There is no such thing as the true self, but it’s still a useful psychological concept

GettyImages-492740240.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

“I don’t think you are truly mean, you have sad eyes” Tormund Giantsbane ponders the true self of Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane in Game of Thrones, Beyond The Wall.

Who are you really? Is there a “true you” beneath the masquerade? According to a trio of psychologists and philosophers writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the idea that we each have a hidden true or authentic self is an incredibly common folk belief, and moreover, the way most of us think about these true selves is remarkably consistent, even across different cultures, from Westeros to Tibet.

This makes the concept of a true self useful because it helps explain many of the judgments we make about ourselves and others. Yet, from a scientific perspective, there is actually no such thing as the true self. “The notion that there are especially authentic parts of the self, and that these parts can remain cloaked from view indefinitely, borders on the superstitious,” write Nina Strohminger and her colleagues at Yale University.

One way that psychologists have investigated people’s views of the true self is to ask them to consider that a person has changed in various ways – either their memories, or their preferences, or their morals, or their personality, for example – and then ask them after which change has the person’s true self most been altered. The results are incredibly consistent: people most consider that the true self has been altered if a person’s moral sense is changed. In other words, most of us believe that the true self is the moral self.  This also manifests in the common reluctance we have to consider taking hypothetical drugs that might alter our moral judgments (more so than our reluctance to take drugs that would alter our personality, for instance).

Related to this, explain Strohminger and her co-authors, is that most of us seem to be biased to see our own and other people’s true selves as essentially good. When a bad person turns good, we see this as their true self emerging. Conversely, if a good person turns bad, this is because circumstances have conspired to constrain or corrupt their true self.

Also, the normal bias most of us have to assume we are better than average disappears when it comes to the true self: that is, we see both our own and other people’s true selves in a similar, very positive light. “It is worth emphasising just how striking this discrepancy is” write Strohminger and co. “One of the most ubiquitous effects in the self literature – actor-observer valence asymmetry – fails to obtain for true self attribution.”

These widespread assumptions that the true self is moral and good is remarkably consistent across cultures: even Hindu Indians and Buddhist Tibetans see moral aspects of a person as especially central to their identity, even though the latter group deny that there is such a thing as the self.

The assumptions we hold about the true self also help explain the judgments we make about other people’s behaviour. For instance, if a person’s emotions lead them to behave badly, we judge them less harshly, presumably because we assume their true self was led astray. Conversely, if a person’s emotions lead them to behave admirably, our praise for them is undiminished, presumably because in this case we assume their virtuous true self was at play.

So the concept of a true self is useful in terms of understanding people’s judgments and behaviour. And we can speculate and investigate why most of us think about the true self in the ways that we do: for example, perhaps we’ve evolved to see the human true self as fundamentally good because assuming the best in others helps foster social ties.

However, on the question of whether there really is such a thing as a true self, Strohminger and her colleagues are sceptical. They point out that views on the true self are highly subjective and skewed by our own judgments of what is good (psychopaths, for instance, see morality as less central to identity presumably because morals are less important to them). Our beliefs about the true self also seem “evidence-insensitive” – claims made about the true self “may completely contradict all available data”. The authors conclude: “These two features – radical subjectivity and unverifiability – prevent the true self from being a scientific concept.”

The True Self: A Psychological Concept Distinct From the Self

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

10 thoughts on “There is no such thing as the true self, but it’s still a useful psychological concept”

  1. The moral self cannot be the subject of science because it is not caused but chosen. That is, first,we distinguish between good and evil by recognizing conformity to human nature. Example: we recognize humans as social animals and deduce that falsehood in incompatible with this. Second, we become aware of moral obligation to follow this recognition. This response is reflected in Judaeo/Christian understanding, but it is also recognized in the secular world, e,g, United Nations Human Rights. It will also be found in atheists and agnostics. This tells us that it is not a construct but fundamental to the human race.

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  2. “he latter group deny that there is such a thing as the self” is a radical oversimplification about Buddhism. Depending on the sect, most Buddhists might say there is no such thing as an essential or “true” self as a singular identifiable entity within the mind. However, on the question of self or no-self, the Buddha refrained from settling on either. Most of the references to “anatta” were in the context of the Brahmin concepts of “True Self.” This is a more nuanced view than the authors represent as “Buddhist.” The “self” as an arising complex system of interdependent relationships of the brain, body, and milieu may be closer to a modern view of the self/no-self construct — again, dependent on the particular sect of Buddhism to which one refers.

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  3. The concept of the true self is a very meaningful idea in psychotherapeutic work, contrasting, for example, Transactional Analysis’ Adapted Child functioning, the result of parental and social conditioning, with the liberated individual who via therapeutic assistance, outgrows that conditioning to become freer and more self-actualizing and able to reach their previously compromised potential. This is practical applied psychology, hence the title of my self-help book for helping adults overcome low self-esteem – “Let Your True Self Shine”. Philosophers can philosophise. Psychologists, I hope, will continue to practice psychology.

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  4. I think the question of morality is relevant to understanding our collective human bias to ‘love good and hate evil’. By failing to embrace parts of ourselves that are immoral we just force them further below conscious awareness, where they can exert more influence on us against our will. By hating evil we become more evil ourselves, it is the conundrum of the shadow.

    However, the moral debate is a red herring that detracts from the real issue of the true self.

    If the currency of the mind is attention, and we have different attention guiding systems, specifically ‘executive, top-down’ vs ‘orienting, bottom-up’, then this gives a potential for conflict that is closer to what we are looking for.

    If the mind can guide or orient it’s own attention, and this guidance is different for individuals, then this could be considered the true self. If we can make deliberate executive decisions that exercise ‘free will’, which can override the underlying flow of attention, then we can have a potential clash of true vs ‘false’ self (if the two are out of alignment).

    Collectively we have become so biased towards executive ‘ego’ functioning, and devaluing and suspicious of the autonomous ‘unconscious’ mind that we are unable to let go and just be who and what we are.

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  5. I find this unconvincing. The idea of a true self is contradictory and confusing. Thomas Metzinger comes closer to the truth by calling the experience of selfhood a “virtual self-model”. The philosophers above are apparently confusing experience and reality. We have an experience of a first person perspective, which Thomas Metzinger has described as having three necessary features:

    mineness – a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
    selfhood – the sense that “I am someone”, and continuity through time.
    centredness – the sense that “I am the centre of my own subjective self”.

    Experientially we don’t “have a self”, instead experientially we *are* a self (and we cannot be talked out of this conclusion: we *know* we are a self). However, ontologically, that self does not correspond to an object or structure, instead, the selfhood experience is a feature of the system as a whole interacting with the world. But so what? Why is this problematic? It is because of the reductionist assumptions of the writer.

    If we are reductionists and a feature is an emergent property we say “it is not real”. And all the implications of this statement apply. but it is a tedious and boring worldview that should not detain us for a second.

    We have to apply reductionism and antireductionism where they are appropriate: the former to questions of substance, the latter to questions of structure. As self is a systemic property, this is a question of structure and not an appropriate place for reductive approaches to ontology, epistemology or methodology.

    Experience is the product of interactions between our organism and the world. Experience is the overlap of subject and object. Experience is ontologically ambiguous but epistemically real; or ontologically systemic and distributed, but epistemically unified and singular. The combination can only be bothersome to someone with an extreme view, particularly ideological reductionism.

    John Searle makes an interesting distinction between ontologically objective and ontologically subjective modes of existence. The self, in this view is ontologically subjective, but epistemically objective. We know we are a self and we know that other people experience themselves as a self much like we do. It’s just that the sense of self is not a thing, it is connected with the system as a whole (something reductionist approaches cannot handle).

    There’s no need for a “true self”. Indeed the “true” part is entirely misleading because it suggests there is a *false* self with which to contrast this “true” self. And right there is the capitulation to ideological reductionism. There is nothing “true” about the self as described. Nothing false about the self as experienced.

    The reductive view does not chime with any of the more plausible accounts of how morality evolved as a systemic feature of social lifestyles. If you want a working model of morality, then look to Frans de Waal’s account in his book The Atheist and the Bonobo. He shows how morality is a matter of extrapolating from empathy and reciprocity – two qualities shared to some extent by all social mammals and many social birds. In my view, de Waal’s view is entirely consistent with Searle’s deontological approach to morality.

    But it has to be tempered with the conclusions of Mercier and Sperber’s 2017 book on reasoning, which shows that reasons for decisions and actions are all generated post hoc. It turns out that we have completely misunderstood reasoning and rationality, and the first evidence for this conclusion began to appear 50 years ago. So things are quite fluid in the real world.

    And none of this takes into account the “yogis” I know who claim not to have a sense of self or a fully functional first person perspective. Instead, they have an ongoing non-self-centred field of experience. I believe that any theory of self which does not take this phenomenon into account is not interesting.

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  6. There is who we are when we are required to “act” in order to exist among societal structures. Example: I have to concentrate on acting or speaking a certain way in order to gain and/or keep employment. And then there is who we are away from society. I can be at ease, be myself and not have to concentrate on “acting” a part at all to exist in my personal home environment, therefore I am being my authentic and “true self”. This “acting” has been pretty much called “masks”. Some wear them because they have to, (for employment like I said above) and some wear the masks all of the time, in and out of the constructs of society. They have been acting the mask for so long that this “false self” takes over completely and one believes it is their true selves. One can clearly see that the mask they wear most times is the complete opposite of what their actions show. So it’s clear to me that there is a duality happening here. And all of nature has duality, and that includes human beings.

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  7. IMO, the title of this article mischaracterizes the substance (a sadly frequent occurrence). The title indicates that it has been PROVEN that there is NO true self, and that it has been proven that the ‘true self’ IS a useful concept; such proof would be a fascinating read. ~ Instead, “The authors conclude: ‘These two features – radical subjectivity and unverifiability – prevent the true self from being a scientific concept.’”

    Therefore, a far more accurate title would have been: <<>> “No such thing” in the title really irritates me; e.g., the content of my dreams cannot be verified scientifically, but that certainly does NOT mean that ‘there is no such thing’ as a meaningful dream.

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    1. Regarding my earlier comment (which I am unable to edit) ~~ The ‘server’ deleted my suggested better title: “Assertion: NOTHING can ever be PROVEN about the True Self.”

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