Web-only Feature

Web-only Feature

Social Cognitive Affect: Self-Discrepancy in Suicide

Suicide is a public health crisis (Cornette et al., 2009). An estimated 703,000 people a year in the world end their life (World Health Organization, 2022). Additionally, for every completed suicide, there are 20 people attempting suicide, and many more experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24-year-olds (Anderson & Smith, 2003). “Suicide is an intended self-destructive behavior with significant etiological risk factors related to biological, psychological, and social components” (Yoo, 2011). The view of suicide has differed across societies (Yoo, 2011). However, Èmilie Durkheim remains the most significant contributor to suicidology across the globe (Joiner, 2005). Durkheim’s theory posits that the rates of suicide occur despite having the positive interactions of a group or class of social relationships. Individuals' social relationships differ depending on their level of consolidation (structural elements) and moral regulation (Mueller et al., 2021). Durkheim claimed that a person’s bond with a group unites them and prevents them from being greatly impacted. Collectiveness and a sense of belonging protect people from “egoistic” suicides resulting from isolation (Mueller et al., 2021). Cognitive appraisals of emotions and how they are formed to maintain attachments to others, our identity, and our beliefs about suicidology.

Several risk factors such as hopelessness, dysfunctional attitudes, coping deficiencies (Pettit & Joiner, 2006; Weishaar & Beck, 1992), and negative self-concept (Beck et al., 1987l; Beck et al., 1989) have been found to play a role of self-concept and the vulnerability to suicidal ideation. Baumeister (1990) conceptualizes suicide as an “escape from self” and notes that self-discrepancies are an example of self-perceptions that fall short or below standards (Fulginiti & Brekke, 2015). The need to escape can fester as suicidal ideation, drug use, excessive sleep, or other risky behaviors. Chatard and Selimbegovic (2011) found that once individuals realize they cannot meet these standards, a specific expectation leads to suicidal behaviors.

Self-Discrepancy Theory

In conjunction to view of self and negative mood, previous work (Fairbrother & Moretti, 1998; Waters et al., 2004)  has used the self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987) to describe self-evaluation and other mental health disorders such as depression. For example, people who have depression tend to believe that they are falling short of their own or others’ goals or expectations (Crane et al., 2008). Self-discrepancy theory provides three domains of the self: the actual self (attributes that someone believes a person possesses), the ideal self (attributes that someone would ideally like a person to possess), and the ought self (details that someone believes a person should or ought to possess) (Higgins, 1987). The theory then includes two standpoints, an individual’s perspective on oneself and the view of a significant other. It is a model of self and affect that accounts for the link between self-evaluation and positive emotional states (e.g., joy, interest, love) as opposed to negative emotional states (e.g., fear, sadness, guilt) (Higgins, 1987). The theory states that individuals are inclined to align their self-concept with emotionally significant self-guides. However, discrepancies between the actual self and the different self-guides indicate negative psychological scenarios about motivational and emotional states (Lewin, 1951).

Specifically, discrepancies between the actual and ideal self-have been associated with depression and dejection-related feelings (Higgins et al., 1985; Higgins et al., 1986; and Strauman & Higgins, 1987). Furthermore, these discrepancies result in dissatisfaction and low self-esteem due to the absence of positive outcomes. Therefore, this motivational force results in a perceived lack of effectiveness, impacting one’s mood. Whereas the actual and ought self-have been associated with anxious agitation due to the expectation of experiencing punishment for this discrepancy and are prone to fear. Often, this is seen with social anxiety (Boldero & Frances, 2000; Vergara-Lopez & Roberts, 2012).

Negative emotional states resulting from self-discrepancy or facilitated by shame or defeat (Lester, 1988; Mueller et al., 2021) may function as a cognitive vulnerability mechanism contributing to the onset and maintenance of emotional disorders (Mason et al., 2019). Markus and Nurius (1986) proposed the possibility of another domain of self, the feared self, which serves as a cognitive reference point for characteristics an individual desires to avoid. Such congruences between feared self-guides and the perceived actual self could develop into emotional distress and potentially other mental health diagnoses. Several critical risk factors for depression, such as anhedonia, loss of productivity, functional impairment, and even the feared self-guide, can increase the risk for depression (Vergara-Lopez & Roberts, 2012). Other works have expanded on studying the role of self-discrepancy in anxiety, borderline personality disorder, paranoia, eating disorders, schizophrenia, suicidal ideation, and other mood disorders. It is even proposed that self-discrepancy and psychopathology may be reduced among those more adaptive in their emotion regulation skills (Mason et al., 2019).

