Simply Imagining Other People Can Change Our Own Sense Of Self


By Emma Young

“The sense of self is a hallmark of human experience. Each of us maintains a constellation of personal memories and personality traits that collectively define ‘who we really are'”.

So begins a new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which reveals that who you “are” can easily be manipulated. Just imagining somebody else can alter all kinds of aspects of how you see yourself, even including your personality and memories.

Meghan Meyer at Dartmouth College and colleagues first asked 185 adults to recall a series of personal memories — a time they received good news or helped a friend in need, for example — and rate how they had felt during that event (on a scale ranging from completely negative to completely positive). Using the same scale, participants were prompted to imagine how others would have felt in reaction to the same events: both an “average American” and also a genuine friend who was similar to them in in personality, temperament, major likes and dislikes, beliefs and values.

The participants were then given the original prompts again and asked to rate for a second time their own feelings at the time of the events. The team found these ratings had changed, to become closer to each participant’s assessments of how the others would feel. This effect was particularly strong when the other person was more similar to them — a friend, rather than an “average American”.

For the next study, a fresh group of participants rated themselves on 60 character traits (such as “charming” and “unreliable”), then rated both a friend who was similar to them and also an actual other person — in this case, Walter Cronkite, a former US news anchor — on a subset of 20 of these traits. Next, they rated themselves again. As in the previous study, the participants’ self-ratings changed, becoming closer to those for their friend in particular.

In a second, remarkable part to this study, a very similar result was found when people were asked to imagine the characteristics of something radically different to themselves: the Empire State Building. The participants first rated themselves on various physical traits, such as being “clean” and “asymmetrical”, and then rated a similar friend and the Empire State Building. Finally, they rated themselves again — and as before, their own ratings had become more similar to those given for the two targets (and especially the friend). The team then went on to find that these “simulation-induced” changes in self-knowledge can still be in place 24 hours on.

How might thinking about other people, or even buildings, reshape your own self-knowledge? The researchers suspect that it happens because when you imagine how someone else looks or would feel and act in a given situation, you’re simultaneously retrieving memories about how you look and how you have felt and behaved in such situations in the past. When your own memories are retrieved, they become vulnerable to modification, which means those imagined reactions can influence your own real ones.

For example, in thinking about how a friend might respond to being dumped, you may find yourself thinking, “Claire tends to be pretty thick-skinned”. When that knowledge and your relevant self-knowledge (eg. “I was embarrassed when I got dumped last year”) are retrieved simultaneously, considering your friend’s predicted response can tweak your own pre-existing self-knowledge. You might then recollect being less embarrassed about your own experience.

The effect might be especially potent when you’re considering someone who is similar (rather than different) to you, because thinking about such a person should trigger more self-related memories, which would then be vulnerable to being altered, the researchers suggest.

So far, the researchers have only checked whether the changes they observed were still in place after a day. It’s not clear yet how long they might last, or whether they would result in any meaningful differences in behaviour.

But the work does suggest that self-knowledge is just as susceptible to misinformation effects as other types of knowledge, the researchers conclude, adding: “Such findings offer a qualification to the argument that the self is ‘special’.”

Simulating other people changes the self

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

9 thoughts on “Simply Imagining Other People Can Change Our Own Sense Of Self”

  1. Were the changes always in a self-enhancing direction (I haven’t been able to access the paper)? I wonder if the explanation given would be more plausible if change could be shown to shift in both directions, so imagining the qualities/feelings of a negative person. Would also be useful to examine the effect of current emotional state on change.

  2. It would be of great interest to run this same experiment with non-neurotypical people and other non-normative individuals. The self image a person may have a great deal to do with associative thinking and society based comparisons so finding out how the “not average person” sees themselves after the imagining might garner different results. Additionally, perhaps this more of a western culture result. The same experiment in China, India or Africa might vary widely. Americans spend more time on “self image” thinking than other cultures generally.

    1. With regard to non-normative individuals, dare I mention about a recent Royal Commission experience with many women who, after particularly traumatic early childhoods, had formerly been incarcerated as teenagers 45 years earlier for not complying with the sexual mores of the day, and who recently, after mostly at least moderately difficult lives, made complaints of physical and sexual abuse occurring within that institutional setting, perhaps in response to connecting with like-minded people who had complained publicly, or perhaps partly motivated by the promise of monetary recompense.

      No one had complained of sexual abuse at an inquiry at the time in 1973. No one had complained of sexual abuse at a Senate Inquiry in 2004. None of the recent claimants had even complained of physical abuse in 1973 although they were available to do so and had ample opportunity to do so.

      One really interesting fact that emerged was a consistent report by about half of the complainants that they had been physically and sexually abused in a basement “cell” but who wrongly described where the entry to that basement “cell” was situated. Some maintained they had traversed the impossible route, even several times, and one said she had never been there but had been told that it was the entry to the basement “cell”. This entry way was described in a novel based on that particular institution which was written in the mid 1990’s. It was also wrongly featured in recent media reports.

      However in fact, that particular entry way led to a completely secure storeroom for non-perishable foodstuffs such as tinned goods and also kitchen paraphernalia and was only accessed by the clerk who had responsibility for it.

      Clearly memories are capable of being altered to false memories according to group and media influences.

      One woman claimed to have been sexually abused in the recent spate of allegations, when in fact documentation still in existence showed that at the time, as a girl, she “felt vulnerable, that she ‘could have been raped’ because she was [briefly] alone with a man” who did in fact physically abuse her for trying to run away. She also claimed [in the early 1970’s to have been “kicked and punched” by a male whilst being escorted to an isolation cell when in fact reports by many witnesses said she had been “kicking and punching” the male officer who helped a female officer after the girl in question had initiated an unprovoked attack on the male which left him knocked over and on the floor. What is going on here? Projection?

  3. Hmm, would be nice to have a little more critiquing of studies such as this.

    Can’t help but feel that there’s a lot of speculation and overextending of findings. When interpreting results it’s important to do so sensibly.

    An alternative interpretation might be in the context of social desirability. Rating a good friend (which will likely rouse positive emotions) or a very famous building (it could be said that the Empire State is the real star of King Kong!) will likely highlight positive attributes and lead to a self-discrepancy between an actual- and ideal-self, possibly leading to a change in ratings post experimental manipulation.

    Just some food for thought. I am reminded in some ways of the ‘heavy backpack’ study (of which there is a fantastic critique and follow-up experiment that shows the effects posited to evidence embodied cognition are explained simply by demand characteristics).

  4. I am reminded of of ‘Connected’ by Nicolas Christakis & James Fowler who found people tend to connect to groups with like minded behaviours – and even with the behaviours and attitudes of their friends’ friends who had no direct connection. This paper perhaps suggests how such ‘connections’ are established and maintained.

  5. I would believe that sense of self is influenced by comparing yourself to other people. But this research seems flawed. Asking the same question repeatedly will make people change their answers.
    Example: ” how much equals 7×8?”
    “How much equals 7×8?”
    “Katie thinks 7×8 equals 58. How much equals 7×8?”

    That sense of self was reshaped by thinking about a building (!) should have been a warning sign to closely examine research methods!

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