Self-awareness is often defined in terms of an ability to engage in reflective awareness. According to most theorists, this requires certain types of cognitive abilities. Even in its most primitive form (visual self-recognition and the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror), self-awareness appears to be restricted to a small subset of animals including humans, chimpanzees, orangutans, and dolphins. In humans, this ability is not present at birth and only begins to appear around 12 to 18 months of age. Furthermore, there appears to be some support for George Herbert Mead’s claim that development of this ability requires a social rearing history in which the individual comes to recognize that he or she is distinct from others.
Beyond an ability to be reflectively aware of oneself, self-awareness is often associated with executive processes essential to self-regulation. Thus, the self-aware individual is often viewed as more controlled and intentional in his or her actions. Within social psychology, self-awareness is often associated with a theory of objective self-awareness by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund. According to this theory, situational cues that remind individuals of themselves (e.g., mirrors and video cameras) lead to attention focused on the self and away from the environment. The result is a self-aware state in which individuals are proposed to compare their current selves with ideal self-standards. Because the current or actual self is usually found to be lacking when compared with these standards, Duval and Wicklund proposed that self-awareness creates a negative emotional reaction. This negative affect then motivates the individual either (a) to regulate his or her behavior with respect to the standard in an effort to reduce the discrepancy, or (b) to avoid the self-aware state.
Although this theory has yielded a great deal of research in support of its basic tenets, several researchers noted that self-awareness inducing stimuli often motivate self-regulation without inducing self-criticism and negative affect. Charles Carver and Michael Scheier proposed an alternative theory of self-awareness that retained some features of the Duval and Wicklund model (e.g., self-focused attention), but argued that the comparison of the current self with an ideal standard is itself sufficient to motivate behavior without creating negative affect. Their model of self-awareness was inspired by other cybernetic models of behavior. Jay G. Hull and Alan Levy proposed a more drastic departure from the original Duval and Wicklund model. According to Hull and Levy, self-awareness inducing stimuli essentially act as self-symbolic primes that activate self-knowledge and cause the individual to process situations as personally relevant. Behavior follows as a consequence of focusing on the self-relevant aspects of the environment (as opposed to focusing inward and evaluating self).
Although social psychologists are typically interested in situationally manipulated self-awareness, personality researchers are interested in individual differences in tendency to become self-aware. To measure such differences, Alan Fenigstein, Michael Scheier, and Arnold Buss created the Self- Consciousness Scale. This personality inventory has three subscales: private self-consciousness, public self-consciousness, and social anxiety. Private self-consciousness focuses on the internal experience of self-awareness. It is measured with items such as “I’m always trying to figure myself out,” “I reflect about myself a lot,” and “I’m alert to changes in my mood.” Public self-consciousness focuses on the self-presentational motives sometimes associated with self-awareness and is measured with items such as “I’m concerned about the way I present myself,” “I’m concerned about what other people think of me,” and “I’m usually aware of my appearance.” Social anxiety focuses on negative emotions sometimes associated with being the focus of attention of others and is measured with items such as “I get embarrassed very easily,” “I feel anxious when I speak in front of a group,” and “Large groups make me nervous.” Although the social anxiety subscale captures the colloquial understanding of what it means to be self-conscious, the private and public self-consciousness scales assess individual differences in the psychological processes most often theorized to be associated with the self-aware state.
Given that both public and private self-consciousness measures focus on self, it is not surprising that they tend to be modestly correlated. Similarly, both public self-consciousness and social anxiety tend to be modestly correlated. Private self-consciousness tends not to be correlated with social anxiety. Recently, some researchers have argued that private self-consciousness is itself associated with two subcomponents: internal state awareness characterized by items such as “I am alert to changes in my mood,” and reflectiveness characterized by items such as “I reflect about myself a lot.” This issue has yet to be resolved.
With respect to individual differences in self-regulation, the components of the Self-Consciousness Scale are often compared with those of the Self-Monitoring Scale introduced by Mark Snyder.
