The self in self-regulation


Exploring the ideal self at 4 years

This research line explores the behavioural impact of self-awareness.

Duval and Wicklund’s (1972) ‘theory of objective self-awareness’ was one of the earliest theories to formalise the functional nature of explicit self-consciousness in adults. According to this theory, any stimulus which reminds one of the self as an object (for example, mirrors, audiences, cameras) will induce self-focused attention, which in turn prompts self-evaluation and self-evaluative emotion (pride, shams, guilt). Those judging themselves to fall short of ideal standards will either adjust their behavior to conform, or withdraw from the evaluation-inducing situation. In this way, cognitive and affective equilibrium regarding the self is maintained. Moreover, as our ideal standards are socially learnt, any resulting self-regulation is likely to be socially adaptive.

In development, basic empathetic responses are thought to first prompt prosociality. However, relatively little is known about the role of self-consciousness and self-evaluative emotions in motivating prosocial self-regulation.



My PhD research included an investigation of whether manipulating levels of self-focus in 3- and 4-year-old children might influence prosocial self-control. Heightened self-focus was induced using a large mirror, and decreased by having the children wear a disguise. Preschoolers were less likely to cheat in a game and more likely to share when the mirror image was present relative to when they were in disguise. These results confirm that self-focus has a socially adaptive regulatory function from an early age. For further detail see:Ross, J., Anderson, J.R., & Campbell, R.N. (2011). Situational self-awareness influences 3- and 4-year-olds’ self-regulation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 108, 126-138.

To complement this finding, I have recently completed a project aimed at elucidating the role of thoughts and feelings about self and other in early prosociality. This research involved observations of 2- to 5-year-old’s empathy, cognitive perspective taking, self-evaluative emotion and prosocial behaviour, and is currently in the process of publication. For example, Ross, J. (2017). You and me: Investigating the role of self-evaluative emotion in preschool prosociality. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 155, 67-83. reports that children’s experiences of pride and resilience to shame predicts the likelihood of their helping. These self-conscious emotions, together with empathy, also predict the likelihood of children making amends when they have caused another person harm. This supports the idea that young children’s prosocial choices may be partially driven by the affective drive to maintain an “ideal” self.

Maihri Cameron, PhD candidate

In 2018, PhD student Maihri Cameron  joined the lab, and is currently using data from the millennium cohort study to explore the potential developmental links between theory of mind, self-regulation and prosocial behaviour.