Self-Discrepancy Theory and Suicide

Cornette et al., (2009) propose two possible couplings between self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation. One possibility is the direct correspondence between self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation since both involve negative self-impression. Psychoanalysis would deem suicide as the murder of the ego by the superego. Although little empirical work has examined this interrelation and these concepts are not synonymous, studies have found a relationship between negative self-concept and suicidality. A second possibility could be self-discrepancy tends to lead to the experience of negative affective states, these ideas could lead to suicidal thoughts and impulses. Wonderlich et al., (2015) suggest that maladaptive emotion regulation strategies can help mediate between self-discrepancy and negative emotions. A decrease in self-discrepancy suggests that one is closely aligned with their idea and/or ought self; therefore, positive outcomes and self-assurance are promoted.

Other views of self-discrepancy theory have argued that the scope of self-discrepancies anticipate emotional states may be conditional, and predictions may be two-fold (Cornette et al., 2014). The difficulties with goal-related processing, such as higher-order self-related goals, contribute to developing depression and dysphoria, is eminent in suicidal patients (Crane et al., 2008; Vincent et al., 2004). Several findings in adult studies have looked at these discrepancies and symptoms in a general sense of agitation and nerves developing over time (Higgins, 1987; Kupersmidt et al., 1996). However, limited studies have focused on this comparison since it is critical to the self-discrepancy theory to have the assumption that the actual self, ideal, and ought must be measured ideographically because, as mental depictions, they are portrayed by high levels of transient yet persistent construct accessibility (Mason et al., 2019; Vergara-Lopez & Roberts, 2012).

By understanding the nature of the construct, other studies have attempted to gain information from various samples. For example, Kupersmidt et al. (1996) conducted a study to determine how discrepancies among children’s social self can elicit the adverse effect of potentially motivating behavior when focusing on peer or school problems. The results found that children who experience dejection-related affect associated may be motivated to decrease discrepancy by altering their cognition. However, if a self-aware person cannot reduce the self-discrepancy, they are likely to withdraw effort and disengage from their efforts. Therefore, practicing strength-based approaches can help foster protective factors such as enforcing positive self-image can help the individual “rewire” cognitions and eventually improve overall affect by feeling the connection between the body and seeing the beauty. Ultimately reducing the discrepancy by processing the social information after using the activated positive construct. It is important to note that social, familial, and cultural influences impact our self-perceptions (e.g., praise, self-enhancement bias, media, western vs eastern cultures) and differ depending on personal experiences. Moreover, a better understanding of self-discrepancy interventions and programs can reduce behaviors such as suicidal ideation. It would also be intriguing to examine how self-discrepancy can support women, who attempt suicide, and what aspects would provide support post-attempt.

Practical Implications

Research comparing suicide and the self-discrepancy theory is still being implemented to treat suicide and is primarily based on self-report. However, the current social, cognitive, and affective aspects can work together to address the implications and applications of treatment. For example, the discrepancy factors incorporated into assessment practice could complement a more streamlined approach to suicide assessment and potentially detect “under the radar” risk (Fulginiti & Brekke, 2015). Additionally, knowing that the suicidal mind is ambivalent, any form of distress in life (e.g., improved self-esteem or quality of life) can serve a life-promoting function (Fulginiti & Brekke, 2015). Intertwining self-discrepancy theory into graduate clinical training can also be a valuable tool for the clinician to become aware of self, ideal, and ought in the room as a therapist. In tandem, asking our clients how they view themselves can facilitate questioning that permits deeper thinking beyond the presentation visible to the clinician.

Finally, when considering the results from Gürcan-Yıldırım and Gençöz (2020), the ideal and undesired selves tailored in well-being programs may decrease their psychological distress. At the same time, the ought self may work best with targeting goals when individuals have higher development in coping abilities—suggesting that individuals who are low mood, depressed, or suicidal could benefit from initiatives focusing on de-escalation or tools relevant to emotional regulation. A gate-keeper training model could also serve as a way for the “gate-keepers” to encounter individuals in distress regularly and provide multiple levels of intervention by increasing knowledge of suicide, teaching skills to address risk, and role-playing. This implementation of psychoeducation could expose an individual to the idea and how one would respond in a setting requiring crisis support.

Additionally, incorporating recognition of self-discrepancy (depressed mood, self-criticism, anxiety, feelings of guilts, avoidance) can curate a tailored approach when safety planning to reduce the risk of suicide. As our views of self-continue to shape and shift with life, negative voices will always be a pervasive force that can influence our perceptions. Ultimately, establishing modalities, such as Cognitive Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CT-SP), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) of these kinds can enhance the opportunity to align all of us to be valuable guides in life.

Cite This Article

Schapiro, S (2023, May). Social Cognitive Affect: Self-Discrepancy in Suicide. [Web Article]. Retrieved from http://www.societyforpsychotherapy.org/social-cognitive-affect-self-discrepancy-in-suicide/


Anderson, R. N., & Smith, B. L. (2005). National vital statistics reports: Deaths–leading causes for 2002. PsycEXTRA Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/e509562006-001

Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Suicide as an escape from self, Psychological Review, 97(1), 90–113.

Beck, A. T. (1987). Cognitive approaches to hopelessness and suicide. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy, Boston, MA.

Beck, A. T., Brown, G., & Steer, R. A. (1989). Prediction of eventual suicide in psychiatric inpatients by clinical ratings of hopelessness. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(2), 309-310. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006x.57.2.309

Boldero, J., & Francis, J. (2000). The relation between self-discrepancies and emotion: The moderating roles of self-guide importance, location relevance, and social self-domain centrality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 38-52. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.78.1.38

Chatard, A., & Selimbegović, L. (2011). When self-destructive thoughts flash through the mind: Failure to meet standards affects the accessibility of suicide-related thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(4), 587-605. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022461

Cornette, M. M., Strauman, T. J., Abramson, L. Y., & Busch, A. M. (2009). Self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation. Cognition & Emotion, 23(3), 504-527. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930802012005

Crane, C., Barnhofer, T., Duggan, D. S., Hepburn, S., Fennell, M. V., & Williams, J. M. (2008). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and self-discrepancy in recovered depressed patients with a history of depression and suicidality. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32(6), 775-787. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-008-9193-y

Fairbrother, N., & Moretti, M. (1998). Sociology, autonomy, and self-discrepancy: Status in depressed, remitted depressed, and control participants. Cognitive Therapy and Research22(3), 279.

Fulginiti, A., & Brekke, J. S. (2015). Escape from discrepancy: Self-esteem and quality of life as predictors of current suicidal ideation among individuals with schizophrenia. Community Mental Health Journal, 51(6), 654-662. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10597-015-9846-8

Gürcan-Yıldırım, D., & Gençöz, T. (2020). The association of self-discrepancy with depression and anxiety: Moderator roles of emotion regulation and resilience. Current Psychology, 41(4), 1821-1834. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-020-00701-8

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319-340. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.94.3.319

Higgins, E. T., Bond, R. N., Klein, R., & Strauman, T. (1986). Self-discrepancies and emotional vulnerability: How magnitude, accessibility, and type of discrepancy influence affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), 5-15. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.51.1.5

Higgins, E. T., Klein, R., & Strauman, T. (1985). Self-concept discrepancy theory: A psychological model for distinguishing among different aspects of depression and anxiety. Social Cognition, 3(1), 51-76. https://doi.org/10.1521/soco.1985.3.1.51

Joiner, T. (2005). Why People Die by Suicide. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kupersmidt, J. B., Buchele, K. S., Voegler, M. E., & Sedikides, C. (1996). Social self-discrepancy: A theory relating peer relations problems and school maladjustment. Social motivation: Understanding children’s school adjustment, 66-97.

Lester, D. (1988). Suicide from a psychological perspective. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishing Ltd.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science: Selected theoretical papers. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954

Mason, T. B., Smith, K. E., Engwall, A., Lass, A., Mead, M., Sorby, M., Bjorlie, K., Strauman, T. J., & Wonderlich, S. (2019). Self-discrepancy theory as a transdiagnostic framework: A meta-analysis of self-discrepancy and psychopathology. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 372-389. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000186

Mueller, A. S., Abrutyn, S., Pescosolido, B., & Diefendorf, S. (2021). The social roots of suicide: Theorizing how the external social world matters to suicide and suicide prevention. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.621569

Pettit, J., & Joiner, T. (2006). Cognitive vulnerability to suicide, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Strauman, T. J., & Higgins, E. T. (1987). Automatic activation of self-discrepancies and emotional syndromes: When cognitive structures influence affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1004-1014. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.53.6.1004

Vergara-Lopez, C., & Roberts, J. E. (2012). Self-discrepancies among individuals with a history of depression: The role of feared self-guides. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36(6), 847-853. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-011-9433-4

Vincent, P. J., Boddana, P., & MacLeod, A. K. (2004). Positive life goals and plans in parasuicide. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 11(2), 90-99. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.394

Waters, S. J., Keefe, F. J., & Strauman, T. J. (2004). Self-discrepancy in chronic low back pain: Relation to pain, depression, and psychological distress. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 27(3), 251-259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2003.07.001

Weishaar, M. E., & Beck, A. T. (1992). Hopelessness and suicide. International Review of Psychiatry, 4(2), 177-184. https://doi.org/10.3109/09540269209066315

Wonderlich, S. A., Peterson, C. B., Crosby, R. D., Smith, T. L., Klein, M. H., Mitchell, J. E., & Crow, S. J. (2013). A randomized controlled comparison of integrative cognitive-affective therapy (ICAT) and enhanced cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT-E) for bulimia nervosa. Psychological Medicine, 44(3), 543-553. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291713001098

World suicide prevention day 2022. (n.d.). WHO | World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-suicide-prevention-day/2022

Yoo, J. J. (2011). Insecure attachment, self-discrepancy, suicidal tendency in a sample of Korean and Korean-Americans: A path model of suicide.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *