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Compartmentalization model of self structure

Dr. Simon Moss


According to the compartmentalization model of self structure (Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2007 & Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007), some individuals conceptualize their positive and negative characteristics as segregated from one another, called evaluative compartmentalization. For example, they might associate their social and family lives with positive qualities, but associate their work and recreational lives with negative characteristics. In contrast, other individuals conceptualize their positive and negative characteristics as related to one another rather than isolated from each other, called evaluative integration. They might, for instance, feel relate their work, school, social, and sex lives all to both positive and negative characteristics.

The extent to which individuals exhibit compartmentalization rather than integration affects many properties of their mood, emotions, and self esteem. In general, compartmentalized self structures correspond to increased variability in mood and self esteem.

Description of the model

Key assumptions

The compartmentalization model of self structure entails several key assumptions. First, this model assumes the self concept--the beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and memories that individuals form about themselves--varies across contexts. That is, individuals construct a multifaceted, not unified, self concept (cf Cantor & Kihlstrom, 1987). That is, the self concept comprises several, or perhaps many, distinct identities, each associated with a different context, such as work, family, and recreational lives. In this model, each of these distinct identities are called self aspects (Showers, 1992, 1995).

Second, this model assumes that individuals define their own identities (cf., Kelly, 1955). To illustrate, for some individuals, their psychological states might differentiate their self aspects. They might construct identifies such as "Me when I am sad", "Me when I am anxious", and "Me when I am happy". For other individuals, their role might differentiate these self aspects, such as "Me as a parent", "Me as a friend", "Me as a partner", and "Me as a subordinate". In addition, for some individuals, the environment might differentiate these self aspects, such as "Me at home", "Me at school", and "Me at work".

Third. this model assumes individuals form these identities to fulfill specific goals and motives. For example, their identities they form might be intended to enhance attitudes towards themselves, foster consistency or understanding of themselves, motivate improvement, or increase resilience. Accordingly, the structure of their self concept can vary as their motives or goals change.

Fourth, the extent to which the positive and negative self beliefs are segregated or integrated varies across individuals. In some individuals, the positive and negative self beliefs tend to correspond to distinct self aspects, called compartmentalization. For example, a person might perceive themselves as cooperative, understanding, creative, and clever at work, but anxious, shy, and rigid at home. In contrast, in other individuals, each self aspect comprises a combination of positive and negative self beliefs, called integration. The level of integration is conceptualized as a continuum, not a dichotomy.

Fifth, the frequency, salient, or importance of self beliefs that are positive rather than negative, across the entire self concept, also varies across individuals. For example, the term positive compartmentalization implies the self concept is compartmentalized, but the positive self beliefs are more salient or important. The terms negative compartmentalization, positive integration, and negative integration are defined analogously.

Sixth, the mood or self esteem of individuals is assumed to depend on whether positive or negative self beliefs are most salient at a specific time. The mood and self esteem of compartmentalized individuals will tend to vary appreciably across contexts. That is, when self aspects that primarily correspond to positive self beliefs are activated, mood and self esteem will be elevated. When self aspects that primarily correspond to negative self beliefs are activated, mood and self esteem will diminish abruptly.

Empirical evidence

Measure of self structure

To gauge self structure (see Showers, 1992, Showers & Kling, 1996 & Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007), participants receive a set of cards, each representing a positive or negative attribute, such as outgoing, friendly, optimistic, successful, mature, hopeless, irritable, tense, weary, and lazy. Their task is to sort these cards into piles, each representing a specific aspect of their lives. Participants generate their own aspects, and label each of these piles. These individuals are also permitted to use as few or many of these cards as they like, as well as apply the same card to more than one pile. The number of piles varies considerably, from 2 to 20 for example. Some variations to this procedure have also been applied (see McMahon, Showers, Rieder, Abramson, & Hogan, 2003 & Showers & Larson, 1999).

Compartmentalized individuals tend to assign positive attributes to some piles and negative attributes to other piles. Integrated individuals assign both positive and negative attributes to all piles.

