The Basic Idea
In the age of working and learning remotely, we find ourselves regularly in online meetings. Have you noticed paying more attention to the way you carry yourself in a video call for a lecture or a meeting?
Perhaps you find yourself analyzing your posture, facial expressions, or fixing your hair. You may have noticed this only happens when your video is turned on and you can see yourself on the call.
When presented with a stimulus that makes us focus on ourselves, such as a video or a mirror, we are placed in a state of objective self-awareness. Objective self-awareness is a reflective state with attention focused on ourselves for social evaluation. This awareness leads us to judge our own behavior against our personal standards, as we use social evaluation to achieve correctness and consistency in our beliefs and actions.1
Objective self-awareness also results in the acknowledgment of our limitations and the disparity between our ideal version, and our current self.2 We experience this reflective state several times a day.
Objective self-awareness has everyday implications. It can be used beneficially for personal growth by identifying perceived weaknesses and traits that can be improved. However, individuals who are overly self-aware can also experience negative consequences such as high-stress levels or social anxiety disorders.
Theory, meet practice
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Objective self-awareness (OSA) theory: A theory formally defined by psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wickland, that explored self-focused processes in detail. This theory stated that we have two internal systems, with the self-system geared towards matching the behavior, attitude or traits displayed in the perceived standard system.3
Self-system: In OSA theory, the self-system is one of two internal systems that describes an individual’s current behavior, attitudes, or traits in relation to the standard system.
Standard system: In OSA theory, the standard system is one of two internal systems that describes an individual’s perceived ideal or social standard for their own behavior, attitudes, or traits.
Self-esteem: An individual’s overall perception of their personal worth, abilities, or value.
William James, an American psychologist, was an early contributor to a broad exploration of a variety of self-focused processes in his 1891 publication, The Principles of Psychology.4 One of James’s main areas of interest was how we feel about ourselves. James’s ideas touched on topics such as self-esteem, personal goals, and perceived accomplishments, which foreshadowed similar themes in modern experimental research in social psychology.
The specific idea of objective self-awareness was first formally articulated by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund in their 1972 publication, A Theory of Objective Self Awareness. This publication introduced a theory that distinguished two types of self-awareness3:
- Objective self-awareness: arises from our comparisons of attitudes, traits, behaviors, or looks between ourselves and others, or to perceived standards.
- Subjective self-awareness: arises from our observation and experience that we are the source of perceptions and behaviors.
Objective self-awareness has two main systems, self, and standard. The self-system is geared towards achieving the standard. Duval and Wicklund define “standards” as our mental representation of ‘correct’ behavior and traits.5 When there is a difference between the self and standard systems, a mental conflict emerges. This is an undesirable scenario, and we’re geared to either fix it or avoid it. We address this conflict by changing our behavior to match the relevant standards, or stopping the self-evaluation process in our head.
In their 1972 publication, Duval and Wicklund concluded that objective self-awareness was essentially a negative state, as they believed that the chances of at least one difference between the two systems were high.6 They initially believed there was always going to be something we desired to change about ourselves.
Following Duval and Wicklund’s work, a 1979 paper by Brett Steenbarger and David Aderman showed that the intensity of an individual’s mood can be determined by the difference between their current behavior and the ideal standard.7 Their findings stated that individuals who believed their current behavior would never reach the standard had a higher chance of experiencing intense negative effects.
Further studies showed that self-awareness is more complex than initially thought. Wicklund later modified the initial assumption, stating that self-awareness can also be a positive state when an individual’s self-system matches their standards.6
A 1987 publication by Tory Higgins further differentiated two types of standards: ought and ideal. Higgins stated that ought standards are influenced by the beliefs and standards of others. Ideal standards were related to an individual’s personal ambitions. Higgins went on to show that when an individual was self-aware, differences between the self and ought standard would result in feelings of agitation or anxiety. Differences between the self and ideal standard would lead to feelings of disappointment.8
An American psychologist, philosopher, and historian who is commonly referred to as a founder of modern psychology. James was an early contributor to broad ideas on self-focused processes. His work in the late 19th century foreshadowed the articulation of objective self-awareness and influenced modern experimental research in social psychology. At Harvard University, James was one of the very first educators to offer a psychology course in the United States.9
Thomas Shelley Duval
A social psychologist at the University of Southern California who was most known for his contributions to groundbreaking research on earthquake preparedness.10 Together with Robert Wicklund, Duval formally introduced the theory of objective self-awareness. Duval’s corresponding work in this field greatly influenced modern research on self-awareness and self-evaluation.
An American social psychologist who held positions as a professor in the United States, Germany, Italy and Norway.11 Together with Shelley Duval, Wicklund published a groundbreaking theory on objective self-awareness, which shaped modern understanding of the internal comparisons we make between ourselves and our perceived standards.
The introduction of Duval and Wicklund’s initial objective self-awareness theory has caused self-awareness research to evolve. Research has started to focus more on the interaction between self-awareness, causation, and action.6
This is evident in research by Paul Silvia, who explored the level of involvement an individual perceives to have in causing an event to materialize successfully, or unsuccessfully.12 The researcher’s findings showed that when individuals are more self-aware, there is a higher chance that the success is attributed to themselves. Individuals with high self-awareness are also said to have higher self-esteem than individuals with low self-awareness. Conversely, individuals with high self-awareness attributed the failure to themselves only when they believed it was realistically possible to change their behavior in the future.