Individuals high in self-monitoring are motivated by self-presentational concerns, whereas individuals low in self-monitoring are motivated by personal concerns. Perhaps the best way to think about the relation of these individual differences is that high self-monitors are both high in public self-consciousness and low in private self-consciousness. Conversely, low self-monitors are both low in public self-consciousness and high in private self-consciousness.
The effects of individual differences in private self-consciousness have often been found to parallel the effects of situational manipulations of self-awareness (e.g., the presence or absence of a mirror). Similarly, the effects of individual differences in public self-consciousness have often been found to parallel the effects of situational manipulations that remind the individual of their appearance to others (e.g., video cameras). As a consequence, researchers often distinguish between situational manipulations of private and public self-awareness along the same lines that they distinguish individual differences of private and public self-consciousness.
Research has regularly demonstrated that both situational manipulations of self-awareness and individual differences in self-consciousness are associated with increased self-regulation. Manipulations of private self-awareness and individual differences in private self-consciousness have been associated with increased attitude-behavior consistency, increased emotional reactivity to success and failure feedback, and increased self-regulation with respect to standards of appropriate conduct (e.g., increased helping when helping is defined as situationally appropriate, and decreased aggression when aggression is defined as situationally inappropriate). Private self-awareness has also been associated with an increased motivation to avoid self-awareness when it is personally painful (e.g., following failure). Indeed, evidence shows that the latter motivation to avoid self-awareness can lead individuals to consume drugs such as alcohol that can lower self-awareness.
Manipulations of public self-awareness and individual differences in public self-consciousness have been associated with increased self-presentation and impression management. For example, individuals high in public self-consciousness demonstrate a greater emphasis on social rather than personal identities, a concern over body image (body weight, clothing, makeup use), and an increased concern with the perspective of others. Although this focus on self-presentational concerns can be useful in gaining the approval of others, it can also lead to somewhat self-destructive impression management strategies (e.g., increased self-handicapping) and even paranoia regarding others’ intentions.
Whereas most research on this topic has investigated the effects of manipulations that heighten self-awareness, some research has examined manipulations that lower self-awareness. In addition to alcohol use mentioned previously, these include deindividuation manipulations that render the individual indistinguishable from others (e.g., through anonymity, being in a crowd, darkness, or wearing masks). Such manipulations typically increase disinhibited behavior that does not conform to social and personal norms. One popular account of how this occurs is that deindividuation manipulations lower self-awareness. Paralleling the previous arguments, researchers have distinguished both public and private components of the deindividuated experience. Situations that foster anonymity are thought to reduce aspects of public self-awareness whereas situations that reduce the individual’s ability to distinguish themselves from others are thought to reduce aspects of private self-awareness.
In summary, at its most basic, self-awareness is associated with a reflective awareness of self. Within social psychology, self-awareness is typically viewed as involving cognitive and affective processes essential to self-regulation. A variety of theories have been offered that describe these processes. Both social psychologists and personality psychologists have actively pursued research on this topic. As a consequence, research has investigated the effects of both situational manipulations (of self-awareness) and individual differences (in self-consciousness). Within each of these approaches, researchers usually distinguish between more personal, private aspects of self-awareness and more public, self-presentational aspects of self-awareness. This has been true both for variables associated with increased self-awareness as well as variables related to deindividuation and decreased self-awareness. Because of its relevance to self-regulation of a variety of different types of behavior, research and theory on self-awareness has integrated topics as disparate as helping, aggression, and self-presentation and bridged traditional divisions between social and personality psychology.
- Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1981). Attention and self-regulation: A control theory approach to human behavior. New York: Springer.
- Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. New York: Academic Press.
- Fenigstein, A., Scheier, M. F., & Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and private self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43, 522-527.
- Hull, J. G., & Levy, A. S. (1979). The organizational functions of the self: An alternative to the Duval and Wicklund model of self-awareness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 756-768.