Understanding the Psychology of Self-Consciousness
Have you ever seen a dog stand in front of a mirror? Sometimes they bark at themselves or stand there with a puzzled look. Believe it or not, the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror is pretty advanced, and dogs have yet to demonstrate that they can do it. Some psychologists argue that it is a uniquely human ability, although at least one study has shown that teenage chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror.
When we’ve developed a sense of self-awareness, we’ve achieved a state of self-consciousness. Why “developed?” Aren’t we aware of ourselves at birth? Actually, it may take up to five or six months for an infant to develop anything even remotely resembling self-consciousness.
The mirror technique is one of the tools that psychologists have used to test infants’ and toddlers’ levels of self-consciousness. The simplest form of this test involves just setting an infant down in front of a mirror and watching her response. Some researchers have shown that 5- to 6-month-olds will reach out and touch the mirror image, suggesting they think it’s another baby, or at least different from them.
In 1979, Michael Lewis and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn conducted a sophisticated version of the mirror test. They applied some blush to the noses of two sets of children — 15- to 17-month-olds and 18- to 24-month-olds. The idea: If the kids look in the mirror and see the blush on their nose, they’ll touch it or try to remove it in some way. However, this requires the child to realize that the person in the mirror is himself. So what happened? Just a few of the 15- to 17-month-olds actually reached up and touched their noses, but the vast majority of the 18- to 24-month-old children did it. So, these children must have recognized themselves in the mirror.
Self-consciousness and self-awareness are the same thing. Being self-conscious just means being aware of oneself. But too much of anything can be bad. Usually when someone says she is “self-conscious,” she means that she is aware of some flaw. This is not the type of self-consciousness dealt with here.
- Body awareness
- Private self-consciousness
- Public self-consciousness
Becoming aware of your body
Body-awareness begins with a simple question: Where do I physically begin, and where do physically I stop? Remember the movie Malice with Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman, and Alec Baldwin? In one scene, Bill and Alec are sitting in bar, and Alec asks Bill to name the part of his body that is most expendable. In other words, Alec wants Bill to choose the part of his body that he could lose without taking a severe blow to his sense of self. If you’ve seen the movie, you know why he asks this creepy question — it’s foreshadowing.
What part of your body is most important to your sense of self? It may sound strange, but being able to tell the difference between your body and someone else’s body is crucial to self-consciousness. Think about newborns. The physical connection between a child and a breast-feeding mother is undeniable, and a child’s realization of a sense of difference, or separateness, from the mother only develops in time.
Keeping it private
How well do you know yourself? Are you always trying to figure yourself out? The internal focus on your thoughts, feelings, motivations, and overall sense of self is called your private self-consciousness. When you “look within,” you’re privately self-conscious. But if you “look within” a little too much, you’re “privately spaced-out.”
Showing it off
Say you leave for work in the morning, and when you get outside to your car, you realize that you’d forgotten something. So, you do the “big finger snap” and the “one-eye squint,” make an about-face, and go back inside. What are these things? They sound like something from a Seinfeld episode, but we all know what they are — those behaviors that you do when you forget something. Why do you make these gestures? If you didn’t, you’d look silly walking to your car and then walking back again for no apparent reason. Why do you need a reason? Someone could be watching you!
This is the invisible audience phenomenon — a sense that we’re “on stage” when we’re in public and that people are watching us. Teenagers always seem to be “on stage.” If they trip over a crack in the sidewalk, they turn bright red and run off giggling. This is an example of our public self-consciousness — our sense of ourselves in the presence of others, our public image.
The most noticeable aspect of our public self-consciousness is our awareness and focus on appearances. We don’t spend billions of dollars a year on nice clothes, gym memberships, and diets for nothing. Our public self-consciousness is a big part of who we are and how we see ourselves.