The Difference Between Conscience and Conscious

Conscious vs conscience
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How does the conscious differ from the conscience? These two terms are sometimes confused in common everyday usage, but they actually mean very different things within the field of psychology. Let's take a closer look at what each term means and how you can distinguish between the two concepts.

Conscience vs. Conscious

Your conscience is the part of your personality that helps you determine between right and wrong. It is what makes you feel guilty when you do something bad and good when you do something kind.

In Freudian theory, the conscience is part of the superego that contains information about what is viewed as bad or negative by your parents and by society—all the values you learned and absorbed during your upbringing. The conscience emerges over time as you absorb information about what is considered right and wrong by your caregivers, your peers, and the culture in which you live.

Your conscious, on the other hand, is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. In the most general terms, it means being awake and aware. In psychology, the conscious mind includes everything inside of your awareness including things like perceptions, sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories, and fantasies.

While conscience and conscious are two very different things, conscious and consciousness are in fact related to one another.

Your consciousness refers to your conscious experiences, your individual awareness of your own internal thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations. Consciousness is often thought of as a stream, constantly shifting according to the ebb and flow of your thoughts and experiences of the world around you.

The conscious and consciousness can be difficult to pin down. As the psychologist and philosopher William James once explained, "Its meaning we know so long as no one asks us to define it." However, some experts suggest that you are considered conscious of something if you are able to put it into words.

Definitions and Observations

There are a few things to note that might help you keep these two terms separate in your mind. According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, the mind is often likened to an iceberg. The part of the iceberg that can be seen above the surface of the water represents conscious awareness. It is what we are aware of and can describe and articulate clearly. The largest part of the iceberg actually lies below the surface of the water, which Freud compared to the unconscious mind, or all the thoughts, memories, and urges that are outside of our conscious awareness.

Other experts also note that consciousness is not just a singular mental process. "Consciousness is generally defined as awareness of your thoughts, actions, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and other mental processes," explain authors Bernstein, Penner, and Roy. "This definition suggests that consciousness is an aspect of many mental processes rather than being a mental process on its own. For example, memories can be conscious, but consciousness is not just memory. Perceptions can be conscious, but consciousness is not just perception."

The conscience, on the other hand, is what keeps you from acting upon your most basic urges and desires. Your conscience is the moral basis that helps guide prosocial behavior and leads you to behave in socially acceptable and even altruistic ways.

When thinking about these two concepts, just remember that conscious means to be awake and aware while conscience means your inner sense of right and wrong.

A Word From Verywell

While the two terms are often confused, the conscious and the conscience refer to very different things. As described above, your conscious is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. Your conscience is your ability to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong. Your conscious allows you to be aware of your place in the world, while your conscience allows you to behave in this world in morally and socially acceptable ways.

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Article Sources
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  • Bernstein, D., Penner, L. A., Clarke-Stewart, A., & Roy, E. Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company; 2008.
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  • James, W. The Stream of Consciousness. Psychology. Cleveland & New York, World; 1892.
  • Kalat, J. W. Introduction to Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; 2014.