Self-Monitoring in Psychology: Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Self-Monitoring
  • 1:20 Theory of Self-Monitoring
  • 1:49 Research on Self-Monitoring
  • 2:38 Examples of Self-Monitoring
  • 4:11 Value of Self-Monitoring
  • 5:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Bales

Mary was an instructor at Purdue University and has a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies.

Self-monitoring is the ability to both observe and evaluate one's behavior. Learn more about the definition, importance, and process of self-monitoring and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring, or the capacity to observe (or measure) and evaluate one's behavior, is an important component of executive functioning in human behavior. Executive functioning is part of cognitive processing and includes a person's ability to connect past knowledge with present experiences in a way that allows the individual to plan, organize, strategize, pay attention to details, and manage time.

Self-monitoring allows humans to measure their behavioral outcomes against a set of standards. Small children typically do not have the ability to self-monitor. It develops over time. Consider Jenny, a toddler, who does not have the capacity to monitor her expressive behaviors. She will let her mom know when she is unhappy with a snack choice. Her tears and screams of dissatisfaction are what she knows to do and monitoring her behavior, or the effect it has on others, is not part of her skill set.

On the other hand, when Jenny's mother, Darla, is presented with a food choice that she does not like, she may choose to not eat it, ask for something different, or eat it anyways to be respectful of the person who gave it to her. Typically, screaming and crying will not be Darla's response because she has the ability to monitor her behavioral expression. Jenny's ability to both understand, then internalize others' behavioral expectations is a developmental social milestone that will occur in middle childhood.

Theory of Self-Monitoring of Expressive Behavior

Psychologist Dr. Mark Snyder found that self-monitoring serves the following purposes:

  • To communicate an emotional state
  • To communicate an emotional state that is not necessarily in line with the actual emotional experience
  • To conceal an inappropriate emotional state and either display apathy or an appropriate emotional state
  • To appear to be experiencing an appropriate emotion when the reality is apathy

Research on Self-Monitoring

Researchers have made attempts to understand how individuals self-monitor different channels of expression. For example, Ekman and Friesen (1969, 1972) discovered that psychiatric patients are better able to self-monitor facial expressions, but not body cues. In their study, they found that the nurses were better able to assess the patients' truth-telling through paying close attention to body cues. This is just one example of differences in how people self-monitor.

We also know that it is quite possible to develop an ability to self-monitor, even later in life. If you know that you are better able to self-monitor your facial expressions, for example, you can find resources that will also help you monitor your body posture. Do you tend to cross your arms when you are angry? A great deal of research on body language exists and can help us understand your unique channels for self-monitoring.

Examples of Self-Monitoring

We use self-monitoring in everyday life. For example, if I feel angry at my boss for not supporting me at a meeting, I have several different ways that I could express my feelings. I could tell him that I am angry. I could pretend as if I am happy with his actions. I could pretend as if I am not angry. How I choose to use my self-monitoring depends largely on the context, as well as the relationship I have with my boss. In another example, if someone I do not like gets fired from her job, and I see her at the store, I could pretend to be sad for her when I really do not care that she was fired.

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