“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.
“To thy own’s self be true,” the saying goes. It is often taken as a sage advice, a scrap of Elizabethan life coaching, but Shakespeare may have meant it to be heard as a stale and meaningless phrase. He gives the line to Polonius, a windbag given to hackneyed pronouncements. But what is this true self to which we should be true?
The idea that we have true selves has been a controversial argument. For every bright-eyed humanist urging us to shed our social conditioning and discover the authentic self within there is a jaundiced philosopher telling us it is an illusion. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that he “had no true self” and his self in fact “an empty palace of mirrors.”
Where the true self is fact or fiction, many people believe in it. Those beliefs have been explored by a number of social psychologists and “experimental philosophers.” Their work has begin to clarify why the idea of the true self matter, regardless of whether it is real.
True Self Beliefs
A key finding of this research is that people don’t merely develop a sense of self that is distinct from others and the external world – a distinction between what is psychologically inner versus outer. They also readily distinguish between those aspects of the self that are central and those that are peripheral.
The more central elements of the self are understood variously as being relatively deep, authentic, intrinsic, or essential. They are the parts of our selves that we see as the most defining of who we are and the ones that endure over time. They compose our personal identity.
Research on people’s true self beliefs finds that these central aspects of the self tend to be more real in nature. They involve our values and virtues more than our other mental capacities, personality traits or bodily features. The true self is fundamentally a good self.
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 things 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,” writes Nina Strohminger and her colleagues at Yale University.
Losing The True Self
One intriguing demonstration of this finding comes from a 2015 study that examined caregivers’ perceptions of family members suffering from three neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). The first two of these diseases primarily impair memory and voluntary movement, respectively. FTD, in contrast, leads to morally relevant impairments such as socially inappropriate behavior, loss of inhibition and diminished empathy.
The three groups of patients were disabled to similar degrees overall. However, caregivers of FTD patients were much more likely to report that their family member seemed deeply changed since the onset of their disease, as if they were a different person underneath. Caregivers were more likely to think they no longer really knew their FTD-suffering relatives, who now seemed like strangers.
Identity appeared to be most disrupted by alterations in morality, much more than deteriorations of memory or movement. The apparent loss of the FTD patient’s true self revealed by their moral deficits often profoundly impaired their relationship with their carer.
The True Self Is A Good Self
People view the true self as positive in a general way, not merely as morally good. They believe their deep inner selves have overwhelmingly desirable features even if their real present selves are flawed. In the words of one large green philosopher (Shrek): “Onions have layers. Ogres have layers.” And the inner layers of ogres are less monstrous than the outer ones.
Intuitively we might expect that people’s beliefs about their true selves would differ depending on their personalities or cultural backgrounds. People with a bleaker outlook on life might hold a greyer view of their true self than those whose dispositions are sunny. Equally, people from cultures that do not celebrate the uniqueness of the person to the same extent as individualistic Americans or Australians might hold less relentlessly positive beliefs about the true self.
Surprisingly neither of these claims appears to be true. One study showed that unsociable people were just as likely as others to hold very positive views of their true self. It also found that people from three collectivist cultures – Colombians, Singaporeans and the famously gloomy Russians – were just as likely as Americans to believe the true self to be good.
Is There A True 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.”
Discovering The True Self
One implication of the belief that the true self is good is that we respond differently to positive and negative changes in people’s behavior. Studies suggest that when people undergo positive change we tend to see it as revealing their true self. Self-improvement is viewed as discovering who one truly is. Negative change, in contrast, is seen as a corruption or obscuring of the true self. It is in the nature of caterpillars to become butterflies, not the reverse.
The idea of the true self might seem slippery and nebulous, but it may have important implications. Believing that deep down we are fundamentally good may anchor a sense of personal identity and self-worth. Pursuing goals that are intrinsic to ourselves may lead to greater well-being than pursuing those that are more peripheral, such as materialistic desires.
Similarly, holding a belief that other people have morally good true selves may be a crucial foundation of interpersonal trust. This belief in a benevolent social world may be a basic assumption which, when traumatically violated, can have dire psychological consequences.
Deep thinkers will question whether the idea of an authentic true self passes philosophical muster. But even if it is an illusion, it may be a useful one.