Self-Evaluation: A Problem in Personal Development

Floyd Henry Allport
School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
 Syracuse University

WE live in an age in which people are asking questions about themselves. They are asking them not merely in a spirit of philosophical inquiry, but with relation to the specific and complex demands of modern life. "How can I develop a more forceful personality?" "Why can't I do my work without confusion or worry over details?" "What remedy is there for laziness or for lack of tact?" Questions of this sort indicate a restive searching for an intelligent plan of self-direction.

This is not a cloistered problem, growing out of the soul's inner desire for perfection, but a practical issue. Civilization has become complex. The old quiet intimacies of family and community life are giving place to the mechanized relationships and competitive struggle of the great industrial and commercial city. The older education, whether in liberal culture or for trade and profession, is no longer sufficient. It must be supplemented by a re-orienting of the individual as a whole. A reconsideration of values and a finer balance of our driving forces is needed, that we may not be swept off our feet in the rush for wealth, higher conditions of living, and social prestige? We are like ships `which, in dangerous seas, need not only greater power and better driving machinery, but also more trustworthy maps and an abler helmsman. Effective preparation for modern life involves, in short, a true evaluation and organization of all the elements of personality.

Let us review the methods now in use for supplying the need above described. Thanks to enlightenment from scientific experiment and teaching, the unreliable "readings" of

(571) the phrenological "character analyst" are beginning to lose ground. Self-styled "applied psychologists" and "vocational advisers" with a smattering of psychological and clinical knowledge have acquired a certain following. Psychiatrists, educators, and industrial personnel directors have developed more precise techniques, such as the graphic rating scale and the systematic questionnaire. Common to all these methods of personality study, whether crude or refined, is the adoption of certain traits as yardsticks upon which the individual is to be measured. One is then rated as deficient in some of these dimensions and as outstanding in others. The subject is told that he "should develop more independence of thought" or "more decisiveness", that he "lacks sympathy and understanding of others", that be is "too aggressive ", "is a poor judge of men", that he "must overcome his shyness, his indolence, or his bad habits", or that he "must act less impulsively and must control his temper".

The chief difficulty with such methods is their abstraction from the process of living. "Self-confidence", "will power", and "sympathy" are vague and intangible generalizations. One may know that he needs to improve these qualities in himself, but there is no handle to be grasped and nothing definite to work upon. Generalities are of little service; one must see one's faults in operation in specific situations. Unless such self-observation exists, being on one's guard in advance is not enough. It is usually not until the crucial incident is over that the individual realizes how he has failed in energy of decision, or that his case was lost through lack of sympathy, through jumping at conclusions, or through inability to restrain his temper. It is then too late for anything but self-reproach and a deepening sense of hopelessness. Good habits can be formed neither by good intentions nor by regrets. They must be established by performance and repetition in the very situations of which they are a part.

Even apart from their relevance to daily activities, general trait descriptions tell the individual little about himself. This is because many persons cannot get away from their own standards of thinking of degrees of traits. "Honest" for a clergyman with a keen conscience would mean true report and discharge of obligations to within a very few cents. To

(572) the shrewd-dealing merchant it might mean merely "keeping within the law". One man will base his standard upon conscience and strive for his soul's perfection, another only upon common custom and practice. Experiments have been conducted with the purpose of comparing a person's estimate of himself with the estimate given by others who know him. One method used is to give the individual a grade or mark indicating his degree of honesty, and grades indicating his degree of intelligence, his degree of refinement, of aggressiveness, and so on. Another common practice is to rank a number of individuals, all of whom are known to the rater, in their order of merit upon various traits. Professor It. L. Hollingworth has found from such experiments that the lack of certain desirable qualities in one's self makes one a poor judge of those same qualities in both himself and others.[2] Other experiments have shown a decided tendency of individuals to overrate themselves in traits upon which a high value is placed. A great many persons clearly do not know what such words as "intelligence", "honesty", "refinement", and "tact" mean in terms of the average standards of human behavior. It is obvious, therefore, that they would profit little by being given a general description of themselves in terms of these traits.

