Self-Awareness and Psychology: Navigating Human Mysteries

From the lecture series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior,

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Self-awareness and psychology are key to understanding the mysteries of human behavior. Discover some surprising similarities between humans and primates when it comes to both self-awareness and culture.

3D illustration of a magnifying glass over a paper bakground with focus on the word me

Self-Awareness: A Distinctly Human Trait

If I had to identity the one psychological characteristic that most clearly distinguishes human beings from all other animals, it would involve our ability to think consciously about ourselves.

Now, obviously, all animals can “think” in the sense that their brains process information about themselves and about their environments. But research suggests that only a few species can think consciously about themselves, and no other animal can think consciously about itself in the complex and abstract ways that we can.

Consider, for example, how important it is for people to plan ahead, often far into the future. Almost everything that we do requires some planning.

Whether we’re deciding what to do later today or we’re planning years ahead for retirement, our lives are built around planning. The only reason that we are able to make plans is that we can consciously imagine ourselves days or weeks or years into the future.

And, we can imagine ourselves in the future only because we are self-aware and able to think consciously about ourselves in our own minds.

Other animals can’t do that. Certain animals might appear to plan, such as when a squirrel gathers nuts for the coming winter, but those behaviors don’t seem to involve conscious self-awareness or planning.

Instead, stimuli in the environment—the air temperature or the angle of the sun—trigger the animal’s behavior automatically without conscious thought.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

However, a few other animals, including chimpanzees, are able to think and plan a very brief time into the future. For example, chimps might pick up a rock or stick that they will need in a few moments—but we don’t see them planning what they will do next week or next year. And that’s because they can’t imagine themselves in the distant future in their own minds.

This feature of the human mind is important because much of what people do each day is in the service of their long-term goals. Many of the things that you will do today you do because you think that they will have consequences for you sometime in the future.

If you didn’t have the ability to be self-aware and to think consciously about yourself, you couldn’t think ahead.

Who am I ? A philosophical question on  a black board
Self-awareness allows people to think about who they are and what they are like, and to evaluate themselves.

Self-awareness also allows people to think about who they are and what they are like, and to evaluate themselves, and it even allows them to change their own behavior if they don’t like something about themselves. Again, other animals can’t do that.

Learn more about three broad themes you’ll follow throughout the course: evolution, self-awareness, and culture

Apes and Self-Awareness

I should point out that certain other animals—particularly the great apes and dolphins—do have a rudimentary ability to think about themselves. We know this because of research that has studied how animals react to their own reflections.

When you see your reflection in a mirror, you know that the person in the reflection is you. Most other animals don’t. Most animals react to their own reflection by either just ignoring it or responding as if the reflection is another animal.

However, great apes—such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans—seem to know that the reflection is them. So, they can use mirrors to look inside their mouths, pick their teeth, groom, or look at their backsides, much like people do.

To demonstrate conclusively that chimpanzees can recognize themselves in mirrors, studies have been conducted in which researchers anesthetized a chimpanzee, and while it was asleep, researchers put an odorless red dye on the chimp’s face where it couldn’t see it—above the brow and on the top of the ears. Then, after the chimp woke up, the researchers put a mirror in its cage.

Well, what would you do if you looked in a mirror and saw something red on the image that you were looking at? Would you reach for the red on the mirror, or would you reach for your own face?

The chimpanzees reached for their own faces, indicating that they knew that that image in the mirror was them. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans all show this response, but no species of monkey does.

There’s also some evidence that dolphins and elephants, and even maybe magpies, show a rudimentary ability for self-reflection, but most animals don’t.

Of course, this is a very basic sort of self-awareness, and we can think about ourselves in much more abstract and complex ways than other animals can.

And this ability to think consciously about ourselves is important in understanding human behavior. After all, certain puzzling behaviors occur because of the ways that people think about and talk to themselves in their own minds.

Learn more about five key areas of our behavior in which evolution plays a critical role

Culture among Monkeys

A third theme relates to culture—all of the socially transmitted beliefs and behavior patterns in a group or in a society. Culture helps to make us different from other animals because it allows new ideas and techniques to be passed from generation to generation.

Culture allows human accomplishments to be cumulative. If one generation comes up with a new way to farm or to set up a government or to compose music, it can be passed along to successive generations as part of the culture.

Now, scientists once believed that no other animal shows any indication of culture whatsoever, but we now know that that’s not true. Obviously, no other species has the elaborate beliefs and rituals and customs that human cultures have, but certain other animals can pass along behavior patterns to other group members that then persist over time.

Let me give you just one interesting example. In the 1950s, scientists began feeding sweet potatoes to the macaque monkeys on an island off the coast of Japan. But because the researchers tossed the cut-up potatoes on the beach, they got covered in sand.

Then one day, a young female macaque took her sandy potato down to the water and washed it off. Other monkeys started imitating her and, after a while, virtually all of the younger monkeys in the group were washing their potatoes.

The adults seemed more reluctant to adopt this new fad, though. Sound familiar?

By now, all of the original monkeys who learned to wash their potatoes in the 1950s have died, but the custom lives on. So we have a monkey culture that’s being transmitted from generation to generation in which this one group of macaques wash their potatoes.

Japanese macaque
Japanese macaque relaxing in a hot spring pool (onsen), Hakodate, Japan. Research has shown that these monkeys have a culture that’s passed on from generation to generation.

Not all of the monkeys in the current group wash their potatoes, but that’s not any different than the fact that not all people within the same culture throw rice at weddings or celebrate Christmas or dip their French fries in ketchup.

Learn more about some behavioral mysteries that remain difficult for scientists to explain: laughter, kissing, the creation and enjoyment of art, and consciousness

Culture is important in understanding certain puzzling behaviors because people often do odd things because that’s what their culture says that they should do. Something that seems bizarre when viewed through the eyes of one culture or subculture may make perfect sense when we look at it through the eyes of another.

Understanding cultural beliefs and attitudes will help us to better navigate the mysteries of human behavior.

Common Questions About Self-Awareness

Q: What exactly is self-awareness?

To be self-aware means to be clear and consciously aware of your strengths and weaknesses as far as personality, beliefs, motivations, and feelings.

Q: How does one become self-aware?

There are many paths to self-awareness and it is a lifelong exercise. Keeping a journal, spending time meditating or alone with your thoughts long enough to analyze the “why” of them. Taking tests, trying difficult tasks, and asking for honest feedback to process are all further ways of gaining self-awareness.

Q: How can one tell if one has reached self-awareness?

Questioning your degree of self-awareness is the first step. Realize your beliefs are separate from what you actually know and don’t take your own thoughts too seriously. Taking responsibility, not getting hurt when others lash out from ignorance, and considering the impact of your words/actions on others are some of the many ways to know if you are self-aware.

Q: What are the types of self-awareness?

There are two types of self-awareness. One, embodied self-awareness, is when one is aware of their inner states such as impulses, emotions, and states that are difficult to sum up with words. Another type of self-awareness is conceptual and it involves the judgements, thoughts, and feelings we have that we can put into words very easily.

This article was updated on 9/13/2019

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