What Is Self-awareness?

Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to reconcile oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. Self-awareness, though similar to sentience in concept, includes the experience of the self, and has been argued as implicit to the hard problem of consciousness.

The basis of personal identity

A philosophical view

“I think, therefore I exist, as a thing that thinks.”

“…And as I observed that this truth ‘I think, therefore I am’ (Cogito ergo sum) was so certain and of such evidence …I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the Philosophy I was in search.”

“…In the statement ‘I think, therefore I am’ … I see very clearly that to think it is necessary to be, I concluded that I might take, as a general rule, the principle, that all the things which we very clearly and distinctly conceive are true…”[1][2]

Cogito, ergo sum

“I think, therefore I am”.René Descartes

While reading Descartes, Locke began to relish the great ideas of philosophy and the scientific method. On one occasion, while in a meeting with friends, the question of the “limits of human understanding” arose. He spent almost twenty years of his life on the subject until the publication of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a great chapter in the History of Philosophy.[3]

John Locke’s chapter XXVII “On Identity and Diversity” in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) has been said to be one of the first modern conceptualizations of consciousness as the repeated self-identification of oneself, through which moral responsibility could be attributed to the subject—and therefore punishment and guiltiness justified, as critics such as Nietzsche would point out, affirming “…the psychology of conscience is not ‘the voice of God in man’; it is the instinct of cruelty … expressed, for the first time, as one of the oldest and most indispensable elements in the foundation of culture.”[4][5][6] John Locke does not use the terms self-awareness or self-consciousness though.[7]

According to Locke, personal identity (the self) “depends on consciousness, not on substance” nor on the soul. We are the same person to the extent that we are conscious of our past and future thoughts and actions in the same way as we are conscious of our present thoughts and actions. If consciousness is this “thought” which doubles all thoughts, then personal identity is only founded on the repeated act of consciousness: “This may show us wherein personal identity consists: not in the identity of substance, but … in the identity of consciousness”. For example, one may claim to be a reincarnation of Plato, therefore having the same soul. However, one would be the same person as Plato only if one had the same consciousness of Plato’s thoughts and actions that he himself did. Therefore, self-identity is not based on the soul. One soul may have various personalities.

Self-identity is not founded either on the body or the substance, argues Locke, as the substance may change while the person remains the same: “animal identity is preserved in identity of life, and not of substance”, as the body of the animal grows and changes during its life. Take for example a prince’s soul which enters the body of a cobbler: to all exterior eyes, the cobbler would remain a cobbler. But to the prince himself, the cobbler would be himself, as he would be conscious of the prince’s thoughts and acts, and not of the cobbler’s life. A prince’s consciousness in a cobbler body: thus the cobbler is, in fact, a prince. But this interesting border-case leads to this problematic thought that since personal identity is based on consciousness, and that only oneself can be aware of his consciousness, exterior human judges may never know if they really are judging—and punishing—the same person, or simply the same body. In other words, Locke argues that you may be judged only for the acts of your body, as this is what is apparent to all but God; however, you are in truth only responsible for the acts for which you are conscious. This forms the basis of the insanity defense: one can’t be held accountable for acts in which one was unconsciously irrational, mentally ill[8]—and therefore leads to interesting philosophical questions:

“personal identity consists [not in the identity of substance] but in the identity of consciousness, wherein if Socrates and the present mayor of Queen borough agree, they are the same person: if the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping is not the same person. And to punish Socrates waking for what sleeping Socrates thought, and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more right, than to punish one twin for what his brother-twin did, whereof he knew nothing, because their outsides were so like, that they could not be distinguished; for such twins have been seen.”[3]

Or again:

“PERSON, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit; and so belong only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness, –whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. All which is founded in a concern for happiness, the unavoidable concomitant of consciousness; that which is conscious of pleasure and pain, desiring that that self that is conscious should be happy. And therefore whatever past actions it cannot reconcile or APPROPRIATE to that present self by consciousness, it can be no more concerned in it than if they had never been done: and to receive pleasure or pain, i.e. reward or punishment, on the account of any such action, is all one as to be made happy or miserable in its first being, without any demerit at all. For, supposing a MAN punished now for what he had done in another life, whereof he could be made to have no consciousness at all, what difference is there between that punishment and being CREATED miserable? And therefore, conformable to this, the apostle tells us, that, at the great day, when every one shall ‘receive according to his doings, the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open.’ The sentence shall be justified by the consciousness all person shall have, that THEY THEMSELVES, in what bodies soever they appear, or what substances soever that consciousness adheres to, are the SAME that committed those actions, and deserve that punishment for them.”[4]

Henceforth, Locke’s conception of personal identity found it not on the substance or the body, but in the “same continued consciousness”, which is also distinct from the soul. He creates a third term between the soul and the body—and Locke’s thought may certainly be meditated by those who, following a scientist ideology, would identify too quickly the brain to consciousness. For the brain, as the body and as any substance, may change, while consciousness remains the same. Therefore personal identity is not in the brain, but in consciousness. However, Locke’s theory also reveals his debt to theology and to Apocalyptic “great day”, which by advance excuse any failings of human justice and therefore humanity’s miserable state.

A modern scientific view

The Painter and the Buyer (1565).
In this drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the painter is thought to be a self-portrait.

