What do the Ways in which human Beings can become ‘Self Conscious’ Tell Us About the Nature of Selfhood

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Tangney and Miller (1996) say that self-conscious emotions such as shame, embarrassment and guilt “involve a heightened sense of awareness and evaluation of the self”. They move on to suggest that as well as being self-conscious, they should also be considered ‘other-conscious’, as they often involve the feeling of exposure and a ‘heightened concern for others’ judgements of the self’. If this is true, it suggests that the nature of selfhood may be directly linked to social interactions. Before this can be explored, however, it is important to understand the meaning of the term ‘self-conscious’.

In this context when we say self-conscious we mean (as Tangney and Miller suggested) any situation in which a person is brought to be more aware of themselves. Examples of this include Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment and Pride. In each of these emotions, the subject is lead to consider their own actions or even their own identity in response to a violation of social norms or moral beliefs. Historically there has been some argument over whether such emotions (especially Shame, Guilt and Embarrassment) can be considered distinct or if they are merely affective aspects of one larger emotional response.

What has now been broadly recognised is that although similar, they are structurally distinct (Niedenthal et al, 1994). The three emotions previously mentioned are best to focus on as they have received by far the most study and therefore are the best understood. Embarrassment is generally considered the least ‘severe’ of the three. It focuses on a particular act (often accidental) that involves a minor violation of social norms, temporarily altering others’ perceptions of the self.

Guilt, although similar, involves a more deep-rooted sense of responsibility (usually for a more deliberate act) that has caused damage or in some way harmed another. In psychoanalytic terms it involves a violation of the superego’s moral structure, and generally leads to a need to resolve the issue and make some sort of reparation to the effected party. It is generally suggested that Guilt and embarrassment are transient emotions as they do not reflect on the core identity of the subject, but rather focus of one act that has been ill conceived or ill-executed.

In contrast, Shame is said to be a more deep-rooted emotion, which involves the feeling of the core identity of the subject being ‘exposed’ as flawed or unsatisfactory. It is obvious that these self-conscious emotions are directly linked to the interrelated affective and cognitive aspects of Selfhood (self esteem and the self concept respectively). Their effect is to make a person feel like they have in some way besmirched their credentials. The effects noticed in the case of having too much or too little self-consciousness further highlight this relationship (Brown, 1998).

Instances of too little self-consciousness have been shown to lead to deindividuation which in turn can lead to behaviour that lacks moral constraint and is said to be ‘out of character’ for the subject. The anonymity that instances such as ‘mobs’ provide has been often seen to allow immersion into a group and results in rioting and vandalism. In a more focussed example, Diener and Wallbom (1976) conducted a study that showed people who are less self-conscious are far more likely to cheat in a test situation.

Too much self-consciousness can also have negative effects on the individual. Behaviours such as ‘choking’ (failing in a common or well rehearsed task due to over-concentration and anxiety) have been shown to result from this, as the anxiety is produced by self-consciousness over public expectations and the resultant opinions. It has even been suggested that many self-destructive behaviours (such as alcoholism, substance abuse and even suicide) are an attempt to escape from a constant feeling of self-consciousness.

If the level of self-consciousness in an individual can shape his behaviours and motivations so fundamentally it is fair to propose that self conscious emotions are actually the affective component of selfhood. So with this understanding of self-consciousness and how it is links strongly with selfhood, what can be learned about selfhood from what is known of self-consciousness? The most striking fact seems to be that selfhood is fundamentally linked to social interaction. The nature of this link is less clear. The effects that the self-conscious emotions have are in relation to social performance.

Guilt and embarrassment are linked to failure in performing a specific task and looking incompetent to others as a result. Shame is linked to a more general failure of the self and the result it has on public opinion. Therefore it seems that self-esteem is a fundamental necessity of selfhood. People are always striving to maintain a positive self-image, and failure to do so results in negative cognitive feedback. Moreover, any failure to adhere to social norms or moral rules (which are themselves relative to the society one lives in) damages this self-esteem.

