Psychologists on self-awareness

March 3, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Education, Evolutionary Psychology, Nature

This quote on self-awareness, from the book Willpower, describes some psychologists’ perspectives on self-awareness. I like its perspective. It asks how self-awareness could have evolved and notes the importance of the behavior the mental ability motivates

By the way, I recommend the book for its content and engaging writing style, although I prefer the advice and perspective in my willpower series. Read both. (Edit: and my Empathy Gap series. Read all three.)

In the 1970s, social psychologists studying subjects in self-conscious situations began to understand why self-awareness developed in humans… When people were placed in front of a mirror, or told that their actions were being filmed, they consistently changed their behavior. These self-conscious people worked harder at laboratory tasks. They gave more valid answers to questionnaires (meaning that their answered jibed more closely with their actual behavior). They were more consistent with their values.

One pattern in particular stood out. A person might notice a table and think nothing more than, Oh, there’s a table. But the self was rarely noticed in such a neutral way. Whenever people focused on themselves, they seemed to compare what they saw with some sort of idea of what they should be like. A person who looked in the mirror usually didn’t stop at, Oh, that’s me. Rather, the person was more likely to think, My hair is a mess, or This shirt looks good on me, or I should remember to stand up straight, or, inevitably, Have I gained weight? Self-awareness always seemed to involve comparing the self to these ideas of what one might, or should, or could, be.

The two psychologists came up with a word for these ideas: standards. Initially the assumption was that the standards were usually ideals — notions of what would constitute perfection. This led to the conclusion that self-awareness would nearly always be unpleasant because the self is never perfect. [Experimenters Robert] Wickland and [Shelley] Duval maintained that view for several years, arguing that self-awareness is inherently unpleasant. It sounded plausible in some ways — particularly if you are trying to understand teenagers’ angst — but it seemed odd from an evolutionary standpoint. Why would our ancestors have kept holding themselves to impossible standards? What was the evolutionary advantage of feeling bad? Moreover, the notion that self-awareness is inherently unpleasant didn’t jibe with the enjoyment derived by so many nonadolescents when thinking about themselves or looking in the mirror. Further research showed that people can make themselves feel good by comparing themselves to the “average person” — who we all like to think is inferior to ourselves. We also can often get pleasure by comparing our current selves to our past selves, because we generally think we’re improving with age (even if our bodies may be the worse for wear).

Still even if people mostly compare themselves to easy standard that make them feel good, that doesn’t explain the evolution of human self-awareness. Nature doesn’t really care whether you feel good. It selects for traits that improve survival and reproduction. What good is self-awareness for that? The best answer came from the psychologists Charles Carver and Michael Sheier, who arrived at a vital insight: self-awareness evolved because it helps self-regulation [the term in psychology for willpower].

The book then describes some experiments showing connections between self-awareness and self-regulation. The whole book describes the value of self-regulation.

Read my weekly newsletter

On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

1 response to “Psychologists on self-awareness

  1. Pingback: Hard projects will be harder than you expect. How to prepare. | Joshua Spodek

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter