Conscience vs. Conscious: What's the Difference?

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These two terms are sometimes confused in common everyday usage, but they actually mean very different things.

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.

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.

Conscience: Definitions and Observations

  • "Conscience is an ability or faculty that leads to feelings of remorse when one is acting against his/her moral values, or that informs one's moral judgment before performing an action."
    (S. M. Cote, 2010)
  • "If conscience were merely a matter of self-punishment for breaking an established habit taught with authority, then we could not account for the fact that we do often discard codes imposed by parents and culture, and devise codes of our own. We conclude, therefor, that conscience somehow shifts its center from ad hoc habits of obedience to the proprium - that is to say, from opportunistic becoming to oriented becoming. In the course of this shift there occurs an important phenomenological change. The 'feel' of conscience in adulthood is seldom tied to the fear of punishment, whether external or self-administered. It is rather an experience of value-related obligation."
    (G. W. Allport, 1955)

    Conscious and Consciousness: Definitions and Observations

    • "Underlying Freud's psychoanalytic conception of personality was his belief that the mind is like an iceberg - mostly hidden. Our conscious awareness is the part of the iceberg that floats above the surface."
      (D. G. Myers, 2004)
    • "Consciousness is generally defined as awareness of your thoughts, actions, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and other mental processes. 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."
      (D. Bernstein, L. A. Penner, A. Clarke-Stewart, & E. Roy, 2008)


    Allport, G. W. (1955). Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality. Chelsea, Michigan: Yale University Press.

    Bernstein, D., Penner, L. A., Clarke-Stewart, A., & Roy, E. (2008). Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

    Cote, S. M. (2010).  Sex differences in types of aggressive behaviors: Do women have a higher level of conscience than men? In The Development and Structure of Conscience. W. Koops, D. Brugman, T. J. Ferguson, & A. F. Sanders (Eds.). New York: Psychology Press.

    James, W. (1892). The stream of consciousness. Psychology. Cleveland & New York, World. Retrieved from

    Kalat, J. W. (2014). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Myers, D. G. (2004). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

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