The social consequences of the self

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 research has shown that 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.

I have also found evidence to suggest that preschooler’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. You can read more here: Ross, J. (2017). You and me: Investigating the role of self-evaluative emotion in preschool prosociality. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 155, 67-83. 

Mini me lab PhD graduate Dr Yaro Goncharova has recently found that contrary to the reputation of the terrible twos, the development of the multidimensional self as measured by Stipek et al’s (1990) Self-concept Questionnaire longitudinally predicts an increase in toddler’s prosocial behavior. This result confirms that ‘objective self-awareness’ may drive developmental increases in prosociality in early childhood. Watch this space for the paper!

Thinking about the social consequences of self-regulation, PhD student Maihri Cameron  is currently using data from the millennium cohort study to explore the potential developmental links between parenting, self-regulation, prosocial behaviour and peer relationships.