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Objective self-awareness and stigma: implications for persons with visible disabilities.

Does self-consciousness affect how a person thinks or behaves in different situations? Social scientists and psychologists have studied this question for over a century and many have said, "yes, it does" (Cooley, 1902; James, 1890; Mead, 1934). For instance, giving a presentation, interviewing for a job, and inviting someone on a date are all common situations that will likely cause a person to feel more self-aware and sometimes self-critical (cf. Silvia & Duval, 2001; Duval & Wicklund, 1972). After such an event, the person may feel quite negatively about his or her appearance and performance. "I was terrible!" "Now they will never hire me!" "I looked foolish!"

It has been exhaustively discussed among scholars that inherent to such self-conscious events lies a "fulcrum" of awareness that balances a person directly between the anxiety-provoking experience of self as both object and subject. Rollo May (1967) fittingly referred to this experience as the "human dilemma", and asserted that such dual-awareness [of self as object and subject] is a necessary element to gratification in life. Perception of approval from others can lead to increased confidence and self-esteem, while perception of disdain or negative evaluation can produce the opposite results. People in general receive varying degrees of positive and negative appraisal, but does this dilemma of self-awareness impact a person differently when others can see that the person has a disability? From past experiences many people can probably relate to the above self-critical statements (e.g., "I looked foolish!"). However, on closer inspection such statements imply a deeper issue regarding the proposed dilemma of self-awareness, especially when visible disability is a factor. It is well observed that persons with disabilities experience social stigma much more than the general population, and the enduring presence of stigma in our society suggests that the answer to the above question might also be "yes,"--that because of stigma, it is conceivable that the acute experience of self-awareness may affect persons with visible disabilities differently than able-bodied persons. Stigma affects people who are in some way different from majority expectations (Coleman, 1997) and, in fact, even perceived stigma was found to be an independent predictor of depression in persons with leg amputations (Rybarczyk, Nyenhuis, Nicholas, Cash, & Kaiser, 1995).

Stigma has been around for a long time and social scientists have been studying it closely for perhaps just as long (e.g., Allport, 1954, Cooley, 1902; Fine & Asch, 1995; Heatherton, Kleck, Hebl, & Hull, 2000). In the early 1960s Erving Goffman posed the question, "how does the stigmatized individual respond to his (sic) situation?" (1963, p.9). In response to his own question, Goffman asserted that for some stigmatized individuals "it will be possible for him to make a direct attempt to correct what he sees as the objective basis of his failing", for instance plastic surgery for certain deformities (emphasis added, see below).

In keeping with these observations, this paper is concerned with the large number of persons with disabilities who may always be at risk of experiencing social stigma. The goal of this paper is to employ a critical theory of self-awareness that offers much to the phenomenology of disability in a conceptual examination of the impact of stigma on persons with visible disabilities. Below is an introduction to the theory of objective self-awareness (OSA; Duval & Wicklund, 1972) and some recent developments. This is followed by a discussion of research on stigma, and the integration and implications of both OSA and stigma to disability studies and individual adjustment to disability.

Objective Self-Awareness and Visible Disability

In its original form, the theory of objective self-awareness was a comprehensive theory intended to explain why individuals conform their behaviors, appearance, and beliefs to those of others (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). Duval and Wicklund formulated their theory on the basis of a distinction between two forms of conscious attention. They postulated that individuals have one innate consciousness with directional properties; attention can be dually focused either outward toward the environment or inward toward oneself. However, it was emphasized that attention cannot be simultaneously focused outward and inward; that a person can only attend to one thing at a time. For instance, a person is unable to focus attention on a personal characteristic while driving a nail into wood. Duval and Wicklund identified outward attention as the state of subjective self-awareness, and defined it as attention that is focused upon environmental characteristics. In subjective self-awareness the person is the "subject" who is observing and perceiving the various aspects of their environment. However, given this, it may seem more accurate to say that a subjectively self-aware individual is actually environment-aware rather than self-aware, and, as Duval and Wicklund explained, this is indeed accurate--at least in the "usual sense of the term" (refer to p. 2). But, the person is self-aware in that he or she receives and perceives feedback from the environment regarding his or her behaviors, attitudes, etc. Subjective self-awareness arises directly from the experience of oneself as the source of perception and action.

