Self-awareness is a topic of great interest in psychology. It’s important in everything from personal health care to problem solving, but one of its most important implications is in terms of how we assess and use the impact of our own behavior on others. We are constantly reminded by psychology popularizers that such awareness of impact is particularly important in social relationships, be they with bosses, friends, family, or lovers. I agree completely with the conclusion that our awareness of our impact on others is a critical human skill, but I do find myself asking the question, “What is self-awareness, really?” Behaviorist that I am, I come to the conclusion that self-awareness is a matter of discrimination learning. We learn to distinguish aspects of our own behavior, and the impact of that behavior on others. People labeled social oafs are those who do not demonstrate sensitivity to (that is, are not aware of) how what they say and do affects others. People with great social skills, on the other hand, are those who appear keenly attuned to how the nuances of their behavior affects others - they have learned very well “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em,” in social exchanges.  So, one part of self-awareness, at least, comes down to being aware of how our behavior changes an environment. A behaviorist like me might say that it comes down to bringing one’s behavior under the discriminative control of its consequences.     

One of my graduate students, Toshikazu Kuroda, and I recently conducted an experiment to examine a kind of self-awareness in pigeons. We wanted to learn what they knew about the effect of their behavior on the environment. So we asked them. The experiment involved the pigeons pecking keys in standard Skinner boxes.  There were four keys on one wall of the box. At the start of a cycle, the top two keys were illuminated from behind by red lights. Pecking either of the two keys occasionally (on average, once a minute) turned them both off and turned on the other two keys, one blue and the other gold. If the peck that turned on the blue and gold keys was to the LEFT red key, then pecking the blue key earns a food reward, but pecking the gold key gets nothing and the trial ends. If, however, the peck that turned on the blue and gold keys was to the RIGHT red key, then pecking the gold key earns a food reward, but pecking the blue key gets nothing and the trial ends. Over the course of the experiment, the pigeons received many opportunities to experience these different arrangements.  

What’s happening here?  We are asking the pigeon to report on its own behavior – a sort of self-awareness, or even mindfulness, if you will. It turns out the pigeons can report their actions pretty accurately, at least in this situation. If they peck the left red key to get the choice, they peck the blue key and if right red key pecks produce the choice, they tell us so by pecking the gold key. These actions indicate that pigeons can be said to be aware of their own behavior.

So, what does this have to do with us humans? Everything, I think. We (Toshikazu and I) believe that human self-awareness is nothing mystical or mythical, but simply a matter of learning to discriminate what we do and what its effects are on the environment. As with so many human characteristics, self-awareness is learned through the rewards (and punishers) that it gets us. Ever notice that when you have a new word pointed out to you, you begin to hear it everywhere? Self-awareness is the same thing. We do good things and bad things to other people, but until such behavior and its effects are pointed out to us (or we figure it out on our own by their reactions) it doesn’t control our behavior. But once the discrimination of the effects of our behavior is made by us, it can profoundly affect how we behave toward others in the future. Particular patterns of such behavior are either more or less likely to occur again but with greater self-awareness of what we are doing.

The pigeon experiment helps answer my earlier question of “What is self-awareness, really?” Self-awareness is indeed learning to discriminate our behavior and, especially, its effects on others. The pigeons provide us with a better understanding of how self-awareness develops and is maintained. Obviously such learning in humans is more subtle and typically does not involve working for food, but the learning principle is the same.

Postscript: For a rather famous discussion and demonstration of the concept of self-awareness in the pigeon, view this video.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.