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.

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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.

Self-monitoring is also important in schools because it requires a student to observe her behavior then evaluate it against an external standard or goal. This can result in lasting changes to behavior. For example, if Sarah has a tendency to answer questions without raising her hand, her teacher may help her learn to observe her behavior (i.e., talking out of turn) and compare it to her peers (i.e., her peers raise their hands to be called upon). By pointing out the difference between how Sarah behaves in comparison to her peers, Sarah can begin to monitor and then change her behavior to fit the established norm of raising her hand to speak.

Special education teachers frequently use these types of intervention techniques that promote the development of self-monitoring to either increase acceptable behaviors or decrease those that are unacceptable. Teachers can promote the development of self-monitoring via a variety of techniques, but all with the goal of promoting acceptable behavior in the classroom setting.

Value of Self-Monitoring

Individuals have different capacities to self-monitor that evolve over time. High self-monitors tend to act differently across contexts in an attempt to fit into a situation. Low self-monitors express similar behaviors, regardless of context. Self-monitoring is a key component in social interactions because of the implications for restraining offensive behaviors and emphasizing socially acceptable behaviors.

Dan may have strong religious beliefs but is a high self-monitor and will only express his beliefs in church. Tim also has strong religious beliefs but is a low self-monitor and will express his beliefs at church, home, work, and in social settings. Ultimately, it is important to not become a chameleon and to maintain a sense of authenticity across contexts. As with all of the aspects of self, finding the rhythm that matches most closely with one’s true self, without comprising core values, is the optimal amount of monitoring.

Lesson Summary

Self-monitoring is the capacity for observing and evaluating our behavior that can continue to develop through adulthood. Snider discovered that individuals develop the capacity to self-monitor in order to respond appropriately to a variety of life situations that require people to monitor their own expressions. Teachers use behavior checklists with their students to help them develop their self-monitoring capacity. The goal is to increase desirable behaviors and decrease unacceptable behaviors.

There is a range from high to low ability to self-monitor. High self-monitors are able to fit their expressive behaviors into different contexts. They are able to ‘read’ a situation and respond appropriately. Low self-monitors tend to act the same, regardless of context. While both degrees of monitoring have benefits, it is important to have some degree of control over our expressive behaviors.

Learning Outcomes

As you watch the video and read through this lesson’s transcript, you may develop the following abilities:

  • Describe self-monitoring, including its goal and purposes
  • Summarize research on and examples of self-monitoring
  • Differentiate between high and low self-monitors