A final objection to the method of trait description is that the traits that are most convenient for rating are often the most superficial. They are manifestations of deeper and more enduring causes which are more important to know than the manifestations themselves. Thus too great "forwardness" or "talkativeness" may arise from an underlying fear that one may be deficient in ideas or education, or it may be due to the dread of appearing socially backward or shy. In these cases "talkativeness" may be a true description of the individual, but the diagnosis does not help very much. It would be more helpful to recognize, as the basic trait, the constant attitude of fear regarding one's capacities and social status. This trait is hidden below the surface and often cannot be directly observed and rated. A knowledge of it would, however, be of the first importance for the task of self-improvement. Similarly, such traits as laziness or lack

(573) of social adaptability may be merely evidences of more fundamental attitudes upon which these traits depend.

We may sum up the difficulties encountered in the study of personality by saying that it is very hard to give the individual a faithful picture of himself. Or, rather, it is not so difficult to give it as it is to get him to receive it without distortion in the process of receiving. Some means must be found of showing us bow our personalities are being formed and established through the concrete situations in which we act, how we stand in certain vital respects when our behavior is freed from the false evaluation we place upon it, and how our daily habits and attitudes reflect the deeper emotional currents of our lives. The ability to gain and keep this sort of an understanding of one's self is known as insight. Our task in the present article is to indicate certain aids for the acquisition of insight and for arriving at a true estimate of one's personality.

In approaching the problem of insight, it will be useful to begin with some of the handicaps that people recognize or imagine to exist within themselves, and that are the cause of anxiety. Answers to a set of questionnaires given out to college students have provided the writer with data upon this point. Physical defects, such as defective organs, low vitality, and the like, were mentioned by the greatest number. Almost as many were troubled by their laziness and their lack of ambition and self-confidence. A third important defect was noted in the field of self-expression, a category that includes those who feel a lack of forcefulness or an inability to realize their potentialities. Still another group were worried by the absence of intellectual gifts or special ability in any direction. Meagerness of social experience and lack of social adaptation were next in order. Finally, a few noted bad habits which they were unable to overcome.

We are here interested, not only in these defects themselves, but in the attitude that their possessors have toward them. That such handicaps, whether real or imagined, are causes of worry is shown by the widespread attempt to exploit and commercialize the anxiety to which they give rise. Magazines and newspapers contain numerous advertisements of devices for self-improvement in these matters. Upon the physical

(574) side there are advertisements of patent medicines and physical-culture methods. For the spheres of self-confidence and self-expression we find special copyrighted courses in the development of personality. For the improvement of intelligence and special abilities there are vividly advertised courses for memory training, to say nothing of an astonishing variety of correspondence courses. Fears of social inferiority and inadequacy are played upon by trenchant advertisements of books upon etiquette and of various preparations for the purpose of making one physically agreeable to one's associates.

The first task of those seeking for remedies should be to adopt an objective and scientific attitude toward these defects in their own natures. In order to gain real insight, not only self-excuses, but also emotions of fear and self-reproach must be detached from all estimates of one's self. For this purpose it will be useful to illustrate several forms of behavior which indicate whether the subject is calmly and clearly estimating his abilities and defects, or in what way his estimate is being distorted.

