituent of Kegan's construct of self, and his theory makes the
broadest claims of any self theory we know of, it is a good
representative of the monolithic self-concept type of theorizing.
According to Kegan, the development of self consists of a series of
restructuring the subject-object distinction. This restructuring occurs
through a series of stages, each of which composes an underlying logic
that guides behavior. Each stage constitutes a particular type of self
that permeates all facets of an individual's world. For instance,
Kegan proposes that the following types of measurements would all
be meaningfully correlated, because of the underlying self logic:
(1) Piagetian physical-cognitive conservation; (2).Selman-type social perspective;
(3) Kohlberg-type moral judgment; (4) reality-oriented or fantasy-oriented fantasy,
play, drawing; (5) ability to narratize in the retelling of a heard story or seen film; (6)
ability to 'conserve the self in a 'Describe Yourself interview; (7) class-oriented or
action-oriented word association; color-oriented or form-oriented three-way
comparisons; (8) impulsivity versus impulse control; (9) involvement with parents
versus involvement with own projects; (10) open- or closed-boundary orientation in
the home (1985 p.201).

Although Kegan offers no research evidence, he predicts that these

various measures would all correlate highly, because they all measure
different facets of the same underlying structure.
Our own position is that the search for general structures solely
responsible for development across domains fails to respect the unique
features and functions of knowledge in each domain. Piagetian formal
operational reasoning tasks, for instance, assess an individual's ability
to deduce general principles about the physical world. Although
there may be some commonalities between thinking about the
physical world and social relationships, social reasoning differs in one
fundamental respect (Damon, 1979). In the course of social
interaction, individuals intentionally alter their actions in order to
coordinate them with the actions of others. The child, whether
talking with his parents or playing with friends, must construct

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knowledge about the relationships between self and others within the
awareness that one's own actions can radically affect the nature and
direction of the ongoing social interaction. Knowledge acquisition
about the physical world is different; the child learns that the wind
blows and the sun shines without intentional coordination with the
child's actions or participation. One relatively molar distinction
between domains, then, is between social-cognitive and scientific
reasoning. The developmental connections between the two broad
domains are likely to be relatively weak, as a consequence of the
above mentioned fundamental difference (Damon, 1977). It is for this
reason that Noppe's failure to find meaningful relationships between
formal operational thinking and self-description in the study
described above seems to us predictable.
Although it is not surprising that there is little evidence for a direct
connection between the developmental trajectories of physical
cognition and self-understanding, we do expect self-understanding
development to be related to development in other social cognitive
concepts. This is because self-understanding is itself a social cognitive
concept. Like other concepts within the social domain, the process of
constructing knowledge about the self occurs within a network of
relationships in which different persons intentionally modify their
actions in reaction to the actions of others; this has become a point of
departure for virtually every major theorist (e.g. Baldwin, 1902;
Mead, 1934; Mahler et al 1975).
Even with the domain of social cognition, however, there are
important distinctions among the functions of different types of
knowledge. The most commonly studied social cognitive concepts
concern an understanding of interpersonal relationships and
regulations: friendship, authority, and justice, to name just a few.
Primarily, the child's understanding of these interpersonal
relationships and regulations functions to facilitate effective
participation in social interaction and in society (Damon, 1983).
Although self-understanding too serves this goal, it is distinct from
these interpersonal concepts in that it aids in the differentiation of the
individual from society. For this reason, self-understanding
development is unlikely to be identical with development of the
interpersonal concepts. Empirically, then, in contrast with Kegan,
we would predict that self-understanding developmental levels would
exhibit only a moderate degree of association with developmental
levels of interpersonal concepts.



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A research example

To our knowledge, there are no studies that empirically examine the

developmental relationships among self-understanding and social
cognitive reasoning. Here, we would like to describe one small study
from our ongoing program of research (e.g. Damon and Hart, 1988)
that addresses exactly this issue.
Thirty-eight children, approximately equally divided by grade (k,
1,3,5) a n d sex> were individually interviewed on four topics: selfunderstanding, positive justice, authority, and friendship. Each child
was interviewed in his or her own school in four different sessions (one
session for each topic), with each session lasting approximately 30
minutes. The order of the presentation of interview topics was
randomized, in order to prevent possible order effects. The interview
sessions were tape-recorded and later transcribed.
Self-understanding was elicited using clinical interview questions
such as 'How would you describe yourself as a person?' and 'What
kind of person do you want to be?' (the complete list of questions can
be found in Hart and Damon, 1986). The interviewer asked
additional questions as necessary in order to fully elicit the child's
understanding of self. Responses to the clinical interview questions
were coded with a developmental scoring manual corresponding to
the model presented earlier (see Damon and Hart, 1988; Hart and
Damon, 1986, for details). This means that each response was
assigned to a developmental level, ranging from 1 to 4. Following
after Damon (1977), the highest or 'best' level score received on the
interview was used as a summary index.
The interview procedures and coding manuals for positive justice
and authority were from earlier work on these topics (Damon, 1977).
The format for these interviews consisted of several hypothetical
dilemmas concerning sharing and authority to which children
responded. For both the positive justice and authority interviews,
children's responses were assigned to 1 of 6 developmental levels. For
each interview, the child's highest level is used as a summary index.
Finally, an understanding of friendship was elicited and coded
using parts of Selman's (1980) interview and coding manual. In this
interview, children again respond to a hypothetical friendship
dilemma and a series of interview questions. Responses are assigned
to 1 of 5 developmental levels, with the highest level evidenced on the
interview serving as a summary index.



The results of this study are summarized in Table i.