In one sense then, selfhood is essentially a way for behaviour to be internally regulated. Shott (1979) examined this angle extensively when she studied the self-conscious emotions from a Symbolic Interactionist viewpoint. Her (quite extreme) view claims that emotions such as those that cause self-consciousness are “.. so central to social control that society as we know it would not exist without them. ” The self-conscious emotions are seen as acts of role taking, in which the subject puts themselves in the position of his peers (or any observer) and considers what they would infer from their behaviour.

They involve consideration of how the self is being presented to others (or the ‘generalised other’) and are directed towards the self. If this is the case then threat of damage to perception of the self by others is an affective mediator of social behaviour. Moreover, this mediation is enacted to facilitate social control by punishing (internally) any deviation away from socially accepted standards of behaviour. There is also an adaptive component to selfhood, as each of the emotions serves its function under different circumstances (Schlenker, 1980).

Embarrassment is the result of violations of social convention, shame and guilt are involved with more fundamental personal failures that have the potential to harm others. Baumeister & Leary (1995) suggest that these emotions developed through evolution to alert the self to the threat of exclusion and motivate appropriate remedial responses. Embarrassment and guilt motivate the individual to take reparative actions and deal with the interpersonal harm they have caused. In so doing the individual will minimise or even negate any long-term damage that may have been done to their social status and presentation.

Shame elicits a different behavioural response, causing physical withdrawal and mental blocking or distraction from the negative stimuli (e. g. behaviour). Tangney and Miller (1996) suggest that this is a more primitive emotion that serves an adaptive function at earlier stages of individual development (such as infancy and childhood). What they fail to consider is that this may actually be a useful response in circumstances where the negative interpersonal actions cannot be immediately remedied or where the subject would benefit from a period of social withdrawal to fully consider what has happened and what should happen.

By affecting the self to the point where it needs to take remedial action, self control becomes the basis for ensuring individual’s behaviour complies with social convention, even when no external sanctions are present. In this case the way human beings become self-conscious shows us that a basic aspect of selfhood lies in social interaction. Part of its nature is to mediate social interaction in order to maintain a positive presentation to others and so optimise an individual’s functioning and opportunities within a community.

The affective component of selfhood (self-esteem) is actually reliant on successful social conduct to function properly. Weigant (1983) gave further credence to this hypothesis by pointing out that the self-conscious emotions are also invoked by an imbalance of power in a social situation. If an individual has or enforces excessive power (such as a parent chastising a child too harshly) then guilt is felt and the suffer attempts to make amends. In the same vein shame can be the result of claiming or receiving excessive power, as well as being the victim of another who is employing excessive power.

The subsequent withdrawal removes the person from the situation and in the later example can induce guilt in the antagonist. Selfhood is then also concerned with maintaining a social equilibrium, an individual knows his place in society and is motivated to act accordingly. The second thing that can be learned about selfhood from studying the action of becoming self-conscious is that it is most likely not inherent, but rather developed in relation to a number of external moderators. This ties in strongly with the first point as this means that among other variables selfhood develops in relation to the society in which the individual lives.

Tangney (1990) showed that there are individual differences in the ways and extents to which people can feel the self-conscious emotions (in particular she focussed on shame and guilt). Her aim was to create a reliable and valid measure of ‘adaptive and maladaptive interpersonal and intrapersonal processes’. The result was the creation of the “Self-Conscious Affect and Attribution Inventory” (SCAAI), which assesses characteristic affective, cognitive and behavioural responses associated with shame and guilt.

This measure was proved valid and subsequently showed that all individuals experience the self-conscious emotions to varying extents. Harvey et al (1998) went as far as suggesting that the patterns of an individual’s susceptibility to and frequency of the self-conscious emotions can reliably identify the belief systems of that person. He identified the four major belief systems of Cynicism, Extrapersonalism, Egoism and Contextualism and then ran a series of tests testing the level and type of self-conscious emotions evoked in the participants in a number of different contexts.