The first attitude that acts as a barrier to the attainment of insight may be termed running away from the test. A certain young woman, a college student who was ambitious to graduate and become a teacher, developed an acute nervousness upon the approach of the final examinations. Investigations showed that for years past she had behaved in this fashion, and that in several instances she had been excused on that ground from examinations and had been promoted on the basis of class work alone. It was found that while she was in the, grammar grades, she had been similarly excused because of a fear-either her own fear or her parents' -that undergoing examinations would cause her to stammer. When she was asked why examinations caused her so much difficulty, her reply revealed a fear that in these tests her ignorance or dullness would be exposed. There were some indications that this feeling of incompetence was not justified; but no certain decision could be reached, since the emotional state aroused by facing the test situation precluded any fair measurement of her ability. The problem, however, goes deeper than this. Since the arousal of fear prevents her from

(575) doing her best, she herself is shielded from knowing that which she dreads to know; and an excuse is given to justify her failure without her having to admit to herself the thing she is most afraid of-namely, that her intelligence may not be of a high order.

A second indication of unwillingness to be honest with one's self is the trait which we may describe as struggling against the test. An individual with this trait makes a violent effort to prove to himself and to the world that he is not deficient in a certain line. He is eager to take any test-the more difficult it is, the more eagerly he aspires to it. But he is not willing to ask: "Is it humanly possible for me to accomplish this l" He runs toward the test to convince himself that he can accomplish it. In case of failure, he either retreats to prepare a new attack or else argue* that the test was unfair and searches for a new test which will vindicate his claim to success. Some persons who are underdeveloped physically spend a great deal of time and effort to make professional athletes of themselves. Professors are familiar with a type of graduate student who is determined to take a higher degree in some abstruse subject, apparently for no other reason than to prove that he can do it. Later, when the inevitable failure comes, this student may charge the instructor with unfair discrimination against him. Climbers in the social sphere are often motivated by a similar urge. The outward trait developed by struggling against the test is one of dogged determination and aggressiveness. Although this type seems to be the opposite of that which runs away from the test, it is interesting that the underlying cause-that is, the fundamental trait-is the same-namely, unwillingness to obtain an accurate estimate of one's abilities. The obvious need in these situations is for the individual to get a clear measure of what lie can accomplish in the physical, intellectual, or social spheres; and, while making fair use of such capacity, to admit the limitations that are genuine and to turn the stream of compensatory effort into some more profitable channel.

A third obstacle to insight is the attitude of brazening out the test. The individual admits, though sometimes mistakenly, that he cannot pass the test, and also that the test is

(576) a fair one; but he maintains that it does not mean anything to him. His attitude is that of the fox toward the grapes which, in the fable, are beyond his reach. Through early failure and discouragement in cases where an intelligent attitude by parent or teacher might have saved the situation, the individual develops the conviction that he never can learn mathematics, he never can speak in public, or he never can develop social graces. Gradually he persuades himself that these traits are not important. In fact, he sometimes goes to the opposite extreme of proving to the world that he does not possess then and does not wish to possess them. A number of individuals of the writer's acquaintance have developed a kind of deliberate boorishness and want of tact. One of them says upon such occasions, "Well, you know me: I never claimed to be a gentleman!" Persons who, through shyness, have excluded themselves from society and have earned thereby the reputation of being unapproachable sometimes consciously develop and foster unapproachability in themselves. Discouragements of children in their school work may lead to decided attitudes against "being edified" in later life, and to contempt of anything that savors of being "highbrow". Here again we have conspicuous traits developing out of something that underneath is of quite a different sort.

A fourth and very common form of self-deception may be called reliance upon a double test. We build up and accept a pleasing imaginative description of ourselves as we think others see us. The traits upon which we place a high value we tend to cause others to believe that we possess. We then soon convince ourselves that others do regard us as possessing these characteristics. This process of projecting our wished-for self-estimates into the minds of our associates is largely unconscious. We are merely aware, though it may be an illusory awareness, that others regard us as having a certain kind of personality; and since others regard us in that way, we assume that it must be true. The social self is, therefore, accepted as the real self; a false test is substituted for the true one.