Self esteem

As hypothesized, stability in self esteem diminishes as individuals become increasingly compartmentalized (see Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007). That is, in compartmentalized individuals, state self esteem, as measured at the same time each day for approximately two weeks, varied considerably. That is, in these individuals, self esteem depends on which of the self aspects are most salient, which in turn varies across time and contexts. Indeed, in this study, the self esteem of compartmentalized individuals was especially sensitive to manipulations of acceptance or rejection. Rejection most likely activates self aspects that correspond exclusively to negative self beliefs.

In contrast, in integrated individuals, self esteem is less contingent upon which self aspect is salient& all self aspects entail a combination of positive and negative self beliefs (see Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007).

However, one complication to this pattern of observations emerged. When self esteem was generally low, even integrated individuals did show appreciably instability (Zeigler-Hill & Showers, 2007). This finding is consistent with the proposition that self structure might depend on the goals and motives of individuals. When self esteem is low, individuals who otherwise exhibit integration might attempt to change this organization to experience the positive feelings associated with clusters of positive beliefs.

Variation in structures across time.

Individuals who report elevated levels of adjustment might be able to vary their self structure optimally. For example, when positive self beliefs are most salient, these individuals might assume a compartmentalized structure. Accordingly, their negative self beliefs become less likely to dampen their mood or self esteem. In contrast, when negative self beliefs are most salient, these individuals might assume an integrated self structure, to temper these negative beliefs.

Consistent with these premises, McMahon, Showers, Rieder, Abramson, and Hogan (2003) showed that female college students, with no concerns about their body image, often exhibited positive compartmentalization. However, when asked to describe their negative characteristics, they tended to express integrative statements during narratives about their lives.

Romantic relationships

Some studies have examined the structure of positive and negative beliefs about their romantic partner (Showers & Kevlyn, 1999 & Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2004). In these studies, these structures were examined at two separate times. Generally, but not exclusively, compartmentalization was associated with reduce stability in the relationships, predicting future termination. Specifically, when perceptions of the partner were primarily positive, integration at Time 1 was more likely than compartmentalization at Time 2 to predict stability in the relationship.

However, when perceptions of the partner were primarily negative, however, integration at Time 1 tended to predict future dysfunction Showers & Kevlyn, 1999 & Showers & Zeigler-Hill, 2004). Perhaps, integration at Time 1 represented a conscious, deliberate attempt to justify many negative characteristics, and this justification is not sufficient to maintain the relationship.

Related concepts

Overview of splitting

Self compartmentalization is conceptually related to splitting. Splitting refers to the tendency of some individuals to perceive themselves--or some other person--as either entirely good or entirely bad at some time. That is, when individuals manifest signs of splitting, they cannot appreciate that some human could exhibit both desirable and undesirable qualities simultaneously (Akhtar & Byrne, 1983 & Kernberg, 1976).

To clarify, everyone demonstrates both desirable and undesirable traits. Some people learn to accept their desirable and undesirable traits& they recognize they can show both sets of traits. Other people never learn to accept or integrate their desirable and undesirable traits. Instead, they embrace only their desirable traits. They blame their undesirable behaviours on other people, called externalization. They, in essence, project these traits onto other people or groups& they perceive these other people or groups as abhorrent or undesirable (e.g., Post, 1994).

Freud (1938/1941) originally argued that splitting represents a mechanism that overrides anxiety. In particular, if individuals do not engage in splitting, they form complex representations of themselves as well as other friends or relatives. These representations, comprising complex and even contradictory information, can provoke uncertainty. Individuals are not certain whether to perceive someone has positive or negative, and this uncertainty translates into anxiety. Splitting, thus, minimizes this ambivalence and curbs anxiety.

Splitting is assumed to be adaptive and normal in infancy and early childhood (Kernberg, 1975 & Mahler, 1968). However, as children mature, this inclination to engage in splitting dissipates. Nevertheless, some level of splitting can still persist into adulthood (Dean, 2004).

