In this technique we examine the shape and development of the possible selves of adolescents 13 to 16 years of age. More than any other time in life, adolescence is the stage of possibility and of the promises as well as the worries that attend this possibility. It is the time when one creates the self that “I could become”.
The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created – created first in mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths to it are not found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination. John Schaar
In fact, the surest hallmark of this period of adolescence is the amount of time invested in envisioning, trying on, and rehearsing future or potential selves. Should I become a teacher, a policeman, a doctor, a mother, a rock star? Will I be rich, successful, and popular, or lonely and unhappy? Markus and Nurius have proposed the term possible selves for those elements of the self-concept that represent what individuals could become, would like to become, or are afraid of becoming.
A consuming life task of the adolescent is to discover or construct possible selves that are personally satisfying and absorbing but that are also compatible with the responsibilities that confront adults in one’s community. It has been argued, in fact, that the adolescent’s key to a successful transition to adulthood is learning to attend to and focus on the activities that are necessary for adult life rather than on the immediately pleasurable activities of childhood. For some adolescents this is relatively easily accomplished. For others, particularly those adolescents who come to be labeled as delinquents, constructing a believable and satisfying future, and then working to achieve it, is a difficult process beset with frustration and failure.
The traditional theoretical explanations for delinquency can be roughly categorized into (a) those emphasizing the environment, (b) those concerned with the nature of the individual’s immediate social network, and (c) those focused on individual needs or on social or biological dysfunction. However, there is a growing consensus among delinquency researchers that no one of these approaches can fully account for delinquency and that the approaches need to be integrated.
One theoretical element that could be useful in organizing this set of seemingly diverse explanations of delinquency is the concept of self. Such integration assumes that differences in adolescents’ social environments are reflected in the content and structure of the concept of self and that the self-concept regulates both intrapersonal and interpersonal behavior. The self-concept is an important feature of many explanations of delinquent behavior. Efforts to assess the delinquent’s self-concept, however, have typically relied on measures of self-esteem, and self-esteem alone has not emerged as a powerful predictor of delinquency.
By self, we generally mean the conscious reflection of one’s own being or identity, as an object separate from others or from the environment. There are a variety of ways to think about the self. Two of the most widely used terms are self-concept and self-esteem. Self-concept is considered to be the cognitive or thinking aspect of self (related to one’s self-image) and generally refers to
“the totality of a complex, organized, and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence” (Purkey).
Self-esteem, on the other hand is considered to be the affective or emotional aspect of self and generally refers to how we feel about or how we value ourselves (one’s self-worth). Self-concept can also contain self-esteem as one aspect of self-image and emerges, therefore, as the more powerful concept.
Franken (1994) states that
“there is a great deal of research which shows that the self-concept is, perhaps, the basis for all motivated behavior. It is the self-concept that gives rise to possible selves, and it is possible selves that create the motivation for behavior”.
This supports the idea that one’s worldview or ‘theory of meaning’ provides the boundaries and circumstances within which we develop our vision about possibilities. We develop and maintain our self-concept through the process of taking action and then reflecting on what we have done and what others tell us about what we have done. We reflect also on what we have done and can do in comparison to our expectations and the expectations of others and to the characteristics and accomplishments of others. Therefore, self-concept is not innate, but is developed or constructed by the individual through interaction with the environment and reflecting on that interaction. This dynamic aspect of self-concept (and, by corollary, self-esteem) as a learning process is important because it indicates that it can be modified or changed.
“there is a growing body of research which indicates that it is possible to change the self-concept. Self-change is not something that people can will but rather it depends on the process of self-reflection. Through self-reflection, people often come to view themselves in a new, more powerful way, and it is through this new, more powerful way of viewing the self that people can develop possible selves” (Franken).
There are a several different components of self-concept: physical, academic, social, and transpersonal.
The physical aspect of self-concept relates to that which is concrete: what we look like, our sex, height, weight, etc.; what kind of clothes we wear; what kind of car we drive; what kind of home we live in; and so forth.
