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 , 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’.”