Objective self-awareness also has important consequences in moral decision-making. A 1999 publication by Daniel Batson and his colleagues explored the effects of self-awareness and the salience of moral standards in influencing fair decision-making.13 The study asked participants to choose between giving a rewarding outcome to another person or themselves. Baston’s results showed that participants made the “fair” decision to give the other person the rewarding outcome 92% of the time, but only when the moral standard was salient and participants were made to feel self-aware.
Further research has supported Baston’s findings, suggesting that individuals are more likely to consider the point of view of others when they are made to feel self-aware.14
Despite the rapid development of self-awareness research since Duval and Wicklund’s introduction to objective self-awareness theory, there are still aspects of the concept which require more attention. A 2001 publication by Paul Silvia noted that research on objective self-awareness fails to address standards.6 Silvia argues that the original theory and corresponding research lacks an investigation into the way individuals internalize standards. He suggested the initial theory of objective self-awareness simplified standards into a single ideal target, ignoring the more realistic complexity of having various standards for a single behavior or trait.
Research on objective self-awareness also fails to explain how individuals react when there is a conflict in an individual’s standards.6 Consider standards on honesty and diplomacy. Honesty is important in building relationships, whilst disagreements can be avoided with diplomacy. However, when your friend asks for your opinion on their subpar artwork, attempting to satisfy both your standards on honesty and diplomacy creates a conflict. Silvia explains that objective self-awareness theory does not explore how we approach these situations.6
In our everyday lives, excessive objective self-awareness can lead to undesirable consequences such as evaluation anxiety, social anxiety disorder, or depression. Individuals who are overly self-aware may frequently feel nervous, distressed, and anxious, as they’re concerned with how they’re perceived by others. Researchers suggest that these individuals tend to experience automatic negative thoughts about themselves.6 These instinctive self-evaluation thoughts require intensive therapy to control.
Though research has shown that attempts to control these thoughts by changing affected individuals’ unrealistic standards can be successful, other researchers highlight that inhibiting the comparison process in the first place is challenging.
Objective self-awareness and culture
A 2020 study in Japan by Asuka Narita and Keiko Ishii showed that when participants are made to feel self-aware, cultural standards can influence their engagement in morally correct activities.15 Their study aimed to understand the effects of cultural influences in reducing positive self-evaluation in Japanese individuals.
The study was set up so that participants completed questionnaires on self-esteem and a quiz with rewards designed to maximize participants’ motivation to cheat. They performed these tasks whilst being presented with one of the following self-awareness stimuli: either a recording of their own voice was playing in the background, or they completed the questionnaire in front of a mirror.
Consistent with previous findings, the mirror stimulus had no effect on the participants’ self-esteem or cheating behaviors.15 However, the findings showed that voice recordings affected participants’ behavior. Participants’ self-esteem was lowered when they were listening to a recording of their own voices. Additionally, participants who were listening to their own voice recording suppressed cheating behaviors when completing the quiz.
Narita and Ishii pointed out that the lack of effect by the mirror stimulus can be explained by the way Japanese people tend to see themselves based on their own imagination of others’ perspectives.15 Narita and Ishii explain that Japanese people tend to be in a chronic state of objective self-awareness, as though someone is holding a mirror in front of them at all times.
Narita and Ishii suggested that participants could actively avoid looking in the mirror, however, they could not possibly cover their ears and avoid the recording of their own voice whilst performing the task.15 As a result, the researchers concluded that the self-awareness of Japanese individuals is further increased when they are presented with their own voice, causing them to display empathy and suppress cheating behaviors.
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- Duval, T. S., Silvia, P. J., & Lalwani, N. (2001). Self-awareness & causal attribution: A dual systems theory. Kluwer Academic.
- Objective self-awareness. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/objective-self-awareness
- Self-awareness theory. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/self-awareness-theory
- James, W. (1986). The principles of psychology (Ser. Great books of the western world, 53). Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self awareness (Ser. Social psychology). Academic Press.
- Paul, J. S., & T, S. D. (2001). Objective self-awareness theory: Recent progress and enduring problems. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 230–241. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327957PSPR0503_4
- Steenbarger, B. N., & Aderman, D. (1979). Objective self-awareness as a nonaversive state: Effect of anticipating discrepancy reduction. Journal of Personality, 47(2), 330–339. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1979.tb00206.x
- Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319–340. https://doi.org/10.1037//0033-295X.94.3.319
- William James. (n.d.). Department of Psychology. https://psychology.fas.harvard.edu/people/william-james#:~:text=In%201875%20James%20taught%20one,Stanley%20Hall%20in%201878
- Passings: Rita Polusky, Thomas Shelley Duval. (2002, March 14). USC News. https://news.usc.edu/3479/Passings-Rita-Polusky-Thomas-Shelley-Duvall/
- The gated island, with Robert Wicklund. (n.d.). Eagle Harbor Book Co. https://www.eagleharborbooks.com/event/gated-island-robert-wicklund#:~:text=%2D%2D%2D%2D-,Robert%20A
- Duval, T. S., & Silvia, P. J. (2002). Self-awareness, probability of improvement, and the self-serving bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(1), 49–61. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-35184.108.40.206
- Batson, C. D., Thompson, E. R., Seuferling, G., Whitney, H., & Strongman, J. A. (1999). Moral hypocrisy: Appearing moral to oneself without being so. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(3), 525–37.
- Gerace, A., Day, A., Casey, S., & Mohr, P. (2017). ‘I think, you think’: Understanding the importance of self-reflection to the taking of another person’s perspective. Journal of Relationships Research, 8. https://doi.org/10.1017/jrr.2017.8
- Narita, A., & Ishii, K. (2020). My voice capturing my attention to myself: The effects of objective self-awareness on Japanese people. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1596–1596. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01596