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Self-Consciousness, Private Vs. Public

Self-Consciousness, Private Vs. Public


Many organisms exhibit at least a rudimentary form of self-awareness by which they experience themselves as distinct from their environment. However, humans are capable of more profound and consequential forms of self-awareness that make possible uniquely human capacities such as introspection and self-reflection. Although all normal-functioning people are sometimes self-aware, some people are consistently aware of themselves. The tendency to consistently direct attention toward the self is referred to as self-consciousness.

According to Arnold Buss, to whom the seminal research on self-consciousness is attributed, the tendency to consistently direct attention toward the self is evidenced in the highly self-conscious person in the following ways:

  • An intense focus on behaviorpast, present, and future
  • A heightened sensitivity to privately experienced feelings
  • Recognition of positive and negative characteristics in oneself
  • A tendency to introspect
  • Imagining oneself
  • An awareness of how one appears to others
  • Concerns about others appraisals

A distinction typically is drawn between forms of self-consciousness corresponding to the two distinct vantage points from which people can direct attention toward themselves and the different aspects of the self experienced from those vantage points. Private self-consciousness is the tendency to focus on oneself from a personal vantage point and attend to aspects of the self that are not readily apparent to others, such as ones thoughts and feelings. Public self-consciousness is the tendency to focus on oneself from the perceived vantage point of real or imagined others and to attend to aspects of the self that are observable by others, such as facets of ones appearance and behavior.

The origins of the contemporary empirical literature on self-consciousness can be traced to the 1975 publication of the Self-Consciousness Scale by Allan Fenigstein, Michael F. Scheier, and Arnold H. Buss. Although the measure includes a set of items that reflect social anxiety, the primary use of the measure is for the item sets corresponding to the two major forms of self-consciousness. These items are used in virtually all empirical research on individual differences in the tendency to direct attention toward the self. Respondents indicate the extent of their agreement or disagreement with statements such as Im generally attentive to my inner feelings (private) and Im usually aware of my appearance (public). Composite scores on these item sets serve to index private and public self-consciousness. These scores are modestly correlated, suggesting that the tendency to focus on oneself from one vantage point is not necessarily accompanied by a tendency to focus on oneself from the other vantage point.

Psychometric analyses of the Self-Consciousness Scale have routinely identified a schism in the set of private self-consciousness items. Not only do the items reliably cluster in two sets, but scores on these item sets are not strongly related to each other and are differentially related to other variables. Internal state awareness is a rudimentary, nonevaluative form of private self-consciousness, typified by the statement, I reflect about myself a lot. Scores on internal state awareness are positively correlated with variables that indicate psychological health. Self-reflectiveness is an evaluative form of private self-consciousness, typified by the statement, Im constantly examining my motives. Scores on self-reflectiveness are positively correlated with a set of variables that, on the whole, indicate poor psychological health. In comprehensive models of self-awareness, internal state awareness is an instance of objective self-awareness, not unlike the rudimentary forms of self-awareness experienced by nonhuman species. Self-reflectiveness is an instance of symbolic self-awareness, the uniquely human form of self-awareness that makes self-evaluation possible and inevitable.

Research in which these forms of self-consciousness as measured by the Self-Consciousness Scale are studied in relation to other variables does not allow for an evaluation of the extent to which self-consciousness is a causal factor. That evaluation requires experimental research, which involves randomly assigning people to manipulated levels of self-consciousness. Indeed, it is now evident that laboratory manipulations of self-consciousness produce relations with other variables that mirror the relations evidenced when self-consciousness is measured using the Self-Consciousness Scale. Private self-consciousness has been manipulated in several ways. The most frequently used method involves exposing people to an image of their face in a small mirror. Other manipulations include having people listen to their own voice or their own heartbeat; instructing people to focus on themselves; and having people write a story in which they are the main character. Public self-consciousness has received less attention in experimental research but has been successfully manipulated by exposing people to an image of their body in a full-length mirror or having people watch themselves on video. Using these manipulations, people who have been induced to focus attention on themselves can be compared to people who have not been so induced on outcome variables of interest to evaluate the potential causal influence of self-consciousness on those variables.

Findings from research using the Self-Consciousness Scale and laboratory experiments in which self-consciousness is manipulated indicate that self-consciousness is implicated in a host of social attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Private self-consciousness is associated with better access to self-knowledge, and a greater interest in new self-knowledge regardless of whether that knowledge is positive. As a result, the self-knowledge of people high in private self-consciousness plays a more prominent role in their behavior. For instance, compared to people low in private self-consciousness, their attitudes are more predictive of their behavior; they are less likely to conform when their opinions are challenged; and they are more resistant to inaccurate suggestions about their own sensations. Private self-consciousness also is associated with emotional experience. Because introspection often leads to self-criticism, private self-consciousness can give rise to negative emotion. In addition, attention directed toward private self-aspects appears to intensify current emotional experiencepositive or negative.

Public self-consciousness is associated with phenomena that involve perceptions of how other people view the self. For instance, public self-consciousness is associated with a greater concern for appearance as evidenced by wearing more makeup and showing greater concern about balding. Compared to people low in public self-consciousness, people high in public self-consciousness are more likely to conform to group pressure; they are more accurate in their perceptions of how others perceive them; and they are more likely to experience aversive social emotions such as shyness and social anxiety.

Self-consciousness in its two formsprivate and publicis a fundamental human trait relevant to a broad range of attitudes, emotions, and behaviors of interest to social scientists. Because humans experience forms of self-consciousness that no other organism experiences, the study of self-consciousness addresses the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

SEE ALSO Attitudes; Conformity; Emotion; Psychometrics; Scales; Self-Awareness Theory; Self-Perception Theory; Self-Representation; Social Psychology; Trait Theory


Buss, Arnold. 2001. Psychological Dimensions of the Self. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Fenigstein, Allan, Michael F. Scheier, and Arnold H. Buss. 1975. Public and Private Self-Consciousness: Assessment and Theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 43 (4): 522527.

Sedikides, Constantine, and John J. Skowronski. 1997. The Symbolic Self in Evolutionary Context. Personality and Social Psychology Review 1 (1): 80102.

Rick H. Hoyle

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