Our academic self-concept relates to how well we do in school or how well we learn. There are two levels: a general academic self-concept of how good we are overall and a set of specific content-related self-concepts that describe how good we are in math, science, language arts, social science, etc.
The social self-concept describes how we relate to other people, and
The transpersonal self-concept describes how we relate to the supernatural or unknowns.
The relationship of self-concept to school achievement is very specific. General self-concept and non-academic aspects of self-concept are not related to academic work; general academic achievement measures are related only moderately to academic success. Specific measures of subject-related self-concepts are highly related to success in that content area.
The major issue is the direction of the relationship: does self-concept produce achievement or does achievement produce self-concept. Gage and Berliner state:
“the evidence is accumulating … to indicate that level of school success, particularly over many years, predicts level of regard of self and one’s own ability; whereas level of self-esteem does not predict level of school achievement.
If academic achievement leads to self-concept/self-esteem, but self-concept is a better predictor of being a low-performance or high-performance student, it would appear that there is some intervening variable. James states that the intervening variable is personal expectations. His formula is:
Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions [Expectations].
Increasing self-esteem results when success is improved relative to expectations. Bandura states that one’s self-efficacy is one of the best predictions of successful achievement. He also states that one’s mastery experiences related to success is the major influence on one’s self-efficacy. As self-efficacy and self-esteem are both constructed by one’s conscious reflections, it would appear that educators and parents should provide experiences that students can master rather than attempting to boost self-esteem directly through other means.
An interesting corollary to this equation is that success is limited by expectations and self-esteem:
Success = Expectations &/or Self-esteem.
This equation states that success, especially the limits of one’s success, can be improved by increasing expectations and/or self-esteem. However, the research on the relationship between self-esteem/self-concept and school achievement suggests that measures of general or even academic self-concept are not significantly related to school achievement. It is at the level of very specific subjects (e.g., reading, mathematics, science) that there is a relationship between self-concept/self-esteem and academic success. Given the above formula, this suggests that success in a particular subject area is not really changing one’s self-concept (knowledge of one’s self) or even self-esteem (one’s subjective evaluation of one’s value or worth), but rather is impacting one’s expectation about future success based on one’s past experience.
Seligman’s work on explanatory style suggests that the intervening variable connecting self-esteem and achievement is the student’s level of ‘optimism’ or the tendency to see the world as a benevolent (good things will probably happen) or malevolent (bad things will probably happen).
Possible selves are conceptualized as the elements of the self-concept that represent the individual’s goals, motives, fears, and anxieties. They give precise self-relevant form, meaning, and direction to these dynamics. They are specific and vivid senses, images, or conceptions of one’s self in future states and circumstances and are viewed as essential elements in the motivational and goal-setting process. Choosing among competing actions and pursuing the chosen action depends on the nature of one’s set of possible selves. Possible selves can thus be viewed as motivational resources that provide individuals with some control over their own behavior. As such, they are conceived of as the self- relevant, internal structures that embody and give rise to generalized feelings of self-efficacy, effectance, competence or control. Furthermore, possible selves contribute to the sense of importance, commitment, or centrality accorded to certain aspects of the self. Possible selves refer only to that subset of goals, outcomes, or expectancies that are personalized or individualized and given self-relevant form or meaning. The critical element of a goal or threat is an image or sense of “me” in the end-state. From this perspective, motivation is not viewed as an instinctual, impersonal, or unconscious process. Rather, it depends on the nature and configuration of the self-relevant structures that give specific, personal meaning to more general needs or motives.
Possible selves thus provide a link between the self-concept and motivation. They are hypothesized to serve as incentives for future behavior; they are selves to be approached or avoided. Markus and Nurius argued that the motivation to carry out all but the most routine and habitual actions depends on the creation of possible selves. It is the sense of one’s self in a desired end-state – me with an exciting job or me with a happy family – that organizes and energizes actions in the pursuit of the end-state. The sense of one’s self in a feared or undesired state – me in prison or me unemployed – is also motivationally significant. It can provide a vivid image or conception of an end-state that must be rejected or avoided. An image of one’s self in such a feared or undesired state can produce inaction or a stopping in one’s tracks.
Your personality is the essence of who you are and how you appear to other people. It lends continuity to your identity over time, tying together your early childhood experiences, your unique approach to the people and events around you, and your aspirations and apprehensions about how you may develop in the future. It affects, and is affected by, how other people perceive and respond to your personality, the better you can understand your actions, feelings, and relationships with other people.
Unfortunately, if you have become mired in poor self-affirmation based on low expectations and performance, your personality quirks tend to be based on object [victim] rather than subject [actor/hero] mentality. The creation of the future is based on the experiences of the past. Possible Selves is one method of helping an adolescent ‘break out’ of the former mode and create a new future.
The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning has developed a motivational program, which they call Possible Selves. It was designed to increase student motivation by having students discuss their future selves. Specifically, students think about and describe their hoped for, expected and feared possible selves. Once students describe their possible selves, students then create a Possible Selves Tree. The tree is a metaphor the team used to examine the key roles students play in life, their hopes, expectation and fears for the future and the overall condition of their ‘tree’. In effect, students are challenged to evaluate and take action to nurture their tree.
Researchers have found that once students have examined possible selves, they are more inclined to believe that they can do well in school and in life. They begin to view learning as a pathway to their hopes and expectation and as a way to prevent feared possible selves from materializing. Thus, learning becomes more relevant and students increase their willingness to put forth effort and commitment to learning.
The Possible Selves intervention
As we will indicate later, there are other ways to approach this intervention. This seems to be the original design of the research team and is a very useful first approach.
A student participates in several activities during evaluation and development of possible selves. First, the student completes a structured, but open-ended interview with a teacher or counselor. The type and number of questions can be modified to fit the age and interests of the student.
During the interview, the student is asked to describe him or herself as a learner, a person and athlete. As the student responds to questions and describes him or herself, the teacher writes down what the student says. The teacher asks additional questions about the student’s hopes, expectation and fears for the future related to each area and records these responses as well.
Once the interview has been completed and the results analyzed by the teacher, the teacher and student draw a Possible Selves Tree. The teacher begins by stating:
“I’ve learned a lot about you as a person. Let me share what you’ve taught me by using the picture of a tree to represent everything I have learned. The tree will have branches that represent your hopes and expectations as a learner, person and athlete. The roots will represent the words you used to describe yourself now as a learner, person and athlete. I’ll use the exact words you stated to add branches and roots to the tree. You can help by adding to or modifying the statements you made. Later, I’ll ask you to evaluate the tree and tell me if it really represents the ideas you shared.”
Next, the tree is drawn, evaluated and goals are discussed concerning how to keep the tree strong, make it fuller, protect it from fears, and provide it with nourishment. The student is asked to think about the tree and explain the tree to the teacher.
The picture of the tree is a good place to begin a discussion of how academics and learning support the total tree. A student-athlete may realize that athletic hopes will be lost without improved academic performance and thus be more inclined to commit time and energy to learning.
Lets examine another example of how future selves can be used to gain student commitment to learning. In this case, the student hopes for a career as the owner of a trucking business,. The student and teacher can begin to identify the short- and long-term goals that are necessary to attain this possible self. It is hoped that the student will discover, with the help of the teacher, that learning how to problem solve, earning a high school diploma, learning business math skills, or learning the Paraphrasing Strategy to comprehend important material supports the attainment of the student’s hopes and expectations for the future. In addition, the student may discover that these same goals help the student avoid the feared selves s/he has identified (for example, no job, no money, no friends).
In any case, the Possible Selves Tree and the goals established to ‘nurture’ the tree are revisited regularly. Goals are modified, their attainment celebrated, new goals added, and hopes, expectations and fears continually examined. Also, whenever the value of learning is questioned, the tree can be used to demonstrate how specific learning experiences and student effort contribute to the strength of the student’s tree (future).