Finally, a fifth evasion of insight remains to be mentioned namely, skipping over the test. Admitting that he has serious defects, the individual in this case jumps over the test and

(577) wants to have his faults corrected without first waiting to see what they are and to what extent lie is deficient. This is indeed a subtle way of avoiding the test itself. Some persons of this sort come to the psychologist with the statement that they have one or another type of "complex" which they would like to get analyzed so that they can "straighten themselves out". Others ask for some kind of treatment to ''build up their will power" or to give them the "power of concentration ". They seem to place a superstitious faith in psychoanalysis, new thought, religious healing, or in some other system, as a kind of magic formula which will solve all problems quickly and painlessly. Such persons think only iii terms of the future efficacy of a new cure. They neglect the actual source of the difficulty which must be faced in the present, and which is probably obvious to every one but themselves. As a result, they are continually in pursuit of "wandering fires". The quest for self-improvement is commendable, but it is misguided when the individual assumes the right of making the diagnosis himself, while throwing upon another person the responsibility for the cure. It(, would do better to leave the diagnosis to another and work out for himself the remedy when true insight has been attained.

One of the first aids toward discovering realities about ourselves is to detect and thus eliminate these points of resistance to their disclosure. We are rational beings to the extent at least that, when we catch ourselves in the act of evading the test, that particular device for evasion may, if we are diligent, never deceive us again. Hence we are one step nearer to the goal of an objective and helpful estimate of our true qualities.

But it is not sufficient merely to point out the pitfalls iii the self-study of personality. Mention should be made of certain more positive aids. We have referred above to the value of seeking the opinions of others regarding ourselves. Much can be gained through observing and estimating our own behavior according to some questionnaire or rating scale, and then comparing these self-estimates with ratings made for us upon the same scales by close acquaintances. It is highly desirable to obtain from such raters the reasons for their judgments upon any traits where their rating differs from our own.


The benefit we derive from the opinions of others about us is measured by our own attitude toward the problem. Frank opinions must be asked for; we must not expect them to be given gratuitously. Furthermore, we must convince those from whom we ask advice that we desire to hear the unpleasant aspect of our natures no less than the pleasant. To obtain the most far-reaching help in the direction of insight one should seek an extended interview with a person of wide experience in human relations. Such a consultant should be one who understands the common errors of human thinking and yet is himself fairly free from emotional bias and distortions of insight. Such a one should not be easily shocked; his attitude toward human problems should be scientific rather than moralistic. In general, this consultant should be unrelated to the individual, and a distant acquaintance rather than a close friend. Such a relationship should be of a professional sort similar to that between physician and patient, and one that would guarantee the fullest confidence between the two engaged.

This sound, though homely, advice might be more often followed if one could see clearly the process by which the personal interview helps in clearing up one's difficulties. Failure to be honest with ourselves is often due to fear. We do not clearly know what we are afraid of, because we fear to tell ourselves about it, for the reason that it may prove to be too painful to be endured. The person whose help we seek is, however, under no such disadvantage. lie will be neither shocked nor terrified; hence we are able, as it were, to place upon him the responsibility. His hearing the matter seems to lessen the shock of its disclosure, because it is objectified through being shared by the mind of another. The logic of this seems absurd, yet, strange to say, it works. Or, to state the matter in another way, that which we fear to face is not clearly known to us because it is represented in feeling only, and not in words. In the older terminology, it was said to be "subconscious". In terms or behavior psychology, we may describe it as being simply u unsaid. When the schoolboy tells the teacher that lie knows the answer, but ''just can't say it", the teacher doubts that he knows it.

And this doubt is often justified. Putting our troubles into

(579) words not only formulates them for social expression, but draws them into the clear focus of consciousness, brings to bear upon them the process of scientific thinking, and robs them of their overcharged emotion.

