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.
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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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Duval, T. S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. New York: Academic Press.
- Gibbons, F. X. (1990). Self-attention and behavior: A review and theoretical update. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 23, 249–303.