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Mark Alicke, Yiyue Zhang, and Nicole Stephenson

Research has explored the relationship between self-knowledge and self-awareness. Specifically, psychologists see self-awareness as a step on the path toward self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is not a monolithic concept. For instance, the working self-concept is the self that is most relevant and accessible at a given time, while the global self-concept is an enduring, stored version of oneself. Implicit self-views are normally unconscious, whereas explicit self-views are generally conscious. The discrepancy between implicit and explicit self-knowledge sometimes results in inaccurate evaluations of attitudes, thoughts, and feelings. Other types of self-knowledge are context-dependent. Established theories such as social identity theory state that people have distinct self-views in different situations. For example, self-complexity refers to the number of self-aspects a person possesses. Finally, there are also distinctions between accurate (i.e., self-assessment theory) and positive self-knowledge (i.e., self-enhancement theory). Self-assessment theory posits that people are information seekers who desire accurate self-views. On the contrary, self-enhancement theory says that people seek to maintain positive self-views and are averse to negative self-information. Depending on the context and the concerns for self-presentation, individuals have preferences to pursue accurate or enhancing self-information. Increased self-knowledge can manifest in three major ways: via biological, interpersonal, and intrapsychic origins. Biological explanations of the origins of self-knowledge are mostly concerned with genetic expressions and brain activities. Interpersonal paths also help individuals develop self-knowledge. For instance, social comparison facilitates people’s formation of self-views by comparing themselves with similar others. Reflected appraisals increase people’s awareness of their own abilities, qualities, and identities through others’ lens. Intrapsychic self-knowledge can be obtained through self-perception, in which people learn about themselves by observing and analyzing their behaviors in relevant situations. Introspection—focusing on the self—helps people ascertain the reasons behind their feelings and behaviors, which contributes to self-views. However, introspection can sometimes lead to flawed self-knowledge, or result in negative feelings induced by the feelings of inadequacy. Building on introspection, self-awareness provides another avenue for self-knowledge. The capacity to be aware of one’s existence, or reflexive self-consciousness, is a fundamental component of human cognition. Experimentally induced self-awareness has been shown to have positive effects (e.g., greater compliance with internal standards). Sometimes, however, awareness can have aversive consequences (e.g., suicide) because it reveals that one has fallen short of one’s goals. One way to reduce this discomfort is to avoid self-awareness, such as by cognitive deconstruction—an induction of a cognitive state that lacks emotion, a sense of the future, or concentration on the present. Another way to avoid self-awareness is through deindividuation, which is characterized by a temporary loss of personal identity, especially in a large group. Because self-awareness is associated with both life- and death-related thoughts, researchers argue the nature of this awareness is existential.


Sanaz Talaifar and William Swann

Active and stored mental representations of the self include both global and specific qualities as well as conscious and nonconscious qualities. Semantic and episodic memory both contribute to a self that is not a unitary construct comprising only the individual as he or she is now, but also past and possible selves. Self-knowledge may overlap more or less with others’ views of the self. Furthermore, mental representations of the self vary whether they are positive or negative, important, certain, and stable. The origins of the self are also manifold and can be considered from developmental, biological, intrapsychic, and interpersonal perspectives. The self is connected to core motives (e.g., coherence, agency, and communion) and is manifested in the form of both personal identities and social identities. Finally, just as the self is a product of proximal and distal social forces, it is also an agent that actively shapes its environment.


Zlatan Krizan

Social comparison activity is one of the most important spheres of human functioning; it is necessary for appraising where one stands within his or her community and for establishing viable routes for connecting with others. Social comparison is thus a critical psychological phenomenon essential to understanding both social behavior and formation of identity. To this end, individuals look to similar others to evaluate their own abilities and opinions, look to those better than themselves for inspiration and guidance, and evaluate others depending on similarities and distinctions with the self. In addition, they evaluate their own position in life with reference to other’s positions, look to others for information about social norms and for clues about how to behave, and experience feelings toward others based on implications of mutual differences for their relationship. This renders the nature of social comparisons complex; they take horizontal forms that focus on connections or distinction, as well as vertical forms that focus on superiority or inferiority. Moreover, they may be experienced through interaction, subjectively constructed in one’s mind, or deliberately orchestrated in order to impact others. Complexities of social comparison activity are commensurate with multiple functions that they serve. First, people compare with others in order to gain self-knowledge and reduce uncertainty. Comparisons that fulfill this function typically occur with similar others, are biased toward comparing with those slightly better off, and are sensitive to diagnosticity that information about others carries for oneself. Second, people compare with others in order to self-enhance and protect well-being. Comparisons that fulfill this function often involve contrasting oneself from those worse off, although they can also involve perceiving similarities with superior others, especially when these are role models or close others. Third, people compare in order to self-improve, namely, boost their skills and abilities. Such comparisons typically occur with others that are better, yet similar in relevant attributes, and in domains that leave room for personal progress. Fourth and final, people compare in order to connect socially with others. Such comparisons occur through regular social interaction as individuals emphasize mutual similarities, through creation of comparisons to protect or embolden others, and through selection of social identities that maximize a sense of group belonging.