On the other hand, the theory asserted that when a person is objectively self-aware, then he or she has become acutely aware of those personal characteristics that most distinguish him or her from the majority. The occurrence of OSA can be understood in three ways. First, as indicated, the term "objective" specifies where attention is directed. That is, in a state of OSA, the person's attention is focused exclusively on the self; the person is the "object" of his or her own attention, and is now seeing himself (sic) as he thinks others are seeing him. It is this self-focused attention that induces an acute state of objective self-awareness. Second, induced OSA was theorized to automatically elicit comparisons between the self and perceived standards for social correctness in terms of specific behaviors, attitudes, traits, etc. Such standards of correctness were said to determine who or what a "correct" person is. For instance, a t-shirt and cutoffs typically are not considered appropriate attire for a job interview, and the person wearing them will draw much attention. Finally, if discrepancies are detected between a person and one or more standards, then negative affect was theorized to surface and, in order to reduce the negative affect, the person would either conform as best he or she could or avoid the situation altogether. Another consequence of this is that the person may also avoid other similar situations in which they feel objectively self-aware (e.g., formal gatherings).

Additionally, whether a person is objectively or subjectively self-aware, OSA theory contends that whatever is the focus of attention in any given situation will draw causal attributions (i.e., responsibility). It has been demonstrated that objectively self-aware persons are more likely to attribute the source of an event to themselves (Duval & Lalwani, 1999; Lalwani & Duval, 2000; Duval, 1971). According to the theory, attributing cause to oneself will occur because the objectively self-aware person is experiencing him or herself as somehow different and exhibiting salient characteristics that distinguish them from the majority. What this implies is that when a person with a visible disability (e.g., using a wheelchair or a having facial deformity) enters into a situation where he or she is the only one with such a characteristic then they will likely become objectively self-aware and focus attention on that characteristic. They will perceive themselves as they think others perceive them.

More recently however, new research has initiated fundamental changes to Duval and Wicklund's theory. One major change relevant to persons with visible disabilities emerged from controlled experiments on an individual's perceived rate of progress relative to the perceived discrepancy size. Duval, Duval, & Mulilis (1992) conducted three experiments using male Introduction to Psychology students. At one point, the participants were asked to meet an experimental standard by determining which of five two-dimensional figures when folded would match a three-dimensional figure previously displayed. It was discovered that when the participants were high in OSA and perceived sufficient progress toward reducing the discrepancy (i.e., meeting the experimental standard), they maintained involvement and effort. However, when participants high in OSA perceived insufficient progress to reduce the discrepancy then they would relax their efforts and avoid involvement.

This new finding for the theory of objective self-awareness is significant to an examination of stigma and visible disability because, generally, our society values good health, a particular physique, and the concept of "body beautiful" (Hahn, 1993; Wright, B. A., 1983). This is a social standard that, for many people with disabilities, simply cannot be met--a discrepancy that cannot be reduced--and, if that is the case, then what happens? Coleman (1997) stated that human differences are the basis for stigma and those individuals who have differences may feel permanently stigmatized in situations where their differences are pronounced (emphasis added). More importantly, Coleman further asserted that stigmas mirror our social and cultural beliefs, which, if so, and unless social attitudes change, could mean that the stigmatized individual will continually be struggling against the grain.

"Notes on Stigma", Objective Self-Awareness, and Visible Disability

In his classic work, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Erving Goffman stated that stigma represents a special discrepancy between a person's "virtual social identity", which refers to what society assumes about a person, and their "actual social identity", which refers to those attributes that a person could in fact be proved to possess (1963). Goffman went on to define stigma as a term that highlights a deeply discrediting personal attribute that leads to assumptions about the person's character and abilities and often results in various forms of discrimination.

In general however, stigma is considered a social construction that is essentially based on individual or group differences and results in the devaluation of the persons who possess those differences (see Coleman, 1997; Dovidio, Major, & Crocker, 2000). Stigma dehumanizes and lessens the social value of an individual because he or she is appraised as being "marked", flawed, or otherwise less than average (Dovidio, Major, & Crocker, 2000; cf. Goffman, 1963). Several researchers have categorized stigma in various ways that make it easier to comprehend. For instance, Goffman (1963) identified three types of stigma: "abominations of the body" (e.g., physical deformities), "blemishes of individual character" (e.g., mental disorders, unemployment), and "tribal stigma" or "tribal identities" (e.g., race, religion, etc.). Similarly, Jones, Farina, Hastorf, Markus, Miller, & Scott (1984) defined six dimensions of stigma: 1) concealability (i.e., visibility), 2) course (i.e., salience and prognosis), 3) disruptiveness (i.e., during interpersonal interactions), 4) aesthetics (i.e., attractiveness), 5) origin (i.e., congenital vs. acquired conditions and personal responsibility), and 6) peril (i.e., threat of contagion).

Recently however it was argued that one of the most important issues to consider about stigma is its visibility (Crocker, Major, & Steele, 1998). Crocker et al asserted that the visibility of a particular stigmatizing attribute determines the schema through which an individual is understood or perhaps "defined" by society. This is significant to consider for persons with visible disabilities because, if we apply this to a situation in which a person feels objectively self-aware then, according to Duval and Wicklund's theory, it is plausible that the person may also feel highly self-critical as a direct result of OSA interacting with the stigmatizing attribute.

To elaborate, it has been argued that during any given situation where too much or too little attention is directed at one person (e.g., staring at or ignoring the person altogether), then that person's comfort and anxiety levels could be dramatically affected causing embarrassment and even shame (Buss, A. H., 1980; cf. Goffman, 1963). For a person with a visible disability, such attention may be a daily experience and a constant reminder that he or she "is" different (e.g., uses a wheelchair). Social Darwinism (Spencer, 1872) is implied in social appraisals like these because, invariably, when one person feels that he or she does not "fit in" (or must work harder in order to do so) then a social hierarchy is imposed. Social Darwinism is characterized by the phrase "survival of the fittest" and promotes the ideology that inferior races exist relative to superior races. For instance, in their controversial book, The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray argued that social inferiority is a direct consequence of genetic inferiority (1994). In other words, for whatever reason, some people are "naturally" meant to be inferior. Social Darwinism has received little support but is still reflected in the attitudes and behaviors of our society today (i.e., stigma, prejudice, and discrimination).

Several experiments have revealed that feeling self-focused and self-aware in the presence of others can greatly impact a person's sense of physical attractiveness and self-evaluations (Thornton & Moore, 1993), the expression of their personal beliefs (Chang, Tai Hau, & Mei Gou 2001; Scheier, 1980; Wicklund & Duval, 1971), their level of shyness and social dysfunction (Bruch, Hamer, & Heimberg, 1995), and their individuation and feeling uncomfortably distinct from others (Ickes, Layden, & Barnes, 1978). It is therefore conceivable that the social appraisals of a person's difference, vis-a-vis stigma and causal attributions, could impact the adjustment process of an individual with a visible disability in ways we are not yet sure of, but are very important to understand.

In contrast, Buss (1980) argued that most people who experience increased self-awareness during social situations generally would not experience any ill effects (e.g., increased anxiety levels), presumably because they have not experienced the stigma that is often associated with having a visible disability (cf. Bruch, Hamer, & Heimberg, 1995). Yet, what seems pivotal is the extent to which the inducement of OSA may lead the individual to interpret the negative appraisals as being realistically based. In other words, can one's personal beliefs about oneself stand up against the perception that others believe differently--and for how long?

Implications for Objective Self-Awareness and Stigma

In a discussion on stigma effects and self-esteem, Crocker and Quinn (2000) argued that feelings of self-worth, self-regard, and self-respect are not stable characteristics. Instead, they are constructed in-situ as a function of the connotative meanings that a person attributes to a particular situation (cf. Heatherton & Polivy, 1991; Phemister, 2002; Sommers & Crocker, 1999). Crocker and Quinn asserted that what people bring to different situations are their sets of beliefs, attitudes, and values, and, when something negative (or positive) occurs, then self-esteem is subsequently affected by the meaning that they attribute to those events. The presumption here is that objective self-awareness and personal meanings may be phenomenologically linked. To illustrate, being turned down for both a date and a job will likely hold different implications for a person depending on which meant more to them. That is, the more something is desired by a person (e.g., getting a job), then the more meaningful it may be. Likewise, the more meaningful something is, the more he or she may feel objectively self-aware about appearing and performing in such a way that the event has a satisfactory outcome (e.g., being nicely dressed and trying to conceal an attribute that is believed will hinder the chances of being hired). But, if the person is rejected, then corresponding with the greater meaning ascribed to the situation, he or she could also experience a more heartfelt disappointment. Thus, for example, the individual may find it easier to invite another person on a date than to interview for another job and, as a result, perhaps avoid further interviews.

