Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Self-consciousness and emotion

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Self-consciousness and emotion:
Can self-consciousness be considered self-awareness?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Self-consciousness is an emotional response that most people experience through out their lives. When an adolescent girl cuts her hair short to experiment with a new look, she may feel self-conscious. The drastic change in her appearance may cause others to notice and comment on the decision. Depending on how she perceives their response, she may feel a variety of self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame or guilt. Research into self-consciousness is limited, so it is difficult to say what is a healthy amount of feeling self-conscious. A person who is overly self-conscious can become shy or develop social anxiety. In contrast, a person who experiences little self-conscious feelings may experience difficulty maintaining social connections as a result of breaking social taboos (Brinthaupt & Lipka, 1992). An example of this is a person who is highly hubris can come across as narcissistic and unpleasant by others.

Self-awareness is a philosophical concept that philosophers first proposed to help explain the idea of the self. It is the feeling a person experiences when they are aware of themselves as an individual, separate from others around them. It has been debated as to whether or not self-consciousness and self-awareness are the same concept. Some theorists have argued that self-consciousness is an extension of self-awareness. Others have suggested that self-consciousness is a physiological experience while self-awareness is a theoretical concept that does not exist (Canfield, 1990).

This chapter discusses the emotions associated with feeling self-conscious and how they effect a person's behaviour. It examines the similarities and differences between self-consciousness and self-awareness. It discusses the need for psychological research into self-consciousness to help improve the mental well-being for people with social anxieties.

What is self-consciousness?[edit | edit source]

Self-consciousness is to be self-aware to the point of concern for a personal or public trait in a social context. Brinthaupt and Lipka (1992) suggest that self-consciousness is distinct from self-awareness because self-consciousness is a person's fixation with themselves, while self-awareness is a philosophical state of being. Self-consciousness can trigger negative emotions such as shame or guilt, caused by an individual drawing unwanted attention to themselves in a negative way (Brinthaupt & Lipka, 1992).

Psychologists separate self-consciousness into two aspects, public self-consciousness and private self-consciousness. Public self-consciousness can cause a person to monitor and regulate their behaviour. It is the process when a person is aware of themselves being viewed by others. Private self-consciousness is when a person examines themselves and reflects on their personal identity and feelings (Scheier, 1980).

What is self-awareness?[edit | edit source]

There are two contrasting ideas for the definition of self awareness. The first idea defines self-awareness as the psychological state in which a person identifies themselves as the object of attention (Franzoi, 1996). This definition is closely related to the definition of self-consciousness, and suggests that self-awareness and self-consciousness are the same. The second idea defines self-awareness as the psychological state, in which people are aware of themselves as an individual identity. It is an early step in the development of the idea of the self. When a person becomes self-aware, they are consciously aware of their traits, feelings and behaviours (Crisp & Turner, 2010).

Philosophers such as Albert Hofstadter believed that the transition from no self-awareness to self-awareness occurs through reflected awareness. Others have suggested that people are self-aware from birth, but as infants we are unable to remember this experience and therefore feel as we develop the ability in early childhood. Regardless of how individuals become self aware, the concept of self-awareness leads a person to developing the idea of self (Canfield, 1990).

Some philosophers have suggested the concept of dual self-awareness. This theory suggests that self-awareness has two aspects. The first is a person's ability to be aware of the self. This idea of self-awareness suggests that self-consciousness and self-awareness are the same. The second layer is the person's conscious recognition of the self as being self-aware. Canfield, (1990) argued that this concept does not exist because the theory of dual self-awareness suggests a theory of dual self-consciousness[say what?]. He argued that by the logic of dual self-awareness, there could be an infinite number of layers of self-awareness. In this case a person would be aware, they were aware of the self within an infinitely occurring cycle (Canfield, 1990).

What are emotions?[edit | edit source]

Emotions are difficult to define. As individuals, we understand that emotions are something we feel as an everyday occurrence. We are able to identify emotions such as happiness and anger because they are prevalent to life experiences. William James and Carle Lange proposed the James-Lange theory of emotion, which suggested that emotions are the result of the body reacting to external or environmental stimuli (Goldstein & Naglieri, 2011). The self-conscious emotions, embarrassment, shame, guilt and pride demonstrate the James-Lange theory as they are a direct physiological response to an event with environmental stimuli.