Self-Awareness Theory

Self-Awareness Theory states that when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves. However self-awareness is not to be confused with self-consciousness.[9] Various emotional states are intensified by self-awareness. However, some people may seek to increase their self-awareness through these outlets. People are more likely to align their behavior with their standards when made self-aware. People will be negatively affected if they don’t live up to their personal standards. Various environmental cues and situations induce awareness of the self, such as mirrors, an audience, or being videotaped or recorded. These cues also increase accuracy of personal memory.[10] In Demetriou’s theory, one of the neo-Piagetian theories of cognitive development, self-awareness develops systematically from birth through the life span and it is a major factor for the development of general inferential processes.[11] Moreover, a series of recent studies showed that self-awareness about cognitive processes participates in general intelligence on a par with processing efficiency functions, such as working memory, processing speed, and reasoning.[12]

In animals

The mirror test is a simple measure of self-awareness.

Studies have been done mainly on primates to test if self-awareness is present. Apes, monkeys, elephants, and dolphins have been studied most frequently. The most relevant studies to this day that represent self-awareness in animals have been done on chimpanzees, dolphins, and magpies. Self-awareness in animals is tested through mirror self recognition. Animals that show mirror self recognition go through four stages 1) social response, 2) physical mirror inspection, 3) repetitive mirror testing behavior, and 4) the mark test; which involves the animals spontaneously touching a mark on their body which would have been difficult to see without the mirror.

In psychology

In psychology, the concept of “self-awareness” is used in different ways:

  • As a form of intelligence, self-awareness can be an understanding of one’s own knowledge, attitudes, and opinions. Alfred Binet’s first attempts to create an intelligence test included items for “auto-critique” – a critical understanding of oneself.[17] Surprisingly we do not have a privileged access to our own opinions and knowledge directly. For instance, if we try to enumerate all the members of any conceptual category we know, our production falls much short of our recognition of members of that category.
  • Albert Bandura[18] has created a category called self-efficacy that builds on our varying degrees of self-awareness.
  • Our general inaccuracy about our own abilities, knowledge, and opinions has created many popular phenomena for research such as the better than average effect. For instance, 90% of drivers may believe that they are “better than average” (Swenson, 1981)[19] Their inaccuracy comes from the absence of a clear definable measure of driving ability and their own limited self-awareness; and this of course underlines the importance of objective standards to inform our subjective self-awareness in all domains. Inaccuracy in our opinion seems particularly disturbing, for what is more personal than opinions. Yet, inconsistency in our opinion is as strong as in our knowledge of facts. For instance, people who call themselves opposite extremes in political views often hold not just overlapping political views, but views that are central to the opposite extreme. Reconciling such differences proves difficult and gave rise to Leon Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance.[20]


  1. René Descartes Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences, pp. 75–6, Sutherland & Knox, 1850
  2. “Discourse on the method of rightly conducting the reason”. Books.google.com. http://books.google.com/books?id=jZgDAAAAQAAJ&dq=Discourse+on+the+Method. Retrieved 2012-02-11.
  3. Great Books of the Western World, v. 35, p. ix, William Benton, Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 1952 ASIN B000KRJIDS
  4. Ecce Homo by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche 117
  5. Richard Schacht Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality, p. 244, University of California Press, 1994 ISBN 978-0-520-08318-9
  6. What Nietzsche Taught 209–10
  7. “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke”. Books.google.com. http://books.google.com/books?id=6QYOAAAAYAAJ&dq=John+Locke+Concerning+Human+Understand. Retrieved 2012-02-11.
  8. Abraham S. Goldstein The Insanity Defense, p. 9, Yale University Press, 1967 ISBN 978-0-300-00099-3
  9. Anthony P. Cohen, Self-Consciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity, 1994. Google Books link.
  10. Thomas S. Duval Self-Awareness and Causal Attribution, p. 1, Springer, 2001 ISBN 978-0-7923-7501-2
  11. Demetriou, A., & Kazi, S. (2001). Unity and modularity in the mind and the self: Studies on the relationships between self-awareness, personality, and intellectual development from childhood to adolescence. London: Routledge.
  12. Demetriou, A., & Kazi, S. (2006). Self-awareness in g (with processing efficiency and reasoning). Intelligence, 34, 297–317.
  13. Mirror test shows magpies aren’t so bird-brained – life – 19 August 2008. New Scientist. Retrieved on 2011-03-04.
  14. Elephants see themselves in the mirror – life – 30 October 2006. New Scientist. Retrieved on 2011-03-04.
  15. Dorothy L. Cheney Baboon Metaphysics, p. 205, University of Chicago Press, 2008 ISBN 978-0-226-10244-3
  16. Robert Kolker Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey, p. 106, Oxford University Press US, 2006 ISBN 978-0-19-517452-6
  17. Binet, T. Simon (1904) Méthodes nouvelles pour le diagnostic du niveau intellectuel des – L’année Psychologique. [1]
  18. Bandura, D. Cervone (1983) Self-evaluative and self-efficacy mechanisms governing the motivational effects of goal systems. Journal of Peraonatity and Social [2]
  19. Svenson, O. (1981) Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47, pp. 143–148.
  20. Festinger, Leon (1957) A theory of Cognitive Dissonance Evanston, IL Row Peterson.

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