Self-Awareness Theory

In social psychology, the self-awareness theory was developed by Duval and Wicklund in 1972. The theory demonstrates that a person can be self-focused or other-focused. This happens generally when someone is conscious of himself and it turns out negatively. The person will evaluate and be judgemental about themself. It interferes with how a person will perceive their surroundings and themself. 

The system consists of the self and standards of correctness. These standards arise from the interactions of the external environment and are defined by how we want to be:  how we act, think, and sense. They dictate how one should behave to achieve that perfect representation of oneself and these norms are deeply rooted in our minds (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).

When a discrepancy is found between the self and these standards, negative effects arise (Duval et al., 1992), and a person will be in an uncomfortable state. To reduce it, two behavioral routes were proposed:

  1. The first one is to reduce the discrepancy between the self and standards: The person will interiorize, focus their attention on themself, and compare their current behavior to the standards that have been defined when they are focused on correcting how they think and behave;
  2. The second option is “avoidance”: The person will distance themself from the source of this uncomfortable state and the discrepancy between the self and the standards will decrease; they will be less self-aware.

Duval and Wicklund (1973) contended that people tend to attribute the cause of an event to the stimulus that captures their attention. When individuals encountered a mirror, they were more inclined to see themselves as the causal agents of their actions instead of controlled subjects. This self-attribution phenomenon has also been observed in individuals with heightened self-awareness.

In social psychology, self-awareness plays a vital role in human development, relationships, and mental well-being. It is a foundation for various psychological processes and outcomes, such as self-regulation, self-esteem, empathy, and social interactions. It encompasses understanding and being conscious of one's internal thoughts, emotions, and experiences, as well as recognizing how one is perceived by others in the external world.

Further research by Fenigstein et al. (1975) has demonstrated that there are people who constantly focus on themselves which differentiates from being only self-aware. Indeed, while self-awareness is a state when an object or a situation reminds them of their existence, self-consciousness is the tendency to guide their attention constantly toward themself. Consciousness is a broader concept that encompasses various states of awareness, including self-awareness itself.

Two aspects arise from self-consciousness: public and private. Previous research on the manipulation of self-awareness through the use of a mirror, an audience, a T.V, or a tape recorder did not try to go deeper but were the beginnings of this conduct investigation (Duval & Wicklund, 1972, 1973; Ickes et al., 1973; Wicklund, 1975). In fact, while the mirror increases the attention toward the person, an audience or a recorder guides the attention of the person toward their public self; he/she becomes the object of social attention, and the person thinks about the image they give off to the audience.

  • Private self-consciousness is more of an internalization; the person will adjust his behavior based on internal standards. This occurs when one is alone and sees aspects of himself that don't please him.
  • Public self-consciousness is based on the image perceived by others: the person adjusts his behavior based on external references. This happens when there is an audience or the fact that one is aware of the other’s perspective. The self becomes a social object.

The usefulness of both public and private self-consciousness has been demonstrated in laboratory scenarios concerning social behavior. As mentioned before, self-awareness plays a major role in the comprehension of human behavior, emotion, and cognition. In the psychological field, it was used for clinical disorders involving negative self-evaluation, such as depression, which is linked to private self-consciousness, and social anxiety, which is public self-consciousness.

In the advertising field, self-awareness was used in the research of Zhu and Chang (2016) to demonstrate the impact of personalized advertising on the perceptions of privacy invasion, self-awareness, and continuous use intentions. Increasing self-awareness of a person has an important part in keeping the person’s intention with personalized advertisements. For example, only having personalized messages by mentioning the name can increase their self-awareness (Pham et al., 2010). A higher relevance of personalized advertisement leads to greater self-awareness for the customer. Because personalized advertising seeks to address the unique interests and preferences of each person, it leads to the inevitable cultivation of self-awareness, making it a crucial aspect of the process of personalization.


Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671-684.

Duval, T. S., Duval, V. H., & Mulilis, J. P. (1992). Effects of self-focus, discrepancy between self and standard, and outcome expectancy favorability on the tendency to match self to standard or to withdraw. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(2), 340.

Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self awareness. Academic Press.

Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1973). Effects of objective self-awareness on attribution of causality. Journal of experimental social Psychology, 9(1), 17-31.

Fenigstein, A., Scheier, M. F., & Buss, A. H. (1975). Public and private self-consciousness: Assessment and theory. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 43(4), 522-527.

Ickes, W. J., Wicklund, R. A., & Ferris, C. B. (1973). Objective self awareness and self esteem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(3), 202-219.

Pham, M. T., Goukens, C., Lehmann, D. R., & Stuart, J. A. (2010). Shaping customer satisfaction through self-awareness cues. Journal of Marketing Research, 47(5), 920-932.

Wicklund, R. A. (1975). Objective self-awareness. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 8, pp. 233-275). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Zhu, Y. Q., & Chang, J. H. (2016). The key role of relevance in personalized advertisement: Examining its impact on perceptions of privacy invasion, self-awareness, and continuous use intentions. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 442-447.