Self-awareness is the capacity to take oneself as the object of thought—people can think, act, and experience, and they can also think about what they are thinking, doing, and experiencing. In social psychology, the study of self-awareness is traced to Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund’s (1972) landmark theory of self-awareness. Duval and Wicklund proposed that, at a given moment, people can focus attention on the self or on the external environment. Focusing on the self enables self-evaluation. When self-focused, people compare the self with standards of correctness that specify how the self ought to think, feel, and behave. The process of comparing the self with standards allows people to change their behavior and to experience pride and dissatisfaction with the self. Self-awareness is thus a major mechanism of self-control.
Research since the 1970s has strongly supported self-awareness theory (Duval and Silvia 2001). When people focus attention on the self, they compare the self with standards, try harder to meet standards, and show stronger emotional responses to meeting or failing to meet a standard. The tendency to change the self to match a standard depends on other variables, particularly perceptions of how hard it will be to attain the standard. Remarkably, many experiments have shown that when people are not self-focused, their actions are often unrelated to their personal standards—self-awareness is needed for people to reduce disparities between their actions and their ideals.
Self-awareness theory was enriched by new research methods. According to the theory, anything that makes people focus attention on the self will increase self-awareness. Researchers accomplish this by placing people in front of large mirrors, videotaping them, having people listen to recordings of their voices, or making people feel like they stick out. Momentary levels of self-awareness are measured by people’s use of self-referential words and pronouns and by how quickly people recognize self-relevant information.
Self-awareness theory remains a fruitful and controversial theory. One new direction is the application of self-awareness theory to clinical disorders involving negative self-evaluation (e.g., depression) and excessive self-consciousness (e.g., social anxiety). One controversy, reviewed by Paul Silvia and Guido Gendolla (2001), is whether self-awareness enables accurate judgments of the self. Many researchers have proposed that self-awareness creates clearer perceptions of internal states, emotions, and traits. Other researchers, however, have noted that the self-concept is fluid, complex, and contextual—it is not a static object that can simply be apprehended and examined. Ironically, by making some aspects of the self especially salient, self-awareness may exaggerate and bias judgments of what the self is like.