Conscience is the set of faculties that allows one to participate in the social world by balancing one’s needs and desires with those of others. Conscience is evident in behavior that is consistent with an individual’s own moral standards. Often, at the core of these standards is a value of the rights and welfare of others. Conscience is expressed both through doing (e.g., giving one’s bus seat to someone who looks tired) and not doing (e.g., not taking a friend’s toy). A key feature of conscience is that it sustains moral functioning independent of external intervention (e.g., by parents, police). Current understanding of conscience has roots in Sigmund Freud’s theory of the struggle between superego and id and Emile Durkheim’s description of internalized morality as self-restraint, the precedence of social engagement over egoism, and autonomous reflection based on standards of conduct.

Conscience integrates capacities for emotional arousal, mental representation, and behavioral self-regulation. The emotional features of conscience include self-focused and other-oriented arousal that reinforces and motivates acceptable behavior and punishes and inhibits inappropriate behavior. Self-focused emotion includes negative (e.g., guilt) and positive (e.g., pride) arousal, dependent on whether one’s behavior contradicts or promotes internal standards. For example, violation of one’s principles results in guilt and remorse that is unpleasant. This negative emotion discourages future violations and may be assuaged through corrective action. Importantly, the self-focused emotion component of conscience does not depend on immediate external consequences and thus differs from, for example, the fear of being caught. Other-oriented emotional arousal, coupled with the ability to take others’ perspectives, is another feature of conscience. This empathic component prompts awareness of the effects of one’s actions on the feelings of others and elicits emotional arousal (e.g., concern), both of which influence behavior choices.

The mental representation component of conscience allows one to store and reference prototypes of moral conduct. Such representations are based on direct articulation and modeling of values and appropriate behavior (e.g., by parents). These also are gleaned from experiences with, for example, misbehavior, altruism,  disciplinary  encounters,  and  associated emotional arousal. In this way, conscience formation is unique to one’s particular assimilation of life experiences and socialization.

A central component of conscience is the capacity for impulse control, attention, and sustained effort, known as behavioral self-regulation. This capacity reflects executive brain functioning, rather than the popular notions of simple motivation or self-control. Without adequate self-regulation, the other components of conscience may not be consistently expressed in moral behavior. Such has been found in some studies of aggressive children, who did not differ from nonaggressive children on knowledge of rules or capacities for empathy or guilt. Instead, some of these children’s difficulties were explained by less mature executive functioning that seemed to thwart the expression of their more mature faculties.

The features of conscience work in concert: A failure to regulate a selfish impulse may injure a friend, activating empathic concern, awareness of a standard violation, and self-censure through guilt. The process of development in these features is captured by the term internalization. This includes an inward transition of behavioral control from external to internal regulation, a growing sense that standards governing behavior are self-generated rather than externally imposed, and increased attribution of anxiety associated with rule breaking to internal rather than external causes. Notably, the development of conscience is undermined by some discipline strategies, such as physical punishment, that focus children’s attention on external causes of emotional discomfort and reasons for compliance. Conscience is best fostered through discipline that teaches the reasons for moral behavior and the consequences of one’s behavior for others. For example, the reason that lying is wrong is because it takes advantage of others and hurts friendships, not because it results in a spanking. Positive parenting practices support the development of conscience and sustain moral functioning in the absence of external forces—that is, when no one is looking.


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