Measures of splitting

Gould, Prentice, and Ainslie (1996) developed the splitting index, a measure that assesses the inclination of individuals to engage in splitting, primarily as a defensive mechanism. The scale comprises 24 items and three subscales: self, family, and other splitting.

Self splitting refers to the extent to which individuals shift their perceptions of themselves rapidly. These rapid shifts indicate that individuals have split the positive and negative features of themselves. A typical item is "My feelings about myself shift dramatically". Family and other splitting represents the extent to which individuals shift their perceptions of family members and other individuals, like friends, respectively. A sample item to represent splitting of the family is "It is impossible to love my parents all the time". To gauge other splitting, a typical item is "I have doubts about my closest friends". These subscales are moderately correlated with each other, with r values approaching .50.

Studies have established the reliability and validity of these measures (Gould, Prentice, & Ainslie, 1996). This measure of splitting, for example, does predict borderline personality (e.g., Armbrust, 1996, cited by Lopez, 2001 & Gould, Prentice, & Ainslie, 1996) as well as narcissism and unstable self esteem (Gould, Prentice, & Ainslie, 1996).

Antecedents of splitting

Splitting may be related to insecure attachment, which in turn is associated with parental behavior (see attachment theory). In one study, conducted by Lopez (2001), participants completed the Experiences in Close Relationships scale to assess anxious and avoidant attachment. Anxious attachment is represented by items like "I worry about being abandoned". In addition, participants completed the splitting index. Anxious attachment was related to both self and other splitting. That is, if individuals are often concerned about being rejected, their perceptions of themselves and other people can vary dramatically.

Nevertheless, other measures differentiated self and other splitting. Specifically, individuals who reported elevated levels of self concealment, endorsing items like "I have a secret that is so private I would lie if anybody asked me about it" as well as feel vulnerable to criticisms or behavior of other individuals, called low self-other differentiation, also demonstrated self splitting. In contrast, individuals who reported an elevated need for social approval, but maintained their state is not dependent on the mood of people in their environment, demonstrated other splitting.

To clarify, if individuals are exposed to unpredictable and intrusive parents, they develop an anxious attachment style, concerned about whether they will be rejected or abandoned. When their parents are supportive, they might feel positively about themselves. When their parents are intrusive and critical, they might feel negatively about themselves. These positive and negative perceptions might seem contradictory and thus are not integrated, but retained separately (for evidence, see Mikulincer, 1995). Because of this uncertainty, they cannot predict whether they will be supported or castigated, compromising their tolerance to ambiguous settings (Mikulincer, 1997).

To avoid this uncertainty, individuals with anxious attachment strive to merge with key figures in the life, such as parents (Lopez, 2001). They desperately seek approval and thus become very sensitive to subtle cues, like frowns. These cues of rejection will evoke negative memories or thoughts. These negative memories or thoughts are isolated from positive memories or thoughts and, therefore, are especially upsetting (Mikulincer & Orbach, 1995). Their perception of themselves will decline dramatically. Self splitting should prevail.

This sensitivity to subtle cues, like frowns, can also promote other splitting. That is, when they detect these cues, they might abruptly change their perception of someone. They will perceive a person who is usually supportive as intrusive and threatening.

Implications of splitting

Indeed, splitting is associated with some personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). For example, individuals who exhibit narcissism tend to exhibit splitting when they evaluate themselves. That is, usually, these individuals are cognizant only of their positive traits--an inclination that is intended to boost their tenuous self esteem (Kohut, 1972). In the general population, the level of splitting also varies (Gould, Prentice, & Ainslie, 1996& Watson & Biderman, 1993).

Individuals who engage in splitting exhibit an unstable self esteem or mood. As shown by Myers and Ziegler-Hill (2008), for example, their self esteem changes dramatically across consecutive days (see also Gould, Prentice, & Ainslie, 1996)--but only if their self esteem tends to be high. Splitting of the self or the family--which is closely related to the self--predicted these variations in self esteem.

That is, sometimes these individuals are primarily cognizant of only their desirable qualities. On other occasions, these individuals are mainly cognizant of their undesirable qualities.

