Self-Awareness Training

Self-awareness refers to the ability to make oneself the object of one’s own attention. This self-reflexive quality of consciousness has been the focus of considerable research within the cognitive, social, and  sport  psychology  (SP)  domains  over  the  past 50  years.  Originating  from  this  research,  a  theory  of  self-awareness  emerged  from  the  work  of Thomas  Shelley  Duval  and  Robert  Wicklund, which posited a dichotomy between external and internal objects of conscious attention. At any one time, attention may be turned outward toward the environment  or  directed  inward  toward  the  self but may not be focused on both at the same time. Self-awareness theory (SAT) further proposes that self-focused  individuals  will  automatically  engage in  a  comparison  of  the  self  against  a  set  of  standards. These standards are considered to represent a  “criterion  of  correctness”  consisting  of  beliefs about correct behavior, attitudes, and traits. In this regard,  self-awareness  plays  an  active  role  in  the process of self-evaluation.

SAT  assumes  that  the  preferred  state  of  the individual  is  consistency  between  the  self  and  a particular  ideal  or  standard.  Inevitably,  however, the comparison between self and standards leads to the recognition of discrepancies, which result in negative affect if standards are not met. In order to reduce this discomfort, SAT predicts that individuals are motivated to seek behavioral responses in order to regain equilibrium between self and standards. Initially, one of two behavioral responses is predicted to occur as a result of these discrepancies:  First,  individuals  may  actively  change  their  actions, attitudes, or traits to be more in line with their  standards.  Such  behavioral  responses  might result  in  greater  task  effort,  more  concentration,  or  other  steps  leading  to  self-improvement. Alternatively,  the  individual  could  elect  to  avoid the self-focusing situation altogether, thus ending the  comparison  between  the  self  and  standards. More recently, however, research has suggested a third  possibility  in  which  individuals  reduce  discrepancies by altering their standards to be more congruent with the self. Thus, discrepancy reduction can occur either through means of changing the self or one’s standards of right behavior, attitude, or traits.

Increased  self-awareness  has  been  shown  to lead  to  a  number  of  predictable  consequences. Individuals  who  are  made  self-aware  have  been found  to  be  more  likely  to  conform  to  standards of  correct  behavior  than  those  who  are  less  self-aware.  For  instance,  heightened  self-awareness has been found to increase the willingness of individuals to help others and to decrease the urge to cheat. Additionally, self-awareness is an important determinant of the degree to which individuals are cognizant of bodily states, attitudes, and feelings. To this extent, the accuracy of self-reports are better  when  obtained  under  conditions  of  increased self-focused  attention.  Self-aware  individuals  are also  more  likely  to  attribute  causal  responsibility to  themselves  compared  to  less  self-focused  individuals.  Finally,  self-awareness,  especially  when induced  by  the  attention  of  others,  facilitates  the motivation to make behavioral attempts to reduce discrepancies  between  one’s  self  and  one’s  values and standards.

Factors That Influence Self-Awareness

Any stimulus or situation that reminds an individual of himself or herself can lead to a heightened salience  of  self.  For  example,  seeing  oneself  in  a mirror, photograph, or video can lead to increased awareness  of  particular  self-dimensions  that  are most relevant at that time. Dependent on the situational  factors,  the  relevant  dimensions  may  be related  to  task  performance,  attitudes,  beliefs,  or physical  appearance.  While  any  number  of  situations  could  potentially  lead  to  heightened  self-awareness,  four  situational  factors  have  been demonstrated  to  consistently  lead  to  increased self-directed attention, arousal, and increased pressure: (1) competition, (2) reward and punishment contingency,  (3)  ego  relevance,  and  (4)  the  presence of an audience.

Competition   results   from   the   comparison of  one’s  skills  or  abilities  to  those  of  another. Competition  may  be  either  explicit  or  implicit  in nature. Explicit competition refers to competitive situations when the performer is clearly aware that his  or  her  performance  will  be  compared  to  that of  another.  Implicit  competition  occurs  when  the performer compares his or her performance to that of  another,  even  though  no  explicit  competitive arrangements have been made—comparing oneself to the performance of a teammate during practice, for example. For both explicit and implicit competition,  motivation  and  self-awareness  are  heightened when the outcome of the competition is made public or when one’s performance is slightly below that of the competitor.

When  rewards  or  punishments  are  made  contingent  upon  performance,  the  saliency  of  the individual’s task performance is increased. Often, these  situational  factors  cause  the  performer  to direct  attention  inward  in  order  to  attempt  to ensure correct behaviors and responses. However, contingent  rewards  have  been  shown  to  interfere with  attentional  mechanisms  underlying  both cognitive  and  motor  tasks.  Similarly,  contingent punishment often leads to decreased performance on  cognitive  tasks,  likely  resulting  from  shifts  of attention  to  self-dimensions  that  are  not  directly relevant  for  task  performance  (e.g.,  thoughts  of worry or failure).