Table I Correlations Among Best Level Scores for Self-Understanding, Positive

Justice, Authority, and Friendship

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Positive Justice

Positive Justice






Note. * p<o-o5; ** p<o-oi.

First of all, these intercorrelations indicate that self-understanding

does evidence the predicted developmental relationship with other
social-cognitive concepts. Higher developmental levels of selfunderstanding are likely to be associated with higher developmental
levels of reasoning about positive justice, authority, and friendship.
This pattern of findings suggests that self-understanding
development is related to the development of interpersonal concepts,
and yet it is clear from the magnitude of the correlations in Table 1
that the development of self-understanding is not reducible to the
development of interpersonal reasoning.
Self-understanding development, then, is related to but also
independent of the development of interpersonal reasoning. We have
argued that this is so because self-understanding has a unique
function not shared by interpersonal reasoning: self-understanding
not only serves to integrate the individual into society, but also to
differentiate the individual from all others. As we noted earlier, one
component of each person's sense of self is a sense of distinctness from
others, a feeling of personal uniqueness that is present in our
understanding of ourselves. Knowledge of the way in which the self is
different from others can serve an important function. For instance,
an awareness that one cannot swim is important at a pool party.
Directions for future research
Any form of knowledge is an interaction between subject and
environment: no concept could be fully functional unless it were
closely adapted to the context from which it arose and in which it

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operates. Throughout this article, we have argued that selfunderstanding is a unique type of knowledge, serving both to aid the
individual's integration into, and differentiation from, the
surrounding social world. The dual functions and multi-faceted
nature of self-understanding demand that it receive its own
developmental investigation aimed at elucidating its specific
qualities. It is this descriptive task with which we, and others, have
been primarily concerned over the past ten years (see Damon and
Hart, 1988, for details).
The construction of preliminary descriptions of self-understanding
development, such as the one presented in our model, can permit selfunderstanding investigation to enter a new phase. From our
perspective, the most pressing need is for research that examines the
development of self-understanding in social context. We have argued
that self-understanding develops primarily within the medium of
intentional, social relationships, and for this reason selfunderstanding is one domain of social cognition. Although this
position is firmly entrenched in the self theories of Baldwin (1902),
Luria, (1976), Mahler et al. (1975), Mead (1934), and is consonant
with the speculations of Vygotsky as well (see Corsaro, 1985, or Hart,
Wertsch, and Kohlberg, 1987 for a review of many of these theories)
the unfortunate truth is that little developmental research has sought
to delineate the relationship, between the social context and an
understanding of self. As a consequence, little is known about how the
social environment affects the individual's construction of a sense of
There appear to be several possible levels of analysis for
investigating social influence on self-understanding development. At
a molar level, it seems probable that culture has a major impact.
Anthropological research, while not directly exploring children's selfconcept development, has reported marked cultural differences in
how persons, and, by implication, selves, are conceived. This is not to
say that the notions of self and person are themselves ephemeral
cultural artifacts. In every culture people have some mode of
understanding these basic concepts (Levine and White, 1986).
Further, because these concepts serve essential human cognitive
functions, these modes of understanding no doubt have something in
common across cultures. Instead, culture is most likely to affect the
focus of self-understanding. In the reported anthropological data,
perhaps the most broad-based cultural differences in how persons are

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understood is that in agrarian cultures persons are perceived in terms

of their contextual features, such as social roles, whereas in
industrialized societies individuals are considered in terms of their
qualities abstracted from their context. In our own initial crosscultural study (Hart, Lucca-Irizarry, and Damon, 1986), we found
that children from a small fishing village in Puerto Rico were more
likely to describe themselves in terms of their social characteristics
than were an age-matched group of children from the U.S. Although
this initial research is promising, much more research is needed in
order to elucidate the relationships between culture and selfunderstanding development. We need to know, for example, how
parenting practices, cultural beliefs, education, and economic status
shape the child's understanding of self.
Against the large backdrop of culture, there is a need for research
on the interrelationships among specific social relationships and the
development of self-understanding. Relationships with others both
reveal facets of self-knowledge as well as shape or influence the self
that is known (Hart, in press; Hart, 1988). An adolescent is more
likely to become aware of his or her own popularity in the presence of
peers, for instance, than in the presence of parents. There is some
evidence that the acquisition of infant self-understanding can be
accelerated or retarded by the quality of the infant-mother
attachment relationship (Lewis, M., Brooks-Gunn, J., and Jaskir, D.,
1985). We have found that anorexic adolescents, who are
traditionally presumed to have difficult relationships with their
mothers, also are retarded in their sense of agency. There is a great
need, however, for more research on how social relationships affect
the development of self-understanding.
Finally, at a molecular level of analysis, there is a need for research
on the specific qualities of social interactions that contribute to or
retard self-understanding development. In some recent work inspired
by Baldwin's (1902) theory, Hart and Fegley (1988) have found that
the infants who imitate their mothers most in a free play setting
between the ages of 14-18 months of age develop an awareness of the
self at an earlier age. This suggests that imitation may be one form of
social interaction through which infants gain knowledge about their
The identification of the types of interactions that lead to selfunderstanding development is of practical significance as well. If
future research confirms initial findings that suggest that delayed self-

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understanding development contributes to adjustment problems in

adolescence (Damon and Hart, 1988; Hart, Schorin, and Damon, in
press), it is of practical importance to identify the types of interactions
counselors might use in order to facilitate development. On a
theoretical plane, an understanding of the types of interactions that
lead to development provide new insights into the mechanisms that
result in change from one developmental level of self-understanding
to the next. It is through examining the social influences on selfunderstanding at all three levels, culture, relationships, and
interactions, that we will be able to describe the relationship between
social cognition and self-understanding.

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