When students become chronically unmotivated to participate in learning, intensive intervention is required. The creation of a future is the overriding task of any person of any age, but becomes magnified as a child transforms into an adult. If the child has no goals other and avoidance goals, s/he needs to be taught how to take stock of the future and this methodology is an excellent vehicle for achievement.
One does not, of course, need to follow the format above. As an example, how about what is called The Possible Selves Mapping, which follows:
I am going to ask you to think about your future in terms of wellness. It doesn’t matter whether you think it might or might not actually happen. Just think about possibilities in those areas that are important to you.
At times we think about what we hope we will be like. One way of thinking about this is to talk about possible health selves – selves we hope to become in the future. Some of these possible health selves seem quite likely; for example, being fit and happy or being a long-distance runner. Others seem less likely, but still possible; for instance, being a star athlete or being someone who is always full of confidence.
I am going to ask you to think about your future while I ask you some questions. Write your responses on the cards. Put only one response on each card. Some individuals may have a large number of possible selves in mind while others have only a few. Take a few minutes and think about all the dreams you have for yourself in the future with regard to health and wellness…all your hopes you have … As soon as an idea or picture forms in your mind write that idea on a green card. Put one idea on each card. Continue to let your thoughts flow into the future…
Besides having dreams that we hope for, we might have pictures of ourselves in the future that we are afraid of or don’t want to happen. Some of these feared possible selves may seem quite likely, for instance, being depressed or being very sick. Others seem less likely, like being disabled or being without hope. As soon as ideas or pictures presents themselves, write them on the yellow cards. Put only one response on each yellow card… Think about what you fear, dread, or don’t want for yourself.
Now we will take the information on the cards and begin to create a possible selves map. On the green cards are your hoped-for selves and on the yellow are your feared selves.
First, I would like you to spread out all the green cards that are your hoped-for future selves. Think about how important each of these hoped-for health selves is to you. Which of these would you most like to see happen? Number that card one. Looking at the other cards that are left, which one would you most like to see happen? Number that card two. Continue to order your cards.
Is there any way that you might group these cards together? Think about what hoped-for selves would go together in the same grouping. Go ahead and arrange the cards into groups. How might you name or categorize your groupings?
As you continue to look at your hoped-for health selves, I would like you to take a moment to describe to me each hoped-for self in more detail.
- What thoughts come to mind? Images?
- What would if different in your life if this hoped-for health self came to be? If it didn’t come to be?
Looking at your most hoped-for health self (card #1) and knowing the type of person you are and what you can typically do, how able do you think you are of achieving this possible health self? Rate yourself on a scale from one to seven with one meaning not at all capable and 7 meaning completely capable. What led you to make this rating? How likely do you think it is that this hoped-for possible health self will come true? How likely is it that this possible health self will happen with one being not at all likely and seven being completely likely? What led you to make this rating?
Think about the part these hoped-for selves have played in your life this month. We often do things to make a possible self more likely to come true, for instance, taking part in regular exercise to become the “in shape self.” What are some of the things you have done in the past month to bring about these important hoped-for selves?
Let’s look at the yellow cards now. On these cards are the selves that you don’t want to happen. We will do exactly the same things as we did with the hoped-for cards.
First, I would like you to spread out all the yellow cards you most want to avoid and lay them out in front of you. Which one do you worry about the most and would least like to happen? Number that card one. Looking at the cards that are left, which one would you least like to see happen? Number that card two. Continue to order your cards.
Is there any way that you might group these cards together? Think about what feared health selves would go together in the same grouping. Go ahead and arrange the cards into groups. How might you name or categorize your groupings?
As you continue to look at your feared health selves, I would like you to take a moment to describe to me each feared self in more detail.
- What thoughts come to mind? Images?
- What would be different in your life if this feared self came to be? If it didn’t come to be?
Looking at your most important feared health self and knowing the type of person you are now and what you can typically do, how able do you think you are of preventing this possible health self? Rate yourself on a scale from one to seven with one meaning not at all capable and 7 meaning completely capable. What led you to make this rating?