Presenting  a  task  as  ego  relevant  can  increase one’s self-awareness while performing the task. To this extent, performance on an ego-relevant task is considered as a reflection upon a particular aspect of one’s self. For example, diagnostic or evaluative tasks such as an IQ test would result in heightened self-awareness, as the individual is concerned with performing  in  a  manner  that  reflects  his  or  her belief  about  personal  abilities.  Ego-relevant  tasks also result in heightened performance pressure and motivation  as  one  attempts  to  perform  in  accordance with one’s standards and beliefs.

Performance  in  front  of  an  audience  can  also create   heightened   self-awareness.   This   self-directed  attention  is  prompted  by  concerns  for how  the  audience  will  view  the  performance  and performer.  In  this  regard,  performance  in  front of an audience has the potential to define the self as either successful or unsuccessful. Furthermore, performance in front of an audience makes these

self-definitions into a publically confirmed reality. Consideration of the influence of outside observers has led to the distinction between public and private self-awareness. Public self-awareness refers to the awareness of oneself as imagined from an outside perspective, whereas a private self-awareness refers to the awareness of oneself from one’s own perspective. Increased awareness of the public self has been found to result in increased conformity to societal  norms  and  expectations,  whereas  heightened  private  self-awareness  has  been  shown  to result in behaviors more consistent with personal standards.

Self-Awareness and Choking Under Pressure

Increased  self-awareness  has  been  viewed  as  one of the main contributing factors to the breakdown of motor performance under pressure. Under situations  of  heightened  performance  pressure  (e.g., performing  in  front  of  an  audience),  the  performer’s  attention  is  shifted  inward  in  order  to monitor  and  control  behavioral  responses  in  an attempt  to  ensure  correctness  of  execution  (i.e., a  shift  from  automatic  to  controlled  processing).  However,  attempting  to  monitor  and  control  the  step-by-step  components  of  movement execution leads to the disruption and breakdown of  highly  learned  motor  skills.  Specifically,  skills that  have  become  largely  automated,  requiring little  attentional  resources  and  running  largely outside  of  working  memory,  are  dechunked  into smaller submovements that must be run and activated separately. This dechunking leads to reduced movement efficiency and, ultimately, reduced performance.

The extent to which an individual chokes under pressure  has  been  found  to  be  moderated  by  the individual’s  predisposition  to  be  self-attentive. Individuals  with  a  habitually  high  level  of  self-awareness  are  naturally  more  cognizant  of  their own  actions,  thoughts,  and  feelings  compared  to those  who  are  habitually  low  in  self-attention. To  this  extent,  research  has  demonstrated  that those  with  high  dispositional  self-awareness  are less  likely  to  choke  under  heightened  pressure. Specifically,  individuals  with  high  dispositional self-awareness are more accustomed to performing under  heightened  self-focus,  and  thus  the  impact of  increased  self-focus  resulting  from  pressure is  less  severe  compared  to  individuals  with  low self-awareness.

Self-Awareness Training

Based on findings from SAT, self-awareness training  strategies  have  been  developed  in  order  to reduce the negative influence of performance pressure.  Specifically,  self-awareness  training  strategies work off the assumption that individuals who train under heightened levels of self-focus learn to adapt and acclimate to the increased levels of self-awareness  brought  about  by  pressure.  For  example, research has shown that performers who train while being videotaped were more likely to become accustomed to increased self-focus and did not suffer  performance  decrements  under  high  pressure situations  compared  to  those  who  had  not  been trained to adapt to self-awareness. Self-awareness training strategies seek to replicate the types of situational factors (e.g., punishment and reward contingencies,  ego  relevance,  audience  presence,  and competition) found within the individual’s relevant performance  environment  that  lead  to  increased self-awareness.

Conclusion

Heightened self-awareness has been shown to lead to  a  number  of  behavioral  responses,  whether  it be  increased  motivation,  conformity,  or  awareness  of  bodily  states,  beliefs,  or  feelings.  In  this regard,  SAT  has  motivated  a  substantial  amount of research within social, cognitive, and SP, on topics such as choking under pressure, marketing and consumer behaviors, attribution, prosocial behavior, and self-assessment.

References:

  1. Baumeister, R. F. (1984). Choking under pressure: Self-consciousness and paradoxical effects of incentives on skillful performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 610–620.
  2. Baumeister, R. F., & Showers, C. J. (1986). A review of paradoxical performance effects: Choking under pressure in sports and mental tests. European Journal of Social Psychology, 16, 361–383.
  3. Duval, T. S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. New York: Academic Press.
  4. Gibbons, F. X. (1990). Self-attention and behavior: A review and theoretical update. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 23, 249–303.

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