Self-awareness involves expert knowledge of oneself, independent of others. As such, self-awareness is central to one’s personal and social perception and meaning of self.
It has been argued that there are at least two interrelated levels of the self that psychologist William James (1842–1910) labeled the “I” self and the “me” self. The former is considered an implicit level whereby the self is a subject of experience, whereas the latter is described as an explicit level where the self is an object of knowledge for oneself. This me self is a conscious representation of the self and involves a complex ability to allow one to be the subject of one’s own attention through self-identification and self-recognition.
Implicit and explicit self-awareness are contingent on developmental perspectives, whereby the I self concerns the first 2 years of life and the me self is developed in at least three stages thereafter. Most of the assessment and theoretical testing for self-awareness has been conducted by observing infants’ and children’s reactions to themselves presented in mirrors. Infants begin with no self-awareness (oblivious) and develop to experience self-differentiation (how the body feels and looks) and situational differentiation (how the body relates to the environment). Around age 2, individuals will manifest recognition of themselves, and this is a landmark in the emergence of a conceptual self. At this initial explicit stage, there is an identified self that the image in the mirror is “me” and what is experienced from within is related to what is displayed in the mirror. Following this identification, individuals develop a sense of permanence whereby their self-identification has no boundaries (i.e., they can recognize themselves in contexts beyond the mirror, such as movies or photos). The final developmental level of self-awareness has been proposed to include displays of self-consciousness resulting from an awareness that the self is seen from within—what the self is— as well how the self is perceived by others.
High Versus Low Self-Awareness
Self-awareness ranges on a continuum from low levels of awareness (i.e., narrow, temporally limited awareness of movement and sensation in the immediate present) to high levels of awareness (i.e., invoking comparisons of events and self against standards and norms and involve broader time spans). These distinctions of low and high self-awareness have been linked to divergent thoughts, feelings and affect, and behaviors. For example, researchers have found that individuals who are highly self-aware perceive their experiences more intensely, have more accurate self-evaluation and are able to self-regulate more adaptively, react more strongly to social comparison, and generally know themselves better compared with individuals who are low on self-awareness.
Theoretical Framework: Escape Theory
The principle of escape theory is that individuals may find it burdensome and aversive to be aware of himself or herself and therefore find ways to escape. Since it is difficult to completely “turn off” self-awareness, a common strategy is to narrow one’s attention to the present and immediate environment. By narrowing attention, there is limited capacity to engage in meaningful thought about identity and oneself. This deconstructive process, or moving one’s awareness from high to low levels, is a way to escape threats and pressures. The motivation to escape self-awareness hinges on a comparison of the self against standards, norms, and expectations whereby the higher the standards, the greater likelihood of failure, and the more impetus for escape. As it pertains to body shape and appearance, for example, there are high standards of “ideal” physiques for men and women that are perpetuated in the media and internalized as normative discontent. Based on these high standards, the self is deficient, and actions are carried out to manage the deficiency. Within the escape theory framework, behavioral actions such as alcohol use, cigarette smoking, and binge eating are associated with a reduction of the undesirable state. While not examined empirically, it is intuitive that sedentary behaviors such as playing video games or watching television and physical activity (PA) engagement are also behavioral strategies to manage (escape) the deficiency brought about by high self-awareness. It could be argued that excessive exercise, for example, follows a similar trajectory as binge eating in that it is an escape from immediate or pending threats and pressures.
Manipulations of Self-Awareness
Most researchers involved in experimental studies of self-awareness have manipulated attention and cognition through strategies of distraction (e.g., intense, absorbing movies; challenging math problems; complex motor behaviors) and heightened focus on the self (e.g., mirrors, self-relevant prompts, concentration and focus).
In sport psychology (SP), self-talk is a strategy that can be used to heighten self-awareness. It is proposed that self-talk may be the link between the I self and the me self and helps in the development of motivational thoughts, feelings, affect, and self-monitoring. In this way, self-talk may mediate self-awareness and related strategies such as self-monitoring and regulation.
Too Much Self-Awareness?
There is some evidence that manipulating self-awareness can heighten negative emotion and can foster susceptibility for anxiety and depression and lower self-esteem. More research is needed to better understand the potential maladaptive role of self-awareness.
- Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Anxiety and deconstruction: On escaping the self. In J. M. Olson & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Self-inference processes: The Ontario Symposium (pp. 259–291). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Heatherton, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (1991). Binge eating as escape from self-awareness. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 86–108.
- Morin, A. (1993). Self-talk and self-awareness: On the nature of the relation. The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 14, 223–234.
- St Clair Gibson, A. & Foster, C. (2007). The role of self-talk in the awareness of physiological state and physical performance, Sports Medicine, 37,1029–1044.