Self-concept and the Self-reference Effect


Who are you?
Most of us have many ways of answering that question. Athletic. Overweight. Smart.

The answer we reach for readily is usually centered on what we are most proud of or the circumstance of the asking such as during a job interview or at a gathering of dads.
Social psychologist would characterize your answer to the question as an expression of your self-concept which leads to a phenomenon called the self-reference effect.
Researchers have found that when information is relevant to our self-concept, we process the information quickly and will remember it clearly. In other words, most of us are very self-focused.

According to Meyers & Smith (2015), the results of our self-focus means :

  1. we overestimate the extent to which someone’s behavior is direct towards us (someone not say “Hi” back to you in a crowd)
  2. we tend to take credit for events in which we are minor actors
  3. we compare how someone behaves to our own motives
  4. hearing our name shifts our auditory focus
  5. we tend to agonize over things other people probably haven’t noticed

The protection from all the above is altruism.

Researchers such as Nakao (2012) have found that people who are altruistic tend to not to fall easily under the spell of the self-reference effect.


Nakao, T., Tokunaga, S., Takamura, M., Nashiwa, H., Hayashi, S., & Miyatani, M. (2012) Alturistic people show no self-reference effect in memory. Journal of General Psychology, 139(1), 22-41.

Myers, D., & Smith, S.(2015) Exploring Social Psychology 4th Edition. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, page 30.