Written by Brett Weiss
June 28, 2020
Cognitive scientists proposed that self-consciousness evolved in humans to help individuals identify, negotiate, and promote their status in groups.
Selfhood, having a distinct identity, sets us apart from others we interact with and gives us a sense of individuality. Scientists have proposed that the key distinction between human and nonhuman animals is the unique capacity of humans to act as self-conscious agents, having a sense of selfhood.
In 2004, cognitive scientists from the University of California, Davis and the University of Texas at Austin proposed an explanation, a hypothesis, for how self-consciousness and selfhood evolved. They published their hypothesis in The Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Having a sense of self has contributed to humans’ abilities to navigate their complex social networks and structures. Their hypothesis had to answer the question: “How did the self facilitate the goals of survival and reproduction during the evolutionary history of the species?” To confront this question, the cognitive scientists made the claim a sense of self evolved in humans to promote their status in a social group.
The researchers identified four functions of the self which has helped humans navigate their complex social environments: self regulation, information processing, understanding others, and forming an identity.
Self regulation involves regulating complex physical movements and coordinating long-term goals to maintain and enhance social acceptance and status, thereby increasing access to resources and reproductive opportunities.
Information processing entails filtering out irrelevant information and remembering that which relates to the individual the most, which enhances one’s ability to understand the complex social world and function more effectively in it.
Understanding others’ minds allows us to manipulate others’ impressions of us to negotiate and improve our social status.
We use self-consciousness to establish an identity to differentiate ourselves from others, and this provides a sense of continuity over time for adaptation to complex social environments.
The cognitive scientists who came up with this hypothesis of a sense of self evolving in humans to promote social status in groups believed the sense of self serves as a bridge from the individual to culture.
“Indeed, our position is entirely compatible with the idea that the evolution of self-consciousness allowed humans to create a complex social structure that served as the basis for human culture,” stated the authors in their publication.
Vazire S, Robins RW. Beyond the justification hypothesis: a broader theory of the evolution of self-consciousness. J Clin Psychol. 2004;60(12):1271-1273. doi:10.1002/jclp.20072