Indeed, splitting might represent a crude form of evaluative compartmentalization (Showers & Kevlyn, 1999). That is, evaluative compartmentalization refers to individuals who perceive each aspect of themselves--perhaps their role of a mother, employee, friend, cook, and so forth--as either entirely positive or entirely negative. Zeigler-Hill and Showers (2007) showed this tendency also corresponds to an unstable self esteem.

Post (1998) argued that splitting seems to be prevalent in terrorists. According to Post, interviews, memoirs, and court records do indicate many terrorists seem to demonstrate the hallmarks of splitting. They seem to project their negative traits onto other groups, culminating in hatred. They perceive everyone as good or evil, and are, therefore, attracted to the polarizing rhetoric of many terrorist organizations.

Post (1998) also cites studies that show how many terrorists were reared in families that were fragmented, with fathers who were hostile. They might thus form contempt towards undesirable traits, which might amplify splitting. This splitting can also underpin the narcissism that is common in terrorists, according to some studies of the Red Army Faction, for example. Similar findings have emerged in studies on the Red Brigade terrorists in Italy as well (for a review, see Post, 1998).

Self complexity and spillover amplification

When participants specify the traits that pertain to various aspects of their lives, other measures, in addition to self compartmentalization, can be derived. Perhaps the most renowned and informative measure is called self complexity (Atsushi, 1999 & Linville, 1985 & Koch & Shepperd, 2004 & McConnell & Strain, 2007 & Morgan & Janoff-Bulman, 1994 & Schleicher & McConnell, 2005). In essence, self complexity refers to the extent to which individuals feel their traits vary across the different aspects of their lives.

To gauge self complexity (e.g., Brown & McConnell, 2009), participants receive a series of 20 positive and 20 negative traits. Participants sort these traits into clusters. Each cluster is supposed to represent a distinct aspect of their life, such as family and sport. Participants are permitted to use the same trait more than once.

Participants who apply the same traits to most of the aspects or domains are deemed to exhibit low self complexity. Participants who apply different traits to each aspect are deemed to exhibit high self complexity (Rafaeli-Mor, Gotlib, & Revelle, 1999). The H statistic, as defined by Scott (1969), is often calculated to represent self complexity (e.g., Brown & McConnell, 2009).

A key finding is that self complexity in individuals enhances the stability of their emotional state (see Campbell, Chew, & Stratchley, 1991& Linville, 1987). When self complexity is elevated, individuals become less distressed in response to negative feedback and less excited in response to positive feedback (Linville, 1985 & Niedenthal, Setterlund, & Wherry, 1992). Their mood also tends to be more consistent across time (Linville, 1985 & for reviews, see McConnell, Strain, Brown, & Rydell, 2009 & Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002).

According to self complexity theory (Linville, 1985), if self complexity is high, feedback that demonstrates that individuals are deficient on some trait are germane to only one aspect. The other aspects, which are unrelated to this trait, remain intact. In contrast, if self complexity is low, the same feedback is often applicable to many aspects. Individuals might feel they are inadequate on many aspects, undermining their self esteem and mood.

These findings have culminated in the spillover amplification hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, individuals who exhibit low complexity, and thus are more sensitive to the environment, will show elevated wellbeing in supportive contexts and impaired wellbeing in unsupportive contexts (McConnell, Strain, Brown, & Rydell, 2009 & see also McConnell, Renaud, Dean, Green, Lamoreaux, Hall, & Rydell, 2005).

Consistent with this proposition, McConnell, Strain, Brown, and Rydell (2009) showed that individuals low in complexity demonstrated a more intact wellbeing--as gauged by self esteem, depression, or illness--than individuals high in complexity in favorable contexts. They show exemplary wellbeing when they receive social support or positive personality traits, like agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Nevertheless, individuals low in complexity report more impaired wellbeing than individuals high in complexity if they had experienced many negative life events.