The result was that the patterns of emotional experience (which was evoked and to what extent in each context) were significantly consistent within the belief systems and significantly distinct between them. The interim conclusion that can be made is that belief systems are a fundamental cognitive aspect of selfhood. They are a definition of the ‘rules’ and ethics that the self conforms to. Therefore it can be suggested that the ways in which ‘humans become self-conscious’ can actually be employed to understand the belief system of the individual and therefore one of the basic aspects of selfhood.

What this, and the work on the SCAAI by Tangney highlight is the individual differences that exist in selfhood. These differences have been given a number of sources by various researches. Harvey et al (1997) placed the emphasis on parenting practices. They administered the ‘Dimensions of Conscience Questionnaire (DCQ) and the ‘Parenting Practices Questionnaire’ (PPQ) and then examined the individual and join interaction effects between the results for each individual.

They found that three factors of parenting (Empathy Induction, Competency Interdependence and Psychological Coercion) were significantly (and positively) correlated with experiences of self-consciousness. If we continue along the line that Self-conscious emotions are the affective aspect of selfhood, then we can learn from them that selfhood seems to develop with significant influence from parental figures and more precisely their treatment of an individual. Ausubel (1955) also made a strong case regarding the irregularity of self-consciousness between individuals.

He pointed out that the development of the self-conscious emotions is highly context dependant. For example children who have grown up in ‘gang culture’ in which they have received far more guiding influence from their peer group than their parental figures experience shame far more than they experience guilt. This could suggest that they recognise a strong sense of social responsibility and a need to maintain their social status, but a far less defined morality regarding interpersonal relations.

Ausubel also pointed out that different cultures experience emotions such as shame and guilt to very different extents. For example Japanese culture seems to minimise the role of guilt and emphasise the role of shame (Benedict, 1946) other cultures (such as the Navaho Indian tribe, the Samoans and the Balinese) have been observed to be totally devoid of some of the self-conscious emotions that Judaic-Christian western cultures are prone to.

If, as described earlier, each of these emotions are effective components of different processes within selfhood (such as the difference observed in the evocation and behavioural moderation of shame and guilt) then this is important. These cultural differences may well signify a fundamental difference in the concept of selfhood between cultures. This is compliant with the idea of parental style effecting selfhood, as the culture an individual is raised in has been repeatedly shown to have a strong developmental influence.

This is also confluent with the idea that selfhood serves a social function, as the difference between cultures may be indicative of differences in social structure and norms regarding interpersonal interactions. Thus it can be surmised from what we know of the way humans become self-conscious that selfhood is shaped to some extent by the development of he individual. The final important thing that can be learned of selfhood from the study of self-consciousness is that it is multifaceted in construction.

We are already aware that selfhood involves affective and cognitive components, but it also has a number of layers. Lutwak et al (1998) make a distinction in both the way the various forms of self-consciousness are processed and the way they affect the ‘identity’ of the individual. Again focussing of Shame and Guilt, their study concludes that Shame involves a ‘diffuse processing style’ (self relevant information and self exploration are avoided) and affects an individual’s ‘social identity’ (the public image, presented through roles and relationships).

Guilt, in contrast, involves an ‘information-oriented processing style’ (with self exploration of personal issues) and affects an individual’s ‘personal identity’ (conceptualising one’s self as unique). In this case, it would seem that the style in which each emotion interacts with the self is distinct, but moreover the level of the self they interact with (personal versus social identity) are also different. It seems that selfhood involves categorisation of information about social roles and norms, as well as more fundamental personal information such as core identity and morality.

These levels can then be accessed as needed, depending on context, and are in turn affected to different extents depending on the context. In conclusion it seems that there is a lot that can be learned about the nature of selfhood from the ways in which humans can become self-conscious. It seems that selfhood is largely socially based, or at least has a strong social function. It seems to either regulate or be regulated by social interactions.

It motivates the individual to effectively perform their role in society. There is strong evidence that selfhood is not innate, but rather develops in relation to the circumstances of the individual. Selfhood is multifaceted and is adaptive. What is important to note however is that these conclusions are by no means adequate to fully understand the nature of selfhood. Much research is needed to comprehensively explore the various aspects of selfhood that self-consciousness highlights.

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