Now look ahead to the future, what is the likelihood that this feared health self will occur? Rate yourself on a scale from one to seven with one meaning not at all likely and 7 meaning completely likely. What led you to make this rating?
Think about the parts these two feared health selves have played in your life this month. What things have you done to prevent these feared possible selves from occurring?
There are many domains of life that one can ask an adolescent to consider in his possible selves: what does s/he expect or fear about him/herself as a parent, as a worker, as a soldier, as any chosen career – pick one! The same reflection is important work that is often not done on one’s own because of the expectation that no good will come of it. How often do we ask adolescent about the future to only hear that they do not expect to have one – “I will be dead by twenty!”? This can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we do not intervene and intervene effectively.
The Mapping procedure adds some dimensions of having the subject think about the range of possibilities and rating themselves on likelihood of achievement, which could have benefits.
The concept of the technique is stated in the quote at the beginning – we create our future. Unfortunately, we create that future through reflection on the past. If the past has been less than satisfactory, our vision of the future is likely to be equally so. The benefit of the technique is that it provides a formal method for the student to examine the future – in public – e.g., in front of and with the help of you.
There is also a method of using Imagery or Visualization of oneself in these future selves. For example, if I see one possible self is that I will become a fireman [probably because someone in my family is a fireman], you can have the student imagine him or herself as a fireman. Or think of the best fireman they know and visualize how they do what they do and then substitute you doing those same things – this is called Covert Modeling.
You might do the Possible Selves process with younger children, but then you would focus on ‘next year’s self’. But if the student saw him or herself as a ‘good student’ next year, s/he could covertly model the best student in class as a follow up exercise.
Possible Selves and Delinquency
What is the hypothesized role of negative and positive possible selves in delinquency? A major task of adolescence is to create and define the self one is going to become. Adolescents must be able to construct and have command over a set of positive possible selves that are personally satisfying and absorbing and that can be used as motivational resources in making the transition to adulthood. Those adolescents who are not successful in constructing and maintaining such positive possible selves in the conventional domains of the family, friends, or school are likely to seek alternative ways to define the self. Delinquency can become such an alternative route to positive self-definition because the other avenues – leaving home, finding a job, or getting married – are, for the most part, impractical. Through rebellious activity adolescents can define themselves as adventurous, independent, powerful, tough, or in control and success at delinquent activity can bring with it considerable prestige among one’s peers.
Delinquency may also appear as exciting or attractive to youth who are able to construct socially sanctioned, positive possible selves but who have yet to create compelling feared or to-be-avoided selves in their self-defining domains. Such youth may expect to finish school, find a good job, and have friends, but they may not have elaborated self-relevant futures in which they drop out, are unemployed, or suffer the disapproval of family and friends. Expected positive selves (e.g., “getting through school”) alone may not provide these adolescents with sufficient motivational control to allow them to turn away from delinquent activity that offers appealing alternative possible selves. Specific images and conceptions of relevant feared possibilities may be necessary to help keep them in pursuit of the desired possibilities.
A specific hypothesis, therefore, is that youth who vary in the severity of their delinquent behavior can be distinguished by the configuration of their possible selves, with the most delinquent youth displaying the least balance between their expected and feared possible selves. For these adolescents, the most important part of the Possible Selves Technique may be to raise to consciousness that the feared future self may, in fact, happen.
At a given moment when a positive possible self, for example, a possible self of “me finishing school” or of “me getting a job” is not particularly compelling, perhaps because of competing short-term possible selves (“me watching TV” or “me playing basketball”), the matched feared possible self of “me failing in school” or “me being unemployed” can be recruited, and the desire to avoid this negative self should strengthen one’s flagging motivation to achieve the desired state. In a similar way, a vivid representation of one’s self in a relevant positive and desired state (“me getting through school”) should enhance the motivation to avoid an undesired state (“me doing poorly” or “me dropping out”). Individuals with a balance between their expected and their feared selves in a given domain – for example, personalized representations of the self succeeding and also not succeeding – should then have more motivational control over their behavior in this domain because they have more motivational resources than do individuals without such balance.