Kant's theory of self-consciousness[edit | edit source]

There is limited research and theories available, examining self-consciousness. Kant's philosophical theory of self-consciousness is the only documented theory to attempt to explain self-consciousness[factual?]. The principle theme of Kant's theory of self-consciousness, is that self-consciousness is a combination of all cognitive functioning. This theory suggests that self-consciousness is a physiological phenomenon that humans acquire during development. This is distinct from the idea that self-consciousness is an innate ability people are born with or a theoretical concept that does not exist in physical form (Kitcher, 1999).

The self-conscious emotions[edit | edit source]

Self-conscious emotions are used to consciously and unconsciously motivate and regulate a person's thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Self-conscious emotions moderate a person's behaviour in social situations to be morally appropriate. They motivate a person's need for success in their personal and professional branches of life. Most people fear social shame and desire social pride, therefore they constantly manage their behaviour to avoid losing social status. Psychological research into self-conscious emotions is limited when compared to research into other emotions such as sadness, joy and fear (Tracy & Robins, 2004). There are four emotions that people experience when they feel self-conscious; embarrassment, shame, guilt and pride (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). Charles Darwin first identified embarrassment, shame and guilt in relation to self-consciousness, in his book 'Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals' (Darwin, 1965). These three emotions are identified as negative emotions. When a person experiences embarrassment, shame or guilt, they feel uncomfortable. Embarrassment, shame or guilt are triggered when a person breaks a social convention, moral code, or commits a taboo. These emotions are difficult to research and analyse because in many cases they are experienced simultaneously (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). Researchers have attempted to separate the three emotions by surveying participants about which emotion they experienced in specific scenarios (Keltner & Buswell, 1996). Pride can be a positive emotion or a negative emotion, depending on cultural beliefs and practices. A person feels pride when they are able to credit themselves for a positive result in their life. This result reinforces an individual's positive self-concept (Kalat & Shiota, 2007).

There are four emotions that people experience when they feel self-conscious, embarrassment, shame, guilt and pride. Embarrassment, shame and guilt are identified as negative emotions. These emotions are uncomfortable to experience and are triggered by a person breaking a social convention. Pride can be a positive emotion or a negative emotion, depending on cultural beliefs and practices.[factual?]

Past research has found that self-conscious emotions such as shame and guilt can produce a wide variety of outcomes. For example, early research into guilt, found that feelings of guilt produce many positive social behaviours, including care giving and altruism[factual?]. This occurs because the person experiences a need to repair the social and personal damage done by the behaviour that triggered feelings of guilt. Research examining the effects of shame and social stigma has found that shame is associated with depression and chronic anger. Shame has been found to have a negative effect on physical and mental health. For example, victims who experienced physical abuse and men who were diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), suffered poorer emotional and physical health, if they felt ashamed of the stigma associated with these events (Tracy & Robins, 2004).

Some researchers[factual?] have identified three additional emotions that are related to self-consciousness. These emotions are jealousy, empathy, and hubris. Jealousy is a negative emotion a person experiences when they feel resentment towards another person (DeSteno, Valdesolo, & Bartlett, 2006). Hubris is when a person feels excessive pride from a positive result in their life. It is identified as a negative emotion because it is seen as a socially unappealing personality trait (Lewis, 2011). Empathy occurs when a person is able to understand on an intellectual level, another person's emotions, thoughts or opinions. Unlike jealousy and hubris, empathy is a positive emotion and is seen as socially desirable (Davis, 1983).

Embarrassment[edit | edit source]

Embarrassment is an emotion that was ignored by psychological research into emotions until recently. There was a debate over whether or not embarrassment should be considered an emotion. Keltner and Buswell, (1997) conducted a study to establish whether or not embarrassment was a distinct emotion, separate from shame and guilt. The results suggested that embarrassment should be considered a separate emotion. They applied Ekman's (1992) 9 characteristics of distinct emotion to determine its status as an emotion (Ekman, 1992). Feelings of embarrassment were found to be distinct from feelings of sadness, fear, shame and amusement because of the distinct physiological response embarrassment evokes. When a person feels embarrassed their heart rate decelerates, and their faces becomes reddened, forming a blush. This contrasts with the elevated response in the sympathetic nervous system which occurs when a person feels scared or amused (Keltner and Buswell, 1997).

