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In social sciences such as psychology and sociology, to internalize something is to incorporate that something (or a representation of that something) into one's 'self', where the 'self' in question may take many forms, such as for example a person, an organisation, or a society. The 'something' internalized may also take many forms, for example including attitudes, concepts, standards, values, and norms of behaviour. It is part of the process of socialization and a mechanism for personal growth at the individual level and of cultural development at the group level.

Internalization is the opposite of externalization.

In psychoanalytic theory

In Freudian psychology, internalization is one of the concepts of the psychological process of introjection, a psychological defense mechanism. Cognate concepts are identification and incorporation.In psychoanalytic theory, internalization is a process involving the formation of the super ego.[1] Many theorists believe that the internalized values of behavior implemented during early socialization are key factors in predicting a child's future moral character. The self-determination theory[2] proposes a motivational continuum from the extrinsic to intrinsic motivation and autonomous self-regulation. Some research suggests a child's moral self starts to develop around age three.[3] These early years of socialization may be the underpinnings of moral development in later childhood. Proponents of this theory suggest that children whose view of self is "good and moral" tend to have a developmental trajectory toward pro-social behavior and few signs of anti-social behavior

In developmental psychology

In developmental psychology, internalization is the process through which social interactions become part of the child’s mental functions, i.e., after having experienced an interaction with another person the child subsequently experiences the same interaction within him/herself and makes it a part of his/her understanding of interactions with others in general. As the child experiences similar interactions over and over again, s/he slowly learns to understand and think about them on higher, abstract levels. Lev Vygotsky suggested that mental functions, such as concepts, language, voluntary attention and memory are cultural tools acquired through social interactions.

In one child developmental study,[4] researchers examined two key dimensions of early conscience – internalization of rules of conduct and empathic affects to others – as factors that may predict future social, adaptive and competent behavior. Data was collected from a longitudinal study of children, from two parent families, at age 25, 38, 52, 67 and 80 months. Children's internalization of each parent's rules and empathy toward each parent's simulated distress were observed at 25, 38 and 52 months. Parents and teachers rated their adaptive, competent, pro-social behavior and anti-social behavior at 80 months. The researchers found that first, both the history of the child's early internalization of parental rules and the history of his or her empathy predicted the children's competent and adaptive functioning at 80 months, as rated by parents and teachers. Second, children with stronger histories of internalization of parental rules from 25 to 52 months perceived themselves as more moral at 67 months. Third, the children that showed stronger internalization from 25 to 52 months came to see themselves as more moral and "good." These self-perceptions, in turn, predicted the way parents and teachers would rate their competent and adaptive functioning at 80 months.

For Vygotsy, cognitive development involves the active internalization of problem solving processes as modelled by parents, teachers etc in the childs environment.[5]

More generally, 'internalization' is the long-term process of consolidating and embedding the influence of others into our own beliefs, attitudes, and values, when it comes to moral behavior.

When changing moral behavior, one is said to be "internalized" when a new set of beliefs, attitudes, and values, replace or habituates the desired behavior. For example, such internalization might take place following religious conversion.

Internalization is also often associated with learning,for example learning of complex ideas or skills. So a child learning to speak may be described as internalizing the rules of grammar.[6]. The notion of internalization therefore also finds currency in appplications in education, learning and training and in business and management thinking.

In social psychology

Main article: Internalisation (sociology)

See also


  1. Corsini, R. (1999). The Dictionary of Psychology, USA: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behaviour. New York, N.Y: Plenum Press.
  3. Emde, R. N., Biringen, Z., Clyman, R. B. & Oppenheim, D. (1991). The Moral Self of Infancy: Affective Core and Procedural Knowledge. Developmental Review, 11, 251-270.
  4. Kochanska, G., Koenig, J., Barry, R., Kim, S. & Yoon, J. (2010). Children's Conscience During Toddler and Preschool Years, Moral Self, and a Competent, Adaptive Developmental Trajectory. Developmental Psychology. Vol. 46, No. 5, 1320-1332.
  5. Gross, R (2009) Psychology:The science of mind and behaviour.5th ed. London:Hodder Arnold
  6. Reber, AS & Reber ES (2001). Dictionary of Psychology, 3rd ed. London:Penguin.

Further reading

  • Meissner, W. W. (1981), Internalization in Psychoanalysis, International Universities Press, New York.
  • Wallis, K. C. and J. L. Poulton (2001), Internalization: The Origins and Construction of Internal Reality, Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia.

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