Chapter 11: Negative Self-Conscious Emotions

Defining Self-Conscious Emotions

Self-conscious emotions occur when we evaluate the self and this evaluation causes a negative or positive emotion.  Examples of self-conscious emotions are embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride.  Embarrassment, shame and guilt are negatively-valenced self-conscious emotions that occur when we evaluate that the self did something that violated either moral or social conventional norms (more on these later).  Positively-valenced self-conscious emotions include pride and some believe hubristic pride.  These pride emotions occur when we evaluate the self in a favorable way.


Self-conscious emotions are cognitively more complex than emotions we covered earlier.  They are more cognitively complex because we are consciously thinking about the self and comparing our behaviors to external and internal standards.  To experience self-conscious emotion, our sense of self must be developed.  Typically, babies achieve self-recognition between 30-36 months (Lewis & Ramsay, 2004).  This, might suggest that self-conscious emotions may not be expressed until age 2.5 years.  Some research has found that embarrassment occurred in children who had achieved self-recognition, but not in those children who had not (Lewis et al., 1989). Because these emotions require introspection, this suggests the way we interpret our behavior determines our emotions.  For instance, I might perceive that I did well on my accounting exam because I earned a C and feel pride, but others who receive this same grade might feel guilt.


Self-conscious emotions may be adaptive.  When bad things happen, it might be adaptive to notice, understand, and remedy the problem (as in guilt) or to avoid the problem and ignore the event (as in shame).  Either reaction might function to maintain group harmony, group protection, and to prevent ostracism.  Embarrassment and blush might function to communicate to group members that we are aware we committed a social faux pas and will work on improving our behavior.


Another difference between self-conscious emotions and other distinct emotions is that self-conscious emotions cause both facial and bodily changes.  For instance, when people experience embarrassment they might cover their face and when people experience pride they tend to expand their chests and raise their arms.


Self-Conscious Emotions Differ From Other Distinct Emotions (fear, anger, disgust) in the following ways: 

  • Either positively-valence or negatively-valenced
  • Main eliciting event is evaluation of the self (vs. evaluation of an external situation)
  • Often, require cognitive conscious processing
  • May develop and be expressed later
  • Function to maintain group harmony (instead of avoiding threat)
  • Cause facial and bodily changes


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