Symbolic interactionists such as Charles Horton Cooley (1902) compared the phenomenon of social appraisals to a "looking glass" and argued that we are continually affected by what we see reflected in another's eye (cf. Hewitt, 2000). Using Duval and Wicklund's (1972) theory as a backdrop, how likely is it that a person with a visible disability would indeed avoid situations where they feel objectively self-aware and stigmatized? Moreover, what if these situations were vital to one's quality of life such as in the case of interviewing for a job? For adults who have already established and maintained a lasting identity (e.g., vocational, familial, educational, and financial stability) this may not pose such a problem. However, for younger individuals who are likely to still be forming their identities, it is reasonable to assume that a prolonged state of objective self-awareness may negatively affect the beliefs they have regarding their competencies, abilities, and self-esteem (cf. Duval, Duval, & Mulilis, 1992), especially it seems if the person also attributes responsibility to their stigmatizing differences.

It has long been argued that society's attitudes and behaviors can and do dramatically impact individuals well after any actual interaction has occurred (Goffman, 1963; Laing, 1965; Szasz, 1961). Ronald Laing and Thomas Szasz in particular are well known for their theories that mental illness emerges from untenable social interactions, such as in the family, or as a socially imposed "myth" that justifies the mistreatment of certain individuals. Likewise, the self-identification literature stresses that groups of people cue relevant information in a person's memory about him or herself, the group, and the relationship between the person and the group (see Neisser & Jopling, 1997; Schlenker, 1986). Social appraisals can activate social roles, memories, present images, and conceivable goals for an individual in the present moment. Underscoring all of this is the minority group paradigm, which holds as a standard maxim that handicaps emerge from societally imposed barriers (Hahn, 1985). It is therefore conceivable that, if a person were to continually encounter stigmatizing situations, then he or she may begin to feel utterly unable to meet the standards set for those situations and, over time, form a new resolution about those situations and his or her assets in them (e.g., "Based on my experiences, I can see that I am not employable"). This resolution can be seen as reflecting the stigma and perhaps causal attributions that the person perceived others to have about him or her. Such a resolution may likely be a determining factor for the future choices a person makes regarding particular situations ("I will give up interviewing for jobs.") (cf. Magnusson, 1981; Pervin, 1981; Rommetveit, 1981). As a result, an individual may decide to engage primarily in situations that promote a desired identity and avoid situations that demote a desired identity. In effect, the person will "settle for less," which is clearly a significant barrier to the successful adaptation to life with a disability. This is significant because adaptation to disability connotes the restoration of a personal sense of wholeness, of bodily experience and integrity, and harmony, or balance, in life (see Charmaz, 1995; Trieschmann, 1988, Vash, 1980; Wright, 3. A., 1983; Zola, 1991). That is, a person's life may feel "lopsided" if there are desired situations (e.g., finding employment) hat are avoided because of the erroneous introjection of other's stigmatizing attitudes.

In conclusion, what we can glean from Duval and Wicklund's theory is that when a person with a visible disability is perpetually at risk of being objectively self-aware and stigmatized, then he or she could perhaps become more susceptible to such erroneous introjection--a "hypothesis" that appears reinforced by the continuing existence of social Darwinism and discrimination against persons with disabilities.

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Andrew A. Phemister

Minnesota State University

Nancy M. Crewe

Michigan State University

Andrew A. Phemister, PhD, CRC, Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation Counseling, Department of Speech, Hearing, & Rehabilitation Services, 103 Armstrong Hall, Minnesota State University, Mankato, MN 56001. Email: Andrew.Phemister@mnsuedu
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Author:Crewe, Nancy M.
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Date:Apr 1, 2004
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