BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 12, 2021
We dream of possibilities. We savor vivid thoughts of ourselves in an imagined ideal future. In 1986, Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius built a motivation theory around the conscious mind's future focus of wandering thoughts (p. 954). In this theory, a person's visions of themselves in the future is more than wasteful dreaming but actual a helpful function to achieve goals and avoid fears. Markus and Narius call these future oriented self-concepts as 'possible selves.'
A possible self is the vision of future self that we imagine, drawing from self-knowledge, past experiences, social interactions, and cultural context. The possible self is a construction of “goals, aspirations, motives, fears, and threats” (Markus and Nurius 1986).
According to Markus and Nurius, possible selves are components of the larger self-concept. A possible self is more than idealistic dreams; they may also include fears of who we don't want to become.
Marcus and Nurius wrote that, " an individuals repertoire of possible selves can be viewed as the cognitive manifestations of enduring goals, aspirations, motives, fears, and threats" (1986).
Possible selves is a psychological concept developed in 1986 by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius that theorizes that concepts of future self motivates goal fulfillment in the present.
Hoped-For and Feared Selves
Our visions of self in the future are not always charming dreams of grand possibilities. We often envision a self we despise. We see a self that may be rejected and lonely or a self that is a failure. Negative visions are not always self-fulfilling prophesies. Sometimes these vision motivate action to avoid the dreaded vision of the despicable self.
Possible Self Not a Single Ideation of Self in the Future
We often get stuck in then endless vortex of discovering who our "true self" really is. We have enduring characteristics that remain remarkably stable throughout our lives. However, within these stable characteristics lies a remarkably dynamic, complex, and changing being.
The self is complex. We act differently within different contexts. Our self-concept flows like water. The current of experience constantly changing the pool of water. The self is a process not a materially defined object. The self is constantly involved in a reciprocal interaction with surrounding forces where behavior, personal factors, and external forces clash and create change.
Our visions a possible selves can borrow from a variety of categories. Marcus and Nurius specifically mention six categories often used in possible self inventories for research. These are:
General Personality Descriptors
Occupation Professional Possibilities
Possibilities in the Opinion of Others
Adaptive Response to Imagined Possible Selves
We may respond to our visions of possible selves in both healthy and unhealthy ways. An adaptive response translates dreams of the future into positive action in the present. We must build a bridge between the hoped-for possible self and the self we are now.
Many dreams lie dormant until they are activated with a workable plan. Do we want the imagined possible self just to distract from painful present realities or do we want these dreams to motivate action that creates change?
According to C. Rischard Snyder's hope theory, change requires two ingredients: willpower and waypower. Hope, according to Snyder, energizes pursuit of goals using willpower and way-power. Willpower is the driving force and way-power is the mental capacity to find effective possibilities (2003, Location 175-210).
The Difference Between Doing and Being in Possible Self Concepts
Possible selves refers more to who we would like to be than what we would like to do. There is a tremendous differences between achieving or having something and being something. I can set a goal, prepare and achieve it. This is good. Let's say the goal is to run a 10k. For many this is an achievement. You plan, you train, and achieve your goal.
The concept is more than this. The vision of possible self, along these lines would be "someone who sets and achieves goals," or, perhaps, "a runner." Being is more about character and self-definitions. The vision of our future self continues to define and motivate action beyond a single goal. After I successfully complete my 10k, the self concept (possible self) continues to motivate action—perhaps a marathon.
Stability of Possible Selves
Our concept of possible selves is resiliently stable. Our image remains somewhat constant, allowing dreams to fluctuate within boundaries of what we believe we can accomplish. The possible self supercharges goals and motivates action. The vision constructs the bridge, bringing together past experience, current realities, and hoped for futures. However, these concepts of self can be rewritten. Sometimes, they must be rewritten for us to break free of self-sabotaging limitations.
Books on Possible Selves
A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society
An adaptive link between dreams and action significantly defines futures. When our dreams fuel effective behavior, there is little that can interfere with successful realization of dreams.
Please support Flourishing Life Society with a social media share or by visiting a link:
Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969.
de Place A-L, Brunot S. (2020) Motivational and Behavioral Impact of Possible Selves: When Specificity Matters. Imagination, Cognition and Personality. 2020;39(4):329-347.
Snyder, C. R. (2003) Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Simon and Schuster.