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.