Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Self-focused attention and emotion

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Self-focused attention and emotion:
What is the relationship between self-focused attention on emotion?


The process of attention is complex, especially when it is directed towards the self. Self-focused attention is not a single construct but rather an umbrella term that includes diverse aspects of self-awareness functioning in different contexts. It is important to identify the various forms that self-focus may take. Mor & Winquist (2002) argue that depending on how attention is focused individuals can experience different emotions, which can be beneficial or adverse. For instance, individuals who tend to focus on private aspects of themselves are more vulnerable to depression than are those who self-focus on public aspects of themselves. In contrast, positive self-focus carries different health outcomes in comparison to negative self-focus. In general, clinically depressed or anxious individuals are significantly more likely to be adversely influenced by self-focus[factual?]. There also appears to be a gender difference in the way men and women manage the pitfalls of negative self-focus, with women less able to avoid harmful rumination than men[factual?]. The complex and varying nature of self-focused attention requires an equally varied approach to its study.

Self-focused attention is originally derived from psychosocial theory and an analyse[spelling?] of self-evaluation (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). Attention that is self-focused can manifest itself in three distinct ways. Firstly, it can focus on individual perceptual events. Secondly, it can focus on an increased awareness of individuals present or past behaviour. To form an attitude of how oneself behaves and interacts externally[grammar?]. Thirdly, a person can be aware of the more permanent instances of information that form one’s beliefs and bias (Ingram, 1990). To simplify, self-focused attention is an awareness of different forms of self-referencing information that is contrasted with external information perceived from the environment.

Self-awareness theory[edit]

Self-awareness is the collaboration of external attention toward the environment and internal attention toward the self. As awareness develops, people perceive themselves as others would and they become the subject of their own conscious attention. An individual’s awareness develops if a conscious effort is made to confront the stimulus that reminds them of self. Duval & Wicklund (1972) present an important distinction between two different types of self-awareness: objective and subjective. Objective self-awareness focuses on the person as an object in the environment. Whereas, subjective self-awareness focuses attention externally towards the environment and away from the individual. Despite its name, subjective awareness is noted as relatively unaware and the opposite of objective awareness. People primarily function in an unaware subjective state. In order for someone to transition to objective awareness, something must trigger that change. Stimuli such as mirrors, audio and video recordings are known to trigger self-awareness. Yet other people are also powerful initiators. If someone is aware that they are the main subject of another’s attention it can be a powerful self-awareness trigger (Spurr & Stopa, 2002).

Self-focused attention has to influence outside variables such as outcome expectancy in order to be harmful. Awareness that is directed at one’s own beliefs and behaviours, can make it more likely to identify discrepancies between current behaviour and ideal standards (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). Identification of such discrepancies allows individuals to change current behaviour, so it is more in line with their ideal standard. Thus, self-awareness can help contribute to aligning a person’s actions with their beliefs. Scheier & Carver (1977) reported that self-focused attention predicates a reduction of intrapersonal difference and an enhanced emotional experience. Self-focused attention can increase the power and presence of emotion, as well as increasing the importance of the absence of these emotions. Their study showed that both manipulated self-awareness and dispositional self-consciousness can enhance how an individual experiences emotion. This evidence suggests that a self-aware person can choose to direct their attention to a variety of different aspects, which will produce varying behavioural outcomes.

In 2012 self-awareness theory was expanded by Carver & Scheier (2012) to include differing perspectives on the implications of self-focused attention. One main difference between the theories is the assumption that self-focused attention is always negative and harmful. Carver & Scheier argue that self-focused attention allows for objective awareness of a person’s current progress towards a goal. The subject will then act to alter current behaviour so it closer to the ideal standard, which is seen as a requirement for goal completion. Individuals are able to both identify discrepancies and to take actions to reduce them. Another difference between the theories is that negative affect only occurs when there is a perceived low probability of reducing the behavioural discrepancy and achieving the goal. In this case, the result is withdrawal and an increase in the behavioural difference. However, if the discrepancy is perceived as manageable than negative effect is avoided, and the individual is more likely to improve their behaviour.

What motivates self-focused attention?[edit]

In most cases, the literature on self-focus analyses the consequences rather than motivators yet there are some studies exploring different self-focus stimuli. Wood, Saltzberg & Goldsamt (1990) suggest mood to be responsible for inducing self-focused attention, specifically the feelings that follow success and failure. Self-focus can be stimulated by objects that serve as reminders of self, such as video, pictures, audio recordings, and mirrors. Most sources see the mirror as the gold standard for the manipulation of self-focused attention. Also, often cited are video recordings, but they have caused anxiety from individuals worrying over how others might view and judge the recording later (Carver & Scheier, 1978). Naturalistic stimuli have also been utilised to induce self-focus such as eye contact, the presence of an audience and physical activity (Wood, Saltzberg & Goldsamt, 1990). In spite of the different motivators, the literature reflects the significance of self-focused attention to be in its relationship with negative affect (harmful states of psychological well-being).

Self-focused attention relationship with negative affect (anxiety)[edit]

[Provide more detail]

When does negative affect occur?[edit]

Most individuals hold an ideal standard of behaviour for how they ought to be, self-focus compares the person’s current level of functioning to this aspirational standard,[grammar?] this is known as self-evaluation. Negative affect occurs when the perceived evaluation is either unexpected or unfulfilling, due to a discrepancy between current and ideal behaviour (Mor & Winquist, 2002). Negative affect signifies a discrepancy and can be experienced alongside self-focused attention Mor & Winquist (2002) suggests that the onset and increased intensity of negative affect is adaptive. Meaning that the subject may supply the stimulus through their self-focus in order for the negative affect to be maintained[grammar?]. Negative affect can follow if this maintenance fails, and discrepancies are present. However, self-focused attention also has the potential for reducing these discrepancies by using our emotions as instigators of positive behaviours and beliefs.

Self-focused attention eliciting a fear response[edit]

Self-focus can elicit a fear of what the future may hold in anxious individuals. Attention can change as a result of fear. Initially, the importance of a goal is increased by self-focus. But if anxiety arises during the goal’s pursuit, self-focus may increase the strength of anxiety instead (Carver, Blaney & Scheier, 1979). This usually causes an individual to self-evaluate their perceived likelihood of achieving success. Perceived competency then decides withdrawal or persistence of the task. Behaviour is then indirectly impacted by self-focus based on the individual’s expectations of their success. Carver, Blaney & Scheier, (1979) reports that participants who lacked confidence withdrew when their self-focus increased. However, confident subjects who were also aware of their fear tried to divert their internal self-focus to their external goal. Because of this external focus confident individuals showed increased effort to match their current behaviour with the ideal standard. Whereas, doubtful participants reported an increased internal focus of their inadequacy, inhibiting their focus on the ideal behavioural goal[grammar?]. This suggests that anxious individuals may be too pre-occupied with fear to prioritise the external goal.

Self-focused attention impact on anxiety[edit]

Successful social interaction requires a balance of self and external focus. The consensus is that high socially anxious people focus too much on themselves and exhibit little external focus. Their self-focus leads to a self-evaluation of personal fears, flaws and behaviours. The literature shows a causal relationship between enhanced self-focused attention and increased negative effect. Negative affect occurs only when the self-evaluation and comparison are negative. The opposite is also true where self-focus following success or on positive aspect decreases negative affect (Mor & Winquist, 2002). The validity of this relationship is supported in twelve studies that were reviewed by Bögels & Mansell (2004). Six studies confirm that the relationship between self-focused attention and social anxiety manifest in highly anxious individuals, and two other studies found a relationship exists independently of the subject’s level of social anxiety. However, it seems that the majority of the literature specifies the harmful effects of self-focused attention to be specific to highly socially anxious people. Carver et al. (1983) found an interaction where self-focus was beneficial for low anxious participants but detrimental for high anxious participants. High anxiety led to low expectations of success and eventual withdrawal. Whereas, self-focus improved the performance of participants with low levels of anxiety.

People differ in the way they direct their attention. The disposition to focus attention inward is also known as self-consciousness and can be measured by the Self-Consciousness Scale, which distinguishes between private and public self-consciousness (Fenigstein, Scheier & Buss, 1975). Public self-consciousness as defined by Fenigstein, Scheier & Buss shares many similarities with self-focused and socially anxious individuals. Note that self-focus does not imply social anxiety one can self-focus without it being harmful. Yet, public self-consciousness is shown to cause people to evaluate themselves and become apprehensive. It seems that public self-consciousness impacts the focus of attention and when present in a social context can precede social anxiety.

Wells, A., & Matthews, G. (1996) show a relationship between levels of emotional arousal and self-focused attention. Attentional processes seem to be essential in maintaining emotional disorders, as they inhibit the individual from processing information that isn’t in line with their fears. This supports the thesis that negative effect may be enhanced by self-focus whether or not the subject is prone to social anxiety. Ingram, R. E. (1990) found similar impacts on depressed individuals and alcohol abusers. Yet it seems that self-focused attention presents itself in different ways between different disorders. Many individuals report using alcohol to reduce their self-focused thoughts. Depressed individuals of all types dwell in self-absorbed states and engage in constant self-criticism (Teasdale, Segal & Williams, 1995). However, people who disposed toward social anxiety experience increased self-focused attention when in the presence of others. This can come in the form of sudden objective self-awareness where they view themselves as others would, except through a negative lens.

Reducing anxiety through externally focused attention[edit]

Just as internal focus causes anxiety, external focus has the potential to reduce anxiety. The work of Wells & Papageorgiou (1998) supports that when an individual’s attention is directed externally their ability to correct maladaptive beliefs and improve their anxiety increases. This is because externally focused attention on social information and cues weakens current negative beliefs. Their perception of their negative self-image is no longer held at the centre of attention. Also, as an individual’s attention shifts so do their awareness and intensity of their own anxiety symptoms. The authors note that the transfer of attention externally may possess unique and helpful qualities that allow an individual to develop a more useful self-perception.

Self-focused attention relationship with negative affect (depression)[edit]

The relationship between depression and self-awareness is an interesting area of ongoing research. It appears that excessive self-focus is harmful, especially for depressed individuals who ruminate. People’s life satisfaction is dependent on their everyday experience. Yet, it also seems to be significantly influenced by how individuals choose to think about these experiences (Strack, Schwarz & Gschneidinger, 1985). This is supported by Lyubomirsky & Nolen-Hoeksema (1995) who reported that self-focused rumination causes negative interpretations and expectations of self-relating events. As well as rating positive events as more likely to occur to others[grammar?]. These responses can maintain and worsen feelings of depression. Due to the overall negative effect on thinking, problem-solving capabilities can be impaired thereby further reducing problem-focused coping. For individuals who ruminate their problems are not only exacerbated, but they also perceive fewer if any solutions to them. These findings suggest that rumination is not only linked to depression but also too pessimistic expectations, of which there are many well documented harmful consequences.

Gender difference in rumination and negative affect[edit]

According to research, men and women adopt different coping strategies to manage stress. Women are more likely to ruminate about the causes and consequences of stressful events, whilst men are more likely to avoid thinking about the problem and may instead engage in activities that distract them from the source of concern. This difference in coping style leads to a higher rate of depression in women as rumination tends to exacerbate and extend depressed states (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987). While men’s inclination for distraction reduces and weakens their depressive states[grammar?]. Similar behaviours are present among depressed people who are more likely than non-depressed people to adopt self-focused coping strategies (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987). Self-focus directly after stressful events or failures is a near-universal human trait. However, some people are better at interrupting that focus and distracting themselves. Their ability to curtail their focus protects them from its harmful results. In contrast, depressed individuals continue their focus, which leaves them with intense and continuous stress (Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, Stone & Rachmiel, 1990).

Negative expectations and problem-focused coping[edit]

Depressed individuals are also less likely to practice problem-focused coping than non-depressed individuals, who may choose to act promptly to mitigate the stress. Wood, Saltzberg, Neale, Stone & Rachmiel, (1990) investigate how people, who are both distressed and self-focused, are more likely to develop coping strategies that perpetuate their cycle of suffering. Their results are in line with past research that shows a strong relationship between self-focused attention and depressive mood. The authors report that self-focused attention impacts problem-focused coping in people who are prone to depression, rumination and pessimistic expectation.

Initial failures can lead to pessimistic expectations of future attempts in depressed individuals. Self-focused attention may then decrease the likeliness of that person changing their behaviour to meet an ideal standard. Gibbons, Smith, Ingram, Pearce, Brehm & Schroeder (1985) reported that depressed individuals are more accurate in self-assessment. In comparison to non-depressed people, they are more likely to have realistic and accurate perceptions of their ability in social and learning situations. This suggests that depressed individuals are less likely to overestimate their abilities. Although this may seem like a positive quality, it is more advantageous for individuals to overestimate their competency as the consequences for underestimation are more severe. Even if perceptions of depressed subjects are more accurate, the overall outcome is often worse for them.

When a discrepancy between a behavioural standard and an ideal exists, self-focus acts to change the personal behaviour so that their standard is brought into line with the ideal. This goal may be out of reach of those individuals who expect the outcome to be negative or the change to be too difficult to make, which will then result in their withdrawal from the process of change. These negative expectations become more habitual in those who have experienced repeated failures or where a failure in one task influences a failure in another. This cascade of adverse outcomes may result in a sense of “hopelessness” which leads to withdrawal and defeat (Carver, Blaney & Scheier, 1979).


Throughout this book chapter the emotional implications of self-focused attention have been analysed. Many of the conclusions expressed here reflect the findings in a significant part of the literature. It still remains that self-focused attentions[grammar?] role in emotion is complex. Yet, it is clear that negative affect is significantly influenced by self-focus. Although the way self-focus impacted negative affect differed greatly between disorders and individuals[grammar?]. Certain individuals were more susceptible to the effects of depression and anxiety, especially when exacerbated by self-focus. Whilst, others remained resilient due to possessing different approaches of directing attention[grammar?]. Self-focus manifested in many ways such as internal focus, external focus, expectations, self-evaluations, rumination and problem-focused coping. Many of which were present in both disorders, however their effects and outcomes differed greatly[grammar?].


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