Neurological underpinnings of self-complexity

Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings, and Thatcher (2013) presented a series of hypotheses about the neurological bases of self-complexity. First, they posit that significant demonstration of alpha waves, especially during a resting state, are likely to indicate self-complexity. To clarify, in general, as individuals become more relaxed, brain waves become lower in frequency but higher in amplitude. Five main sets of brain waves have been differentiated. In order from lowest to highest in frequency, these brain waves are delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha waves are common when people are contemplative and relaxed. Likewise, alpha waves are associated with episodic memories but limited effort. According to Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings, and Thatcher (2013), contemplation but without effort may reflect self-complexity, and alpha waves should thus be prevalent in people who demonstrate self-complexity.

Second according to Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings, and Thatcher (2013), self-complexity is likely to manifest as extensive activation of the prefrontal cortex, vital to executive functioning and episodic memory. Executive functioning provides the flexibility that epitomizes self-complexity. That is, if self-complexity is elevated, individuals often shift their behaviors and goals in response to key changes in the environment. The problem solving, planning, initiation of goals, monitoring of progress, and similar operations that underpin executive functioning is vital to this flexibility,

Third, according to Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings, and Thatcher (2013), when self-complexity is elevated, people will tend to exhibit lower connectivity, sometimes called greater desynchronization. That is, distinct local networks will not be strongly connected to each other, facilitating greater differentiation. Yet, although connectivity might be limited, to facilitate differentiation, efficiency might be elevated. That is, the time that elapses between distinct, but interrelated networks might be short.

To validate this possibility, Hannah, Balthazard, Waldman, Jennings, and Thatcher (2013) examined whether these neural indices do indeed relate to psychological measures of self-complexity as well as adaptive decision making in leaders. To gauge self-complexity of leaders, participants specified their key roles as well as the attributes they demonstrate in each role. Complexity was operationalized as variability in attributes across roles. To gauge adaptive decision making, participants completed a military simulation or scenario that comprised four parts. During the simulation, participants were also asked to describe their thinking and rationale for various decisions. The degree to which participants shifted their thinking in response to a changing landscape, called situational analysis, was assessed.

Consistent with the hypotheses, the leaders who adapted their thinking in response to the demands not only exhibited greater self-complexity but also demonstrated lower levels of neural connectivity and more EEGs in the alpha range in the frontal lobes--all consistent with the hypotheses.

Social identity complexity

Unlike self-complexity, social identity complexity refers to the extent to which the various social identities of individuals--that is, the groups to which they belong--diverge from one another (Roccas & Brewer, 2002). To illustrate, most people belong to several groups, such as a football team, a workgroup, an ethnicity, and so forth. For some people, these groups overlap: that is, members of one of these groups tend to be members of other groups, referred to as low social identity complexity. For other people, these groups do not overlap, referred to as high social identity complexity.

In general, social identity complexity translates to several favorable outcomes. For example, as Miller, Brewer, and Arbuckle (2009) showed, when social identity complexity is elevated, individuals are not as likely to demonstrate racist attitudes.

In particular, in this study, participants were asked to list the groups to which they belong. Next, they were asked to indicate the degree to which the membership of each pair of groups overlap with each other, on a scale from 0 to 10. A zero for each pair, for example, would indicate that almost no members of one group are also members of the other group and, therefore, reflects elevated levels of social identity complexity. Elevated levels of social identity complexity were negatively related to explicit and implicit prejudice against other races. The affect misattribution procedure was utilized to assess implicit prejudice.

Presumably, when people belong to many distinct groups, they become more tolerant of diversity. Their anxiety or unease with diverse ethnicities, for example, will tend to diminish (for consistent results, see Brewer & Pierce, 2005).

Furthermore, according to Miller, Brewer, and Arbuckle (2009), people are more likely to become members, or perceive themselves as members, of diverse groups if they embrace ambiguity, complexity, and careful thought. In contrast, a need for closure and clarity may deter people from gravitating towards many distinct groups. For example, if participants were asked to think carefully and accurately before they rated the overlap of each pair of groups--an instruction that fosters careful thought and elaboration--they were more likely to perceive these groups as distinct.


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