Embarrassment is arguably the most distinctive emotion between embarrassment, shame and guilt. It emerges in early childhood when children first develop the idea of the self. At this stage in development, a child becomes aware that they are the subject of another person's attention. Being the subject of another person's attention can trigger the feeling of embarrassment (Lewis, 2011). Embarrassment typically occurs when a person breaks a known or unknown social convention in public or in rarer cases, in private. This behaviour draws accidental attention and causes a person to adjust their behaviour. The person responds with friendly and submissive behaviour, designed to satisfy social expectations (Kalat & Shiota, 2007).

Keltner and Buswell (1996) surveyed university students in the U.S.A. and found several common experiences that were associated with feelings of embarrassment. These situations include being teased by others, physical clumsiness such as tripping over or spilling food on the ground, breach of privacy such as walking in on a roommate naked or accidentally being seen naked by a friend, dressing inappropriately for a social occasion, either wearing formal clothes to a casual event or casual clothes to a formal event, and experiencing a cognitive error such as forgetting a classmate's name or friend's birthday. Keltner and Buswell also found conspicuousness (being the center of attention for a group) created feelings of embarrassment (Keltner and Buswell, 1996). Conspicuous is important to note because in many cases a person is the center of attention for a positive event rather a negative behaviour. An example of this is when a person feels embarrassed by their friends and family singing happy birthday to them in a public place. This demonstrates that a person does not need to do break a moral code to experience embarrassment (Kalat & Shiota, 2007).

Blushing[edit | edit source]

Darwin once referred to blushing as 'the most human of all expressions'.

When a person feels self-conscious their face may turn bright red involuntarily, this is known as blushing. Blushing is a physiological effect unique to humans. Blushing usually occurs when a person draws unwanted attention to themselves. A person who feels embarrassed or guilty may blush and avoid eye contact with others. Many people develop a fear of blushing which can cause social anxiety and fear of social situations. Researchers have found that there is a relationship between social anxiety, feeling self-conscious through unwanted attention and frequent blushing (Bögels, Alberts, & Jung, 1996).

Figure 1. Example of a girl blushing


Shame[edit | edit source]

Shame is incorrectly used interchangeably with guilt, however psychological and physiological research into these self-conscious emotions has demonstrated that they are distinct from one another (Tangney, 1990). A person feels shame when they perceive their behaviour as being inappropriate in a specific event. They interpret this experience as proof of their inadequacy in their self when compared to others around them. Shame is a painful, unpleasant emotion that motivates people to hide away or disappear. On reflection of a shameful event, a person may attempt to reinterpret the cause of the shame, or repress the experience (Lewis, 2011). Keltner and Buswell, (1996) found that university students experienced shame when they performed poorly on an assessment, failed to the meet their own personal expectations or the expectations of someone they cared for, hurt someone's feelings or lied (Keltner & Buswell, 1996).

Figure 2. An example of shame

Guilt[edit | edit source]

Guilt is a negative emotion that a person experiences when they feel they have failed or breached a social convention. It is distinct from shame because when a person feels guilty, they fixate on how to repair the situation and avoid making the same mistake again rather than attempting to repress the experience or reinterpret the situation (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). Feelings of guilt can be problematic for a person's mental health because it is an emotion that focuses on the self negatively. When a person has difficulty resolving these feelings, they can become racked with guilt. Feelings of guilt are resolved through taking action to correct the problem that has occurred. Corrective action can be taken towards the self, or towards others to resolve the situation (Lewis, 2011). Keltner and Buswell, (1996) found several experiences associated with feelings of guilt. These experiences included, neglecting a friend or loved one, breaking a diet, cheating on a romantic partner, lying, or failing to perform one's duties such as failing a class due to not studying for the final exam (Keltner & Buswell, 1996).

Pride[edit | edit source]

Pride is distinct from most other self-conscious emotions because in many cultures it is identified as a positive emotion. A person feels pride when they take credit for an achievement or positive result in their life. This positive result reaffirms their understanding of themselves in their self-concept. Research into self-conscious emotions has been focused in the U.S. where pride is perceived as a positive and healthy emotion when experienced in moderation. However in other cultures, pride is viewed as an unhealthy, negative emotion that should be avoided, similar to embarrassment, guilt, and shame (Kalat & Shiota, 2007). A study conducted on American and Chinese participants found distinct differences between pride. American participants reported that they would feel more proud if they were accepted into a prestigious university, than if their child was accepted into a prestigious university. By contrast, Chinese participants reported that they would feel more proud if their child was accepted into a prestigious university, rather than themselves. This example shows how cultural differences can effect self-conscious emotions. American culture emphasises individuality and achieving better than the group. Chinese culture emphasises community responsibilities and putting the group before the individual (Stipek, 1998). The distinct differences culture can have on self-conscious emotions, means that how and why people feel self-conscious can be culturally specific.

Jealousy[edit | edit source]

Jealousy, sometimes known as 'the green eyed monster', is a negative self-conscious emotion that occurs when a person feels resentment towards another person for their advantages or success. It first develops in early childhood around the age of 2 (Lewis, 2011). Jealousy appears to be intrinsic to social life for all humans. It has been found across all known cultures and through out history. There are many psychological and physical benefits from experiencing close interpersonal relationships. Jealousy is the emotional response a person experiences when a rival appears to threaten one of these close relationships. Unlike other self-conscious emotions, jealousy is quite subjective. When a person feels jealous they can experience a variety of emotions including anger, anxiety, sadness, hurt, and betrayal (DeSteno, Valdesolo, & Bartlett, 2006).

Figure 3. 'The Jealous Husband', oil painting by Cornelius Krieghoff

Empathy[edit | edit source]

Empathy is broadly defined as the emotional response by one person, to the observed experiences of another. Empathy is a positive self-conscious emotion (Davis, 1983). Researchers have widely accepted that empathy is a major source for pro social and altruistic behaviour (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). Empathy is encouraged and admired in most societies because it enables a person to understand others and build interpersonal relationships with them. Empathy is a combination of cognitive intellect and an emotional response to an experience (Davis, 1983).

Hubris[edit | edit source]

Hubris is defined as excessive pride or excessive self-confidence that evokes a negative emotional response from society. It is seen as an unappealing personality trait that should be discouraged. Hubris is distinct from pride because unlike pride which focuses on one success and the self, hubris celebrates the self's global success. A person who feels hubris, feels that overall they are extremely successful rather than identifying parts of their lives where they have been successful. People who experience extreme feelings of hubris are often identified by others as narcissistic personalities (Lewis, 2011).

Mini quiz[edit | edit source]


What are the two aspects of Empathy?

Cognitive Intelligence and Physiological Response.
Cognitive Intelligence and Emotional Response.
Physiological Response and Emotional Response.
There is only one. Emotional Response.
There is only one. Cognitive Intelligence.

Can self-consciousness be considered self-awareness?[edit | edit source]

Self-awareness is often defined as the concept of a person watching themselves and monitoring their behaviour. This is also the common definition of self-consciousness. The theory that self-awareness is manifested in self-consciousness has been argued by philosophers such as John Locke. However, Locke suggested that self-awareness was both aware of the self, and aware it was aware of the self (Canfield, 1990). This idea is theoretical, but it is not a physical experience like self-consciousness. It is impossible to say that self-consciousness is acute self-awareness because researchers have only found physiological evidence of self-consciousness. Self-awareness remains theoretical.

Self-consciousness is dependent on the self demonstrating three cognitive elements. The first is how a person perceives themselves. The second is the understanding that others are capable of perceiving the individual. The third is the person's imagination attempting to determine how others are perceiving themselves. This pattern of thinking causes a person to monitor their behaviour to be socially appropriate for fear of losing social status (Canfield, 1990). An example of this is the problem across Western cultures of women feeling overly self-conscious of their appearance. It has been well researched that women are more objectified physically than men. A study conducted by Weiderman, (2000), found that young women who were overly self-conscious of their bodies, were more likely to experience inhibition during sexual activities, which lead to poorer sexual health (Weiderman 1990).

Limitations in research of self-consciousness[edit | edit source]

Psychological research into self-consciousness is severely limited. Feeling overly self-conscious can be problematic for a person because they can develop social anxiety. Humans are innately social creatures. We depend on social contact to maintain our mental health and develop interpersonal relationships (Bögels, Alberts, & Jung, 1996). By contrast, a person who experiences little self-consciousness may be unable to perceive social contracts and risk alienating themselves from others. If psychological research examined self-conscious behaviour and self-conscious emotions in more detail, researchers may be able to improve the quality of life for people who suffer social anxiety. Adolescents often experience depression, which can be caused by low self-esteem from feeling self-conscious. If researchers were able to learn how to manage levels of self-consciousness, they could potentially improve mental well-being.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Philosophers have suggested that self-consciousness and self-awareness are the same concept. In some cases, they argued that self-consciousness was an acute example of self-awareness. This chapter suggests that self-consciousness is a physiological and emotional response to external stimulus while self-awareness is a theoretical concept that cannot be measured, proved or disproved. Self-consciousness can produce emotions such as shame, pride, guilt or embarrassment which then causes a person to moderate their behaviour. Research into these emotions is well documented. Some theorists have stated that self-awareness can also cause a person to moderate their behaviour. This statement is dependent on which definition of self-awareness a person uses for understanding self-awareness. The limited research available for self-consciousness is problematic for dealing for issues of social anxiety. Hopefully this discussion encourages researchers to pursue studies into self-consciousness, explore its development in early childhood and establish clear benefits and drawbacks of self-consciousness.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bögels, S. M., Alberts, M., & Jung, P. J. (1996). Self-consciousness, self-focused attention, blushing propensity and fear of blushing. Personality and Individual Differences, 21(4), 573-581.

Canfield, J. V. (1990). The Looking-Glass Self. New York, NY: Praeger Publishers.

Crisp, R. J. & Turner, R. N. (2010). Essential social psychology. London: Sage Publications.

Darwin, C. (1965). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davis, M. F. (1983). Measuring Individual Differences in Empathy: Evidence for a Multidimensional Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113-126.

DeSteno, D., Valdesolo, P. & Bartlett, M. Y. (2006) Jealousy and the Threatened Self: Getting to the Heart of the Green-Eyed Monster. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(4), 626-641.

Ekman, P. (1992). An Argument for Basic Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 169-200.

Franzoi, S. L. (1996). Social Psychology. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Brown & Benchmark.

Goldstein, S. & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development. New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media LLC.

Kalat, J. W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotions. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wasworth.

Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. N. (1997). Embarrassment: Its Distinct Form and Appeasement Functions. Psychological Bulletin, 122(3), 250-270.

Keltner, D., & Buswell, B. (1996). Evidence for the distinctness of embarrassment, shame, and guilt: A study of recalled antecedents and facial expressions of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 10, 155-172.

Kitcher, P. (1999). Kant of Self-Consciousness. The Philosophical Review, 108(3), 345-386.

Lewis, M. (2011). The Self-Conscious Emotions. Encyclopedia of Early Child Development, United States of America: CEECD.

Scheier, M. F. (1980). Effects of public and private self-consciousness on the public expression of personal beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(3), 514-521.

Stipek, D. (1998). Differences between Americans and Chinese in the Circumstances Evoking Pride, Shame, and Guilt. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(5), 616-629.

Tangney, J. P. (1990). Assessing Individual Differences in Proneness to Shame and Guilt: Development of the Self-Conscious Affect and Attribution Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(1), 102-111.

Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2004). Putting the Self Into Self-Conscious Emotions: A Theoretical Model. Psychology Inquiry, 15(2), 103-125.

Weiderman, M. W. (2000) Women's Body Image Self-Consciousness During Physical Intimacy With a Partner. The Journal of Sex Research, 37(1), 60-68.

External links[edit | edit source]