The relief afforded by the social and verbal communication of self-centering emotions may be illustrated by the following case. An intelligent and cultured woman sought an interview for advice as to how to rid herself of certain trying nervous conditions. In addition to physical distress, she was disturbed by the apparent hopelessness of trying to make anything out of her life. Estranged from her husband, her one child grown up and soon to leave the home, she felt that she was without opportunity of any sort for self-expression. She betrayed marked indications of what in younger women is called "flapperism", and had adopted radically unconventional standards of morality. Upon numerous occasions she referred to the "New England conscience" of her parents, her puritanical up-bringing, and her present complete emancipation from those former delusions of propriety. "Modernism" in manners and in conduct had become for her a means of self-expression. This attitude, however, reflected a basic conflict and an effort to close her eyes to an estimate of herself which she feared to make. The facts, as well as the emotional release, were brought out through letting her talk freely concerning her early life. She told how her childish curiosity regarding sex had prompted her to ask questions and to indulge in certain games with boys, for which pursuits she was called a "tomboy" and sternly reprimanded by her mother. Her unreadiness to accept conventional attitudes and explanations brought forth continual parental condemnation. The child was "not quite right"; she was "oversexed" and essentially "bad". These false estimates took firm root in her mind until a hopeless fear developed that she was morally deficient. Then came the reaction which we have described as brazening out the test. She decided that she would renounce conventional morality, and glory in her self-substituted "freedom" and "breadth of mind". Thus occurred an outward development of exaggerated sophistication and lack of conventional scruples. Yet underneath and scarcely conscious, there remained a terrific weight of self-

(580) reproach and feeling of inferiority and guilt. Being able to tell this shame and fear to some one who would not be shocked by the details of her life, while it was far from a complete solution of her problems, nevertheless gave genuine relief from tensions almost too great to be endured. In this violent outpouring, feelings of self-blame and the fear of an incurable badness in her nature-considerations that were ordinarily forced out of her consciousness-were brought clearly before her. The opportunity was thus given her to face objectively her actual moral condition, and to choose a more balanced standard for the future guidance of her life.

In addition to the clinical interview, there are two other aids to insight that arise within our sphere of social contacts. One of these is comparison of ourselves with other individuals. No matter how troubled we may be about our physique, our income, our abilities, or our social qualities, we can usually find many people who are no better off than we in these particulars, yet who seem not to worry about themselves, but to be happy in their adjustment to life. lyre can also name acquaintances who, though more gifted or wealthy than we, worry more than we do about what they suppose to be their handicaps in these very qualities. Both the estimate that we place upon our defects and the goal we set to overcome them may be out of proportion to the logical demands of the situation. Another well-known emotional corrective is ]minor. Often when we laugh at others, we release a pent-up feeling of inferiority about our own awkwardness and inadequacy. We can see the defect because it is "out there" in another person, whereas ordinarily we are unwilling to face it within ourselves. When, however, some one else laughs at us, it is sometimes possible figuratively to project ourselves into the other person and see ourselves through the eyes of that person. The hidden defect is then placed "out there". Learning to laugh with others at one's self, therefore, helps to objectify one's characteristics in a way that would be impossible in the absence of social contact.

When we have gained insight into our devices for evading the test of ourselves and when our fears have been dispelled by aid from the social environment, so that we can be aware of ourselves as we are, there `will be, in the last analysis, a

(582) residue of shortcomings, defects of ability, social handicaps, physical disadvantages, and unfortunate habits which are a detriment to our work and play. There will also be peculiar graces and abilities in other directions, and lines that are promising for future development. For the present, however, full weight should be given to our liabilities by developing an attitude of resignation to their existence. This attitude may be supplemented by a determination to improve in matters in which improvement is possible and practicable. But with regard to the unalterable defects, we should maintain an attitude of resignation, not only now, but for the future. "There is no such word as failure", is a good motto if success is to be defined as making the most of all that we have; but it is poor advice if taken to mean that we can eliminate at will every defect and handicap of our personalities. Correspondence agencies and so-called "applied psychologists" who hold out surety of success in the latter direction probably do more harm than good. There are instances in which the query, "How can I develop more of this trait, or of that?" will lead only to failure and disappointment.

Certain aids can be found for acquiring a salutary attitude of resignation. One of these is the reflection that our previous refusal to admit our shortcomings was only a kind of false pride. This pride may be replaced by a socially useful trait of true humility._ Some of the finest characteristics observable in our friends seems to arise through some altruistic expression of their self-abnegation. The thoughts of wise men of all ages, such, for example, as those found in the writings of the stoic philosophers, are valuable in helping us to accept ourselves as we are. A religion that is free from superstition is also of great service.

But after reaching, as it were, the bottom of things, we have no reason to spend all of our time feeling resign l. Self-direction, though starting with resignation toward causes that lie in the past, needs always a forward outlook. Insight is needed no less in regard to the latent possibilities than in the recognition of defects of personality, a fact that renders important a survey of our personal assets. One is sometimes wholly unaware of unrealized potentialities in certain directions. Or, again, one may be aware of certain abilities

(582) and desirable traits in one's self, but may undervalue their significance. This error may be due to the lack of opportunity within the individual's environment for more than their most fleeting expression. It is the task of the vocational adviser to bring such qualities into use by broadening one's knowledge of untried avenues of achievement.

Another common cause of under-self-evaluation in certain traits is the fact that one may have set one's goal unalterably in some other direction. The reason frequently is that the individual has a feeling of inferiority over a real or supposed defect in this latter direction, and his persistent "struggling against the test" causes him to overlook talents that he may have for a different pursuit. In some cases these different talents and pursuits may be actually under-evaluated and scorned. They may be regarded as common, as effeminate, as identified with a parent against whose rule one has developed a rebellious attitude, or as unworthy of a family vocational tradition. There is a certain college professor who ought to be a mechanical engineer or inventor. It is unlikely that he will ever achieve distinction in academic work lie spends only the necessary minimum of time at his office and devotes his leisure hours to perfecting mechanical contrivances about the home. When asked why he did not change his vocation, his answer revealed a lifelong assumption that college teaching was to be his destiny. His father and preceding members of his family line had been professors, and he felt that he must keep up the tradition. He was unwilling, perhaps, to face the test, admit his possible lack of capacity for distinctive professorial work, and relinquish that goal. Since he overvalued the profession of college teaching and undervalued the career of mechanical engineering, he failed to appreciate his own capacities for the latter type of work.

Another form of under-self-evaluation is shown by persons who, keenly aware of defects of education, industry, social experience, or other matters that could be remedied, have maintained since early life a struggle to develop themselves in these directions. This struggle, deeply imbedded as a trait of personality, sometimes more than atones for the original lack; and yet-so deep-seated is the feeling of inferiority-the individual still underestimates his qualities and keeps on

(583) striving toward higher goals. lie fails to recognize the extent to which his personality has developed through his compensatory effort. There is a charm and naïveté about a successful person -who undervalues himself in his most significant traits. The question, however, is still open whether a certain contentment might not be reached, together with a more balanced expenditure of energy, if one were as sensitive to his assets as to his liabilities.

In this article we have taken toward personality an analytic point of view. We have tried to show that quantitative estimates of general traits are insufficient because they do not relate to specific situations and are of little help to the individual in the work of self-improvement. A deeper analysis must be made, a study that will help the individual first or all to see himself as he is. Certain characteristic devices of self-deception must be penetrated before true insight can be attained. Ratings by associates, interviews with competent persons, comparisons of one's self with others, humor, and general social contacts are indispensable positive aids in the task of self-evaluation. A scientific approach to ourselves must be mingled with an attitude of humility and resignation in finally facing ourselves as we are. At this point the prospect becomes distinctly hopeful through a discovery of our balancing assets and a reëvaluation which may justifiably increase our faith in virtues heretofore but dimly recognized.


  1. Adapted from a lecture delivered at Winthrop College, Rock Hill, South Carolina, June 18, 1926.
  2. Vocational Psychology